In praise of our moral inheritance

The conventional division between conservatives and progressives obscures an obvious truth: everybody wants to conserve some things, while few are against any kind of progress. The crucial questions are what is worthy of conservation, and what constitutes genuine and desirable progress.

The answers often lead to more complicated political identities, such as ‘socially progressive but economically conservative’, ‘cultural conservative’ and various, often conflicting senses of ‘liberal’. When we fall back on simplistic terms like conservative and progressive, it suggests a lack of depth to our political debates.

One question that often complicates political allegiances, and has the potential to add depth to our politics, is that of what schools should teach children. This is the subject of a 1943 book by CS Lewis, The Abolition of Man: reflections on education with special reference to the teaching of English in the upper forms of schools. As the main title indicates, Lewis believed our approach to education has consequences far beyond the classroom. Disarmingly, though, his book begins as a polemic against a particular textbook.

In his invaluable study, After Humanity: a Guide to CS Lewis’ The Abolition of Man (2021), Michael Ward reveals that the textbook is The Control of Language, by Alec King and Martin Ketley (1939), but Lewis never names it or them. He simply refers to it as the Green Book, because his real target is the philosophy of which the textbook is just a convenient example. For Lewis, in the guise of simply teaching English, the authors were propagating the philosophy of ‘positivism’, which denied the objectivity and even meaningfulness of value judgements that were not scientifically verifiable.

For Lewis, and for virtually all serious thinkers before him, such value judgements were implicit in our political (and artistic) preferences. Unless we are able to acknowledge and talk about them as more than personal whims or tribal affiliations, there can be no meaningful debate. To reject value judgements is to deny any objective grounds for debate about matters not reducible to facts and figures. It traps us in opposing camps with no common language. And as we shall see, it leaves us at the mercy of those who successfully claim the mantle of scientific objectivity, however illegitimately.

The Green Book taught its young readers that value judgements were purely subjective and trivial. For example, if Coleridge felt it was fitting to describe a waterfall as ‘sublime’ and inadequate to call it ‘pretty’, he was only expressing how he happened to feel about it. Lewis believed such thinking was not just misguided, but a threat to the accumulated moral inheritance that makes us human. His point was not to defend traditional pedagogy against ‘progressive education’, but to uphold the basic human values – truth, beauty and goodness – to which all educational approaches worthy of the name ultimately appeal.

The Falls of Clyde

To put Lewis’ concerns in context, at the time he was writing, Fascism and Soviet Communism alike had parted from long-cherished moral norms in a variety of ways, with terrifying, anti-human results. More subtly, the war had accelerated a tendency within the democratic nations to prioritise science and technology over traditional humanistic considerations. The atom bomb under development at the time is only the most obvious example of technological capacity outpacing moral reflection. The imperatives of war meant prioritising practical, scientifically verifiable knowledge over inherited human wisdom, and results-oriented expertise over democratic deliberation.

Ward’s guide is liberally sprinkled with quotations from other thinkers who have discussed The Abolition of Man over the years. Writing in 2002, no less a commentator than Joseph Ratzinger (the future Pope Benedict XVI) noted the prescience of Lewis’ observation that the anti-human trend came not just from the totalitarian currents of his own time, but from the emerging worldview that continues to dominate today.

Positivism in politics

Twenty years after Lewis wrote his book, US President Eisenhower famously warned in his farewell address that the war-fuelled ‘technological revolution’ had spawned a ‘military-industrial complex’. Perhaps more importantly, he also foresaw a ‘danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite’. Eisenhower was not anti-science; in fact, one of his concerns was that the marshalling of university research by the state meant, ‘a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity’. And the resulting bureaucratisation of higher education proceeded according to the same positivistic logic that concerned Lewis. Ends-oriented measurable results were what counted, more than open-ended curiosity, and certainly more than judgements of value.

