Modern education, Lewis warns, aims to produce “Men without Chests,” by which he means men and women with a deformed understanding of morality. Plato, Aristotle, and St. Augustine argued that the goal of education was to grow a young person’s conscience, so his moral understanding conformed to reality.
When events at Yale University and the University of Missouri propelled college politics to national news, many conservatives were caught off guard by the power of “political correctness.” To those familiar with the works of C.S. Lewis, however, these events were of little surprise. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man explains both the confusion and the radical ideology on campuses today, and how Americans should respond to these dire threats.
What’s Happening on College Campuses?
In the September issue of The Atlantic, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff, president and CEO of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, described a peculiar movement on college campuses, which they named “vindictive protectiveness.”
Haidt and Lukianoff cite Harvard Law Professor Jeannie Suk, who wrote in The New Yorker about law students demanding their professors not even teach rape law — and in one weird case even to avoid using the word “violate” (as in “that violates the law”) — because it may cause students distress. This culture of overreaction is being institutionalized, as demonstrated by demands for the resignation of Yale’s Silliman College masters Erika and Nicholas Christakis for an allegedly insensitive email about Halloween costumes.
As Haidt and Lukianoff explain, “a claim that someone’s words are ‘offensive’ is not just an expression of one’s own subjective feelings of offendedness. It is, rather, a public charge that the speaker has done something objectively wrong.”
The idea of “microaggressions” — small actions or word choices that seem to have no malicious intent but are thought of as a kind of violence nonetheless — twists the objective idea of being “offensive” into a subjective charge on behalf of someone claiming to be offended. Some campus guides denounce as a microaggression the very act of asking an Asian American or Latino American “Where were you born?” because this implies that that person is not a real American.
The craziness of this new morality may seem unprecedented, but C.S. Lewis warned of something similar in his 1944 book The Abolition of Man.
The Abolition of Man
Lewis wrote The Abolition of Man to warn people about the corrosive effects of subjective morality. He starts out by attacking a children’s book which teaches that judgments of value are not objective, but only statements about the speaker’s feelings.
By contrast, Lewis argues that morality is fundamental to humanity. He traces the principles of conscience, the reasoning behind calling something “right” or “wrong,” throughout different cultures and religions, from ancient Rome to Christianity, to Hinduism, and Buddhism. While many attack this “traditional morality,” it is the building block for all moral values, and such principles as the Golden Rule — “do as you would be done by” — are nearly universal among men.
Lewis admits that this universal moral law has many aspects and can be improved — as with the discovery that slavery is wrong and the movement to abolish it — but says that any attempt to build morality on a separate basis will fail.
Nevertheless, teachers — and especially university professors and students — try to present new moralities, more “in fashion with the times.” To this, Lewis responds, “There has never been, and never will be, a radically new judgement of value in the history of the world.”
While some people may argue (for instance) that a man may steal from his neighbor if he will otherwise starve to death, they are not really ignoring conscience but focusing on one aspect of universal morality while minimizing another. “What purport to be new systems [of morality] all consist of fragments from [conscience] itself, arbitrarily wrenched from their context in the whole and then swollen to madness in their isolation,” Lewis explains.
Nevertheless, even these “alternate moralities” rely on conscience to give them validity. The “vindictive protectiveness” on college campuses may trample on free speech or the pursuit of truth, but it does so in the name of conscience, which warns people not to harm others. This morality is not, strictly speaking, a new morality, but a twisted form of the original. It is not amoral or evil, but warped and mistaken.