Lewis begins by asking us to imagine two people arguing about some trivial matter. The two people might say things like, “You promised,” “I was there first,” etc. The interesting things about arguments of this kind is that in all cases, the two people who are arguing appeal to some “standard of behavior”—some preexisting rule for how people should behave. Sometimes, the two people will argue for two different standards of behavior. But more often, the two people will agree on the same standard, and one of the two people will try to argue that their behavior hasn’t really contradicted that standard at all. There would be no sense in having an argument unless both parties can agree on some idea of what Right and Wrong are.
Lewis offers an interesting interpretation of a familiar scene—two people arguing about something. Where most people might see only disagreement, Lewis says that the two arguing parties must first agree on some idea of Right and Wrong; in other words, they must first agree that morality exists before they disagree about who has supposedly been immoral. It’s also worth noting that Lewis wrote these words in the midst of World War II. Many thinkers of the era took World War II as proof of the fundamental “godlessness” of the universe, but Lewis continued to argue for the existence of a just, moral God.
Long ago, educated people believed that human behavior was governed by “laws” of nature. Nowadays, a “law of nature” refers to a phenomenon like gravity—an unbreakable rule of the natural world. However, when Lewis refers to a “law of nature,” he’s talking about a law for how human beings should behave—not necessarily how they do. Counterintuitively, the fact that people disagree about the right thing to do suggests that there must be some Law of Nature—some preexisting idea of Good.
Lewis sees moral law as breakable and yet unalterable—people might disobey the rules of the law, but they can’t do so without feeling instinctively that they’ve done something wrong. Some thinkers have taken issue with Lewis’s argument for objective moral law—two people disagreeing about morality doesn’t prove that morality is real, any more than two children disagreeing about the color of Santa Claus’s beard proves that Santa is real.
There are many objections to the notion of a universal Law of Nature. One objection is the idea that, throughout history, human beings have believed in many different moralities. But this isn’t true; it’s striking how similar different civilizations’ moral codes are. It’s almost impossible to imagine a country in which people are praised for fleeing battle or lying to their loved ones. There are many superficial differences between moral codes, but deep down, they are more or less the same.
Lewis distinguishes between superficial and fundamental traits of a moral code, arguing that all moral codes are, fundamentally, more or less the same. For example, Confucius, Lao Tzu, and Christ all taught some version of the “Golden Rule,” even though they lived hundreds of years apart and thousands of miles away from each other.
Many people say they don’t believe in a “real” Right and Wrong—these people insist that Right and Wrong are just myths that people have invented. But even people of this kind behave as if they do believe in a universal Right and Wrong; when they feel they’ve been wronged, they say, “that’s not fair”—implying that there must be some objective standard of fairness.
Instinctively, people subscribe to the theory that morality is real and objectively true—otherwise, people wouldn’t feel that they’d been treated “unfairly.”
Lewis moves on to a new point: “None of us are really keeping the Law of Nature.” All human beings, no matter who they are or how kind and fair they might be, are guilty of some misdeeds. Lewis himself is no better. And yet even when people behave immorally, their behavior suggests that there is a “true” morality—otherwise, “why should we be so anxious to make excuses for not having behaved decently?”
Lewis argues that human beings are aware of moral law, and yet don’t follow it perfectly—even very “good” people break some of the rules, some of the time. The question, which Lewis will try to answer in the following chapters, is, why do people instinctively feel bad when they misbehave, if everyone misbehaves?