For Lewis, of course, it was in the humanities that the effects were most egregious. It was not that the study of English literature, for example, was side-lined in favour of chemistry, but that its most influential practitioners had so little respect for the real value of literature. In the sphere of politics, meanwhile, the problem is not that our societies are governed by a cabal of boffins, but that the political class itself is in thrall to the logic of positivism, a trend that has only accelerated in more recent decades.

In the words of New Labour’s 1997 election manifesto, ‘What counts is what works’. This superficially commonsense attitude underpinned a deliberate depoliticisation of government, from having monetary policy decided by supposedly independent experts to declaring war against Iraq on the basis of a research dossier. (The very fact that subsequent debate focused on the dossier’s shoddiness underlines the preference for purely ‘evidence-based’ decision making, even about something as morally and politically significant as war.)

The rhetoric of ‘what works’ obscures the question of what we want to achieve, whether economically, socially or even militarily. As we shall see below, technocracy does not preclude a kind of moralism, which becomes all the more shrill when it is considered so uncontroversial as to be beyond debate. But it does tend to fetishise technology, and technical solutions to might what otherwise be considered political and moral problems.  

Around the same time as Lewis wrote The Abolition of Man, a number of thinkers expressed similar concerns. In his 2018 book, The Year of Our Lord 1943, Alan Jacobs brackets Lewis with four other writers, including the French Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain, who wrote,

‘Technology is good, as a means for the human spirit and for human ends. But technocracy, that is to say, technology so understood and so worshipped as to exclude any superior wisdom and any other understanding than that of calculable phenomena, leaves in human life nothing but relationships of force, or at best those of pleasure, and necessarily ends up in a philosophy of domination’.

The alternative to technocracy need not be slavish adherence to traditional ways of doing things, or indeed ‘government by gut’. Technological solutions are often required and technical experts are best placed to find them. But they should be in the service of human ends, which – in a democracy – must be determined through open debate that also involves non-experts. It is our shared moral inheritance – a tradition of thinking about and arguing over what we mean by ‘human ends’ –  that makes such a debate possible. This is what is squeezed out by the kind of technocratic governance that tells us economic and social policy – as well as aeronautics and dentistry– are best left to the experts.

Like all Jacobs’ subjects in their own ways, Lewis himself was a prominent Christian thinker, and it might be thought that his argument is basically one for upholding religious ‘human ends’, or in Maritain’s phrase, ‘superior wisdom’. It really isn’t though. In fact, for Lewis there could be no religion without a more fundamental humanity. As Ward puts it, ‘One can only be a religious human being, Lewis implies, if one is first a human being, and it is this acceptance of the absolute validity of ‘the ultimate platitudes of Practical Reason’ that makes us distinctively human’.

Practical reason – that is, deliberation about how we should act, including whether or not to follow a religion – is also what guides us when we think about questions like what is worthy of conservation and what constitutes progress. It does not give us final answers, but it does provide a basic foundation of inherited axioms or platitudes. So where does it come from?

A pre-political moral inheritance

In The Abolition of Man, Lewis observes that some sense of rightness – of there being a correct way to feel about things, according to their nature and not our own subjective state – is found in all moral and intellectual traditions. It is in Aristotle, from whom the tradition of ‘practical reason’ derives. It was in Plato before him, who said children, ‘must be trained to feel, pleasure, liking, disgust and hatred at those things which really are pleasant, likeable, disgusting and hateful’. It is in Stoicism, Judaism and Christianity. It is known in Hinduism as Rta and in Chinese thought as the Tao. And it is this latter term that Lewis uses throughout his book, presumably because it is the furthest from his own Christian tradition and all the better to underline the universality of the concept.

Whether we call it the Tao or ultimate morality or the first platitudes, it is ‘not one among a series of possible systems of value’, but ‘the sole source of all value judgements’. For example, both sides of the abortion debate appeal to aspects of the Tao. Of course, many in the pro-life movement consider their opponents’ position to be simply immoral. But when pro-choice campaigners appeal to ideas like freedom, autonomy and indeed compassion, they are very much within the Tao, avowedly or not. Most will also acknowledge the value and even sacredness of all life. Where the two sides differ is in how to weigh these moral values against one another.

