The Cracks in Our Debates: Lessons from Lewis on Disagreement

Lockdowns. Mask mandates. Vaccinations. For the last eighteen months, these subjects have been intensely discussed, debated, and argued about, both inside and outside of the church. Friendships have been strained, families have been divided, and churches have split over how we should respond to these and other COVID-related issues.

Like many of you, I spent many hours reading and discussing the various intersecting issues. In addition to the typical conversations with family, friends, and church members, these topics were frequently part of our discussions in a class I taught on political philosophy at Bethlehem College & Seminary.

Over and over, I was struck by how participants in these debates so often seemed to miss each other. They didn’t just disagree; they seemed to find their opponent’s position incomprehensible, like they were each speaking a foreign language. The frustration was palpable. Beneath the animated discussions seemed to run this sentiment: “Why can’t this person see what is so obvious to me?”

At one point last year, I was relistening to a collection of essays by C.S. Lewis. A particular essay jumped out as particularly relevant for the present moment. The essay is called “Why I Am Not a Pacifist.” In the essay, Lewis does eventually explain the reasoning behind his position. Before he does, however, he spends the first part of the essay explaining what moral reasoning is and how it works. In other words, he puts on a Moral Reasoning Clinic, one that I found to be accessible and clarifying — and one that may help us break through the various impasses in our friendships, families, and churches.

Elements of Reasoning

We can begin with the fact that we make judgments. We make judgments about what is right and wrong, and we make judgments about what is true and false. When we do the former, we are dealing with the Conscience. When we do the latter, we are dealing with Reason. In both cases, Conscience and Reason are shorthand ways of referring to “the whole man engaged in a particular subject.”

Lewis contends that both Reason and Conscience work the same way, and involve the following basic elements:

  1. Perceived Facts: This is the raw material for our judgments, the data that we are reasoning about. This data is derived either directly from our experience or indirectly from the testimony of others.

  2. Clear Intuitions. These are indisputable truths, either of logic or morality. We often call these intuitions “self-evident.” If A = B and B = C, then we just see (and can’t help seeing) that A = C. These are the sorts of things that no good or sane man ever denied.

  3. Reasoning: This is the art or skill of arranging the facts so as to yield a clear series of intuitions while also producing a proof of the claim for which we are contending.

Given the difