Mere Christianity, Book Three, Chapter 1: “The Three Parts of Morality”

There is a story about a schoolboy who was asked what he thought God was like. He replied that, as far as he could make out, God was ‘the sort of person who is always snooping round to see if anyone is enjoying himself and then trying to stop it’.

How morals seem:

  • they seem to be interferences… annoyances. To keep us from enjoying ourselves.

How morals work:

  • directions for running the human machine
  • prevent breakdowns, strains, friction in the running of that machine.

That is why these rules at first seem to be constantly interfering with our natural inclinations. When you are being taught how to use any machine, the instructor keeps on saying, ‘No, don’t do it like that,’ because, of course, there are all sorts of things that look all right and seem to you the natural way of treating the machine, but do not really work.

For some people it’s easier to talk about moral ‘ideals’ or moral ‘idealism’ than about moral obedience.

  • It is true that moral perfection in impossible, and that in that sense, it is an ‘ideal.’ In that sense, any kind of perfection is ‘ideal’ for humans – driving, tennis, drawing straight lines.
  • Moral ‘ideals,’ are not like and ideal house, or room-mate, or car. For moral ideals, there is only one.

Perfect behavior may be as unattainable as perfect gear-changing when we drive; but it is a necessary ideal prescribed for all men by the very nature of the human machine just as perfect gear-changing is an ideal prescribed for all drivers by the very nature of cars. And it would be even more dangerous to think of oneself as a person ‘of high ideals’ because one is trying to tell no lies at all (instead of only a few lies) or never to commit adultery (instead of committing it only seldom) or not to he a bully (instead of being only a moderate bully). It might lead you to become a prig and to think you were rather a special person who deserved to be congratulated on his ‘idealism’. In reality you might just as well expect to be congratulated because, whenever you do a sum, you try to get it quite right. To be sure, perfect arithmetic is ‘an ideal’; you will certainly make some mistakes in some calculations. But there is nothing very fine about trying to be quite accurate at each step in each sum. It would be idiotic not to try; for every mistake is going to cause you trouble later on. In the same way every moral failure is going to cause trouble, probably to others and certainly to yourself. By talking about rules and obedience instead of ‘ideals’ and ‘idealism’ we help to remind ourselves of these facts.

There are two ways in which the human machine goes wrong:

  • Interactions between people, i.e. drifting apart from one another or colliding with one another and causing damage to each other:
    • cheating
    • bullying
    • etc
  • things that go wrong inside individuals “when the different parts of him (his different faculties and desires and so on) either drift apart or interfere with one another,” causing internal damage.

It is like a fleet of ships.

  • The ships must take care not to run into each other, or get in each others way
  • The ships must remain internally seaworthy, water tight and in good working condition
  • Both are required
    • Ships that collide and even scrape into each other will not remain seaworthy.
    • Ships that are not internally maintained will not be able to avoid collisions and otherwise interfering with each other.
  • Another analogy is a band — everyone has to be playing the same tune in the same time.
  • None of this takes into account the destination of the fleet of ships or the piece of music the band is playing.

Morality seems to cover three primary things:

  • Fair play and harmony between individuals
  • Internal maintenance of each individual.
  • The general purpose of mankind. (destination of fleet, music for band)

Most people want to stop after the first thing — fair play, kindness, etc. “As long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else.” “It’s a victimless crime.” etc.

But though it is natural to begin with all that, if our thinking about morality stops there, we might just as well not have thought at all. Unless we go on to the second thing – the tidying up inside each human being – we are only deceiving ourselves.

  • what good it is to set sail a fleet if they ships are such wrecks they can’t help but destroy each other?
  • what good is a set of rules for how to treat people if they are corrupted with “greed, cowardice, ill temper, and self-conceit” and can’t keep the rules anyway?

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to make improvements in our social and economic systems, but any attempt is wasted effort if we’re not willing to try to make people who can keep up those systems.

You cannot make men good by law: and without good men you cannot have a good society.

So, we’re forced to talk about the morality inside the individual:

  • We have to consider who is the owner of the “ship” or the person.
    • If the individual is the owner of his own “ship” (body), it his business.
    • Christianity asserts that we are not our own, but the Lords!
    • Compound this with the fact that Christianity clearly states that the years we live in this body are only the first phase. We (those who are in Christ) will live forever, and we should think about how our behavior will impact that eternity.

It seems, then, that if we are to think about morality, we must think of all three departments: relations between man and man: things inside each man: and relations between man and the power that made him. We can all co-operate in the first one. Disagreements begin with the second and become serious with the third. It is dealing with the third that the main differences between Christian and non-Christian morality come out. For the rest of this book I am going to assume the Christian point of view, and look at the whole picture as it will be if Christianity is true.

[[ Next: Mere Christianity, Book Three, Chapter 2: “The ‘Cardinal Virtues’” ]]

Parent: Mere Christianity: Leaders’ Notes Series

[[ Prev: Mere Christianity, Book Two, Chapter 5: “The Practical Conclusion” ]]

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