Tellingly, some on the pro-choice side argue as if it is pro-lifers who are beyond the moral pale (outside the Tao). Left and right, then, positions that are irreducibly political are misrepresented as fundamental moral precepts. In Lewis’ words, such positions, ‘consist of fragments of the Tao itself, arbitrarily wrenched from their context in the whole and then swollen to madness in their isolation, yet still owing to the Tao and to it alone such validity as they possess’.

Lewis included an appendix with a selection of illustrations of the Tao drawn from a range of traditions. The idea was not to establish a fixed canon of moral precepts, however. On the contrary, the point was to show that the Tao is a living inheritance. ‘Some criticism, some removal of contradictions, even some real development, is required’, he conceded. We might think of the abolition of slavery, for example, which came rather late in the history of the Tao. This was less a moral revolution, however, than the triumph of established morality after centuries of sordid pragmatism.

Our inheritance can certainly be improved on, then, but only with reference to acknowledged moral claims. Confucius said, ‘With those who follow a different Way it is useless to take counsel’. In Lewis’ own words: ‘An open mind, in questions that are not ultimate, is useful. But an open mind about the ultimate foundations either of Theoretical or of Practical Reason is idiocy’.

Those ultimate foundations ought not to be controversial, then. You do not have to be particularly clever or insightful to recognise them. In an age that exalts ‘critical thinking’ and despises ‘platitudes’, this is perhaps a bit disappointing. And that exaltation of critical thinking, of originality, and of debunking conventional ideas, was very much part of the intellectual current Lewis wanted to challenge with The Abolition of Man, but which has only become more dominant ever since.

‘Critical thinking’ versus discernment

Critique undoubtedly has its place, but true wisdom surely involves affirming elements of our inheritance as well as rejecting others – conserving what is worthy of conservation as well as making progress where possible. And this is why Lewis was so interested in education and its role in fostering discernment.

Lewis particularly objected to the Green Book’s assumption that young people should be taught to ‘see through’ what they read – so they might be inoculated against manipulative advertising, for example – rather than learning to be moved by literature. The book’s authors wanted to liberate young people from sentimentality. From his own experience of teaching, Lewis thought that the least of their problems:

‘For every one pupil who needs to be guarded from a weak excess of sensibility, there are three who need to be awakened from the slumber of cold vulgarity. The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts’.

And this task is not just for those teaching children. Ward quotes Lewis’ preface to Paradise Lost, in which he defended Milton’s poem against critics who suggested it played on emotional ‘stock responses’. Lewis’ defence of these is almost shocking to 21st century sensibilities:

‘By a Stock Response Dr IA Richards means a deliberately organised attitude which is substituted for “the direct free play of experience”. In my opinion, such deliberate organisation is one of the first necessities of human life, and one of the main functions of art is to assist it’.

While Lewis acknowledged the value of encouraging more original readings of literature, this was to be balanced with cultivating time-honoured responses: ‘We need most urgently to recover the lost poetic art of enriching a response without making it eccentric, and of being normal without being vulgar’.

This kind of discernment also applies to ethics, where it might mean admitting nuance without giving into relativism, and upholding traditional morality without indulging in moralism. Crucially, moralism is not limited to the religious kind. Lewis’ description of fragments of the Tao ‘swollen to madness in their isolation’ certainly applies to obsessive and one-sided sexual moralism. But it also applies to any way of thinking that treats as ultimate things that are not ultimate, including when it comes to politics. Contemporary expressions of ‘anti-racism’ are an instructive example.

