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The Abolition of Man
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le 6 août 2002
This book is a diatribe in reaction to five sentences that Lewis read in a children's grammar book. The authors (whom he refuses to name, thus making it impossible for anyone to check whether he fairly represents their position and successfully refutes it) stated that when we call a waterfall "sublime," we really mean "'I have feelings associated in my mind with the word sublime'...we are only saying something about our own feelings." Lewis inferred that the authors believed that there is no such thing as human virtue or intrinsic value and that a mostly hedonist biological instinct is the closest thing to a moral code that we can have--all because they said that your estimation of a waterfall's beauty says more about you than about the waterfall!
As far as I can tell, those authors were discussing aesthetics, not moral philosophy. This does not prevent Lewis from fantasizing about what their moral philosophy must be, nor from tearing it down.
Lewis opposes noncognitivism--the philosophical claim that moral statements do not represent propositions about the world--and, more specifically, emotivism--the claim that moral statements represent the speaker's emotions. His only reason is that emotivism leads to contradiction. If, when I say, "Your feelings are contemptible," emotivism would translate it to mean "My feelings are contemptible," then the theory is ridiculous and useless. But no serious emotivist would hold such a view. It is more common to translate it as "Your feelings are contemptible to me" or "I have contempt for your feelings." So Lewis is attacking a straw man and is left without any response to serious emotivism.
Lewis believes that each object merits a certain emotional reaction from us. To say that the waterfall is sublime means that it deserves our admiration, and to fail to sufficiently admire it would be a deficiency on our part. He has one rare moment of insight: "To say that a shoe fits is to speak not only of shoes but of feet," which is immediately vitiated when he uses it to illustrate the claim that our feelings must conform to reality. He does not consider that there might be other ways of evaluating the appropriateness of our emotions: their consistency with other feelings, their appropriateness according to one's principles, their conformity to etiquette, etc. The worth of a shoe can be determined in a variety of different ways, depending on whether it is meant to conform to a baby's foot, a club foot, pavement, sand, or a desire for an extra three inches of height. A shoe is not, as Lewis's theory requires, evaluated by its intrinsic nature; rather, it has, as the wise aphorism suggests, value that is relative to the people who assign it.
Nor does he adequately explain what this theory of the intrinsic worth of objects has to do with moral action. In conflating aesthetic theory with moral theory, he seems to accept the very emotivism he rails against.
He does not successfully refute moral relativism. He insists that morality must rest on certain foundational claims, such as "preserve humanity," which must be accepted as true; but he gets himself into trouble when, halfway through the book, he says these basic moral claims should be accepted as "axioms" necessary for the entire moral system. Accepting "preserve humanity" as an axiom is perfectly compatible with relativism. A relativist will have no problem acknowledging that a certain moral claim is integral to a certain moral system. What relativism denies is that the claim is objectively true outside of the system. By permitting, here, the acceptance of moral claims as merely axiomatic, Lewis undercuts support for his own insistence throughout the rest of the book that these axioms are actually true. He would have done better if he had actually read a book by any mature emotivist or relativist philosopher before trying to argue against the theory.
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