Quote 3 – C.S. Lewis on Instincts and Values

Telling us to obey instincts is like telling us to obey ‘people.’ People say different things: so do instincts. Our instincts are at war. If it is held that the instinct for preserving the species should always be obeyed at the expense of other instincts, whence to we derive this rule of precedence? To listen to that instinct speaking in its own cause and deciding in its own favor would be rather simple minded. Each instinct, if you listen to it, will claim to be gratified at the expense of all the rest. By the very act of listening to one rather than the others we have already prejudged the case. If we did not bring to the examination of our instincts a knowledge of their comparative dignity we could never learn it from them. And that knowledge cannot itself be instinctive: the judge cannot itself be one of the parties judges: or if he is, the decision is worthless and there is no ground for placing the preservation of the species above self-preservation or sexual appetite.” (C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, 48-49)

The idea that, without appealing to any court higher than the instincts themselves, we can yet find grounds for preferring one instinct above its fellows dies very hard. We grasp at useless words: we call it the ‘basic,’ or ‘fundamental,’ or ‘primal,’ or ‘deepest’ instinct. It is of no avail. Either these words conceal a value judgment passed upon the instinct and therefore not derivable from it, or else they merely record its felt intensity, the frequency of its operation, and its wide distribution. If the former, the whole attempt to base value upon instinct has been abandoned: if the latter, these observations about the quantitative aspects of a psychological event lead to no practical conclusion. It is the old dilemma. Either the premisses already concealed an imperative or the conclusion remains merely in the indicative. (C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, 49)

“The legitimate reformer endeavors to show that the precept in question conflicts with some precept which its defenders allow to be more fundamental, or that it does not really embody the judgement of value it professes to embody. The direct frontal attack – ‘Why?’ – ‘What good does it do?’ – ‘Who said so?’ is never permissible; not because it is harsh or offensive but because no values at all can justify themselves on that level. (C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, 60-61)

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2 thoughts on “Quote 3 – C.S. Lewis on Instincts and Values

  1. Lexie K. December 11, 2007 / 11:03 am

    If morality were instinct or an instinct then would C.S. Lewis be wrong in saying it is dangerous to obey our instincts?

  2. elliot December 11, 2007 / 10:54 pm

    Lexie: Thanks for visiting!

    I’m not an expert on Lewis, and it has been a couple of months since I read this book, but I’ll tell you what I think he would say:

    He doesn’t seem to be saying that it is always dangerous to obey our instincts; his main point seems to be that our instincts are not all there is. There is something behind them that helps us to judge between them.

    So I don’t know whether he would say morality is an instinct. If he did, I’m pretty sure he would say that not all kinds of morality are the same, and some kinds of morality are better than others – that is, they fit better with the way the world is.

    I’d recommend reading the book, if you haven’t. It’s thought-provoking, and isn’t very long.

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