While various forms of racial prejudice and injustice have always existed, the Tao has always pointed us away from them. (Lewis’ appendix includes the Roman poet Terence’s ‘I am a man: nothing human is alien to me’ and the Jewish Bible’s ‘Love the stranger as thyself’.) Over the course of history, racists have comprehensively lost the moral argument. Today, in the West at least, we can confidently assert that anyone who declares certain races are undeserving of equal treatment is a moral idiot. We do not even have to argue with them. Arguments about racism instead concern whether this or that phenomenon is in fact racist. Once we agree it is, we agree it is wrong.

The thing is, we often do not agree. Much of the heat generated by radical anti-racism comes from its proponents’ treatment of those who disagree with them as if they too are moral idiots. As good anti-racists, we can in fact disagree about immigration, about cultural appropriation and about whether the US or UK are fundamentally racist. Treating a political opinion as morally unquestionable corrupts our moral reasoning as much as relativism does.

Sadly, the pseudo-platitudes of identity politics have captured influential spheres like the university, cultural institutions and even multinational corporations. The most visible manifestation is that a radical reinterpretation of what we understand by gender has gone from being marginal to an orthodoxy so ingrained in certain circles that its detractors rather than its advocates are branded ‘culture warriors’. The vogue for the appearance of critical thinking means anything that appears to be ‘old orthodoxy’ is suspect by definition, while new orthodoxies can be embraced uncritically as markers of ‘critical thinking’.

The triumph of moralistic technocracy

Increasingly, the new dogmas have taken on the mantle of pseudo-scientific objectivity, apparently floating above the prejudices and bigotries of the past. How can we weigh up what is worthy of conservation and what we mean by progress when some questions are beyond debate?

Writing of his experience teaching writing in an American university, William Deresiewicz observes that a hyper-competitive culture of achievement, of jumping through hoops and teaching to the test, has bred intellectual conformity to this radical new orthodoxy. It is the opposite of the febrile atmosphere of competing ideologies associated with the universities of the 1960s. Decades of postmodernism have discredited the various grand narratives (and the Tao to which they all appealed), leaving only the ‘correct answers’ when it comes to politics like anything else: ‘there is no debate. There are no competing ideologies or rival schools. There isn’t even much of any reading, from what I can tell. There is only assent’.

This certainly applies to the Black Lives Matter movement, whose passive-aggressive slogan dares anyone to dissent, however questionable the more substantive ideas of its leaders. The movement’s jerry-rigged moral authority was especially apparent after the killing of George Floyd in 2020. The resulting protests took place amid the Covid-19 pandemic, when public gatherings were prohibited. More than 1,200 American public health experts signed an open letter saying these gatherings were not only justified, but vital to public health itself, reasoning that, ‘White supremacy is a lethal public health issue that predates and contributes to Covid-19’.

While the single-minded goal of reducing infections through lockdown could not be complicated by appeals to civil liberties or economic concerns, let alone simply tradition (‘we don’t do this kind of thing in a free society’), the moral appeal of a radical critique of Western society proved irresistible. Many politicians praised the protestors while continuing to condemn anyone who assembled for less worthy causes, especially those protesting against lockdown itself.

It must be said that this is probably not exactly what Eisenhower had in mind when he foresaw public policy being dominated by a ‘scientific-technological elite’. The thing is that technocrats are not immune from moralism. It’s just that their moralism is neither derived from tradition nor given by science itself. In recent years, the ‘scientific-technological elite’ has adopted the moral outlook of those who appear most advanced in their condemnation of Western society and its traditions. The radicals’ belief that their moral critique is driving progress, overcoming the errors of the past, echoes the technocratic belief in scientific progress.

Neither is anchored in a stable moral inheritance, however. While this radical moralism undoubtedly draws on the authority of the Tao in its concern for justice, its posture is one of tearing down rather than building up. Rather than inhabiting the tradition and critiquing it from within, radical moralists take a few elements out of context – contemptuously imagining theirs is the first generation to have taken them seriously – in order to justify a hyper-critical attitude to the tradition as a whole.

The abolition of man?

There is another important difference between 20th century technocracy and its 21st century counterpart. The former was about conquering nature, in good ways and bad – think space exploration and medical breakthroughs, as well as terrifying weaponry and soulless materialism – while the 21st century version is more concerned with taming mankind. We are to be reconditioned, purged of our tainted inheritance, our problematic beliefs and unenlightened attitudes.

This is technocratic in the sense that it is based on claims to superior, expert knowledge about everything from history to biology – dissenters are invariably accused of wilful ignorance and told to ‘educate themselves’ – but it is notably short on tangible benefits for society. Instead of flying cars and energy that’s too cheap to meter, we have DEI training and ‘all gender’ toilets.

Aside from correcting the alleged injustices of the past, however, there is little positive vision of humanity or what it might achieve, let alone why. There is an arbitrariness to the prevailing moral agenda, even an element of fashion driving the causes that catch on at any given time. The trendy, often irrational concerns of a small minority of activists have an outsized influence over public institutions – from banks to art galleries to sports clubs – and are propagated by broadcasters, social media companies and even employers. You do not have to believe in this agenda to recognise its influence and to feel discomfort about being on the wrong side of it. Is gender really fluid? ‘Yes, sure. Whatever you say’.

Without general affirmation of a moral inheritance that gives shape to our experience of the world, even the relationship between humanity and nature can be redefined, and not necessarily in favour of humanity. In Lewis’ words:

‘At the moment, then, of Man’s victory over Nature, we find the whole human race subjected to some individual men, and those individuals subjected to that in themselves which is purely “natural”– to their irrational impulses. Nature, untrammelled by values, rules the Conditioners and, through them, all humanity. Man’s conquest of Nature turns out, in the moment of its consummation, to be Nature’s conquest over Man’.

Lewis’ use of the words ‘Man’ and ‘men’ is dated, of course, and he could hardly have predicted the layers of irony that now surround it. What he meant by the ‘abolition of man’ was far more profound. The notion that nature might conquer man suggests there is something not entirely natural about humanity as we know and cherish it. For Lewis, our humanity owes as much to our cultural inheritance as to our biology, and our cultural inheritance is far more precarious. The very idea of conquering nature is part of that inheritance, but so too, more surely, is a yearning to be free of subjection to other human beings, even in the name of ‘man’s triumph over nature’.  

This nuance comes to the fore in a very different work written just five years before The Abolition of Man. The exiled Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky’s 1938 pamphlet, Their Morals and Ours, was a polemic against ‘petty bourgeois moralists’ who condemned revolutionary violence, but as such it was also concerned with ultimate morality. Trotsky sought to refute the claim that the Bolshevik tradition he upheld was morally indistinguishable from the Stalinist terror that had followed it (and would eventually see him murdered). Picking at one particular accusation, the radical atheist found common cause with the Jesuits of earlier centuries, who were also condemned for their alleged belief that ‘the end justifies the means’. Trotsky pointed out that the Jesuits in fact never argued that any means were justified by the right end, but simply affirmed the commonplace that ‘the moral justification or condemnation of the given means flows from the end’.

The more important question is whether the end itself is justified, and: ‘From the Marxist point of view, which expresses the historical interests of the proletariat, the end is justified if it leads to increasing the power of man over nature and to the abolition of the power of man over man’.

This qualification of ‘man’s power over nature’ goes to the heart of Lewis’ warning. It was Trotsky’s implicit acknowledgement of the Tao. Accordingly, Trotsky went on explain that it follows not all means are permissible, only those that unite and elevate the people, not those that divide or demoralise them. Being ‘on the side of the angels’ is not a licence to commit horrors with a good conscience: the end of true human liberation implies constraints on the means to be used. No doubt there have always been some radicals for whom the oppressor can do no right and the oppressed can do no wrong, but it is precisely ends-based morality that militates against such tribalised thinking.

Nevertheless, Trotsky saw moral obligations as arising organically from real human relations. ‘The moral norm becomes the more categoric the less it is “obligatory on all”,’ he insisted. ‘The solidarity of workers, especially of strikers or barricade fighters, is incomparably more “categoric” than human solidarity in general’. This is the Tao’s law of special beneficence. Lewis cites Cicero: ‘The union and fellowship of men will be best preserved if each receives from us the more kindness in proportion as he is more closely connected with us’.

This does not trump the law of general beneficence so much as put flesh on its bones. The ability to honour particular obligations without abandoning universalist commitments is surely worth conserving, even if only as an aspiration that has never been fully achieved.

Paying tradition its due

Perhaps we are more familiar today with the conservative version of Trotsky’s take on those particular obligations: it is our family and nation to which we owe the most pressing duties. And here there is not even an implied connection to a greater good such as the liberation of humanity. Our nation might be engaged in something closer to the opposite. And, partly as a consequence, patriotism is very much at odds with the new moral orthodoxy. Probably the most jarring part of The Abolition of Man is Lewis’ defence of an ancient Roman father telling his son, ‘that it was a sweet and seemly thing to die for his country’.

The line, ‘Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori’, is from the Roman poet Horace, but it is better known today from Wilfrid Owen’s biting anti-war poem ‘Dulce et Decorum est’, which quotes it as ‘the old Lie’. In his book, Ward quotes a critic who argued that Lewis’ defence of the sentiment would have been stronger if he had acknowledged that Owen’s critique of war also had force from within the Tao itself. Indeed, it does, but Lewis’ quarrel was not with anti-war sentiment as such. Ward suggests Lewis probably did not even know the poem, which was much less well-known in 1943 than it is now.

It is salutary to be reminded that Lewis lived in a different world. Today, one cannot read the words ‘dulce et decorum est’ without thinking of Owen’s poem. Lewis, however, had read these words as a boy before the war, and without irony or bitterness. Despite the fact that he had fought and been wounded in the same war in which Owen was killed, he was still able to read them that way in later life.

Lewis’ point was not primarily to defend the idea of patriotic self-sacrifice against its modern detractors, but to emphasise that when a Roman repeated them to his son, ‘he believed what he said’. That is, it was not a case of cynically instilling the young with a sentiment that was useful to the society for whom they would then naively be prepared to die. The context, once again, is the school textbook that Lewis made his foil, and its authors’ posture of debunking everything that moves. Lewis could not have known that subsequent generations would learn to spit the words ‘dulce et decorum est’, despite having experienced nothing of war. That such a response would itself become almost as ‘normal and traditional’ as anything in the Tao.

It’s true, of course, that such moral abhorrence for war has force from within the Tao, but not so much force that it obliterates respect for heroic military sacrifice. In fact, Lewis argued the former could strengthen the latter:

‘We know how much of the reality the romantic view left out. But we also know that heroism is a real thing, that all the plumes and flags and trumpets of the tradition were not there for nothing. They were an attempt to honour what is truly honourable: what was first perceived to be honourable precisely because everyone knew how horrible war is’.

The proud families of fallen soldiers do not have to be told that war is hell. Nor will an ordinary patriot be discombobulated by the thought that his country is not objectively the greatest in the world or that foreigners are people too. The feelings we inherit from tradition are not Trojan horses for ideology, to be dispensed with when that ideology is discredited. They are part of what it is to be human – even an enlightened one. To debunk them – like looking at Coleridge’s sublime cataract and refusing to feel anything – is only to impoverish ourselves.

No doubt we will continue to disagree about how much tradition has to offer us and how much needs to change. Some will lean conservative, others more progressive. But our accumulated moral inheritance – including the thoughts of saints and revolutionaries as well as English professors and children’s authors – is the surest guide we have to make sound judgements about our past, present and future. We should be grateful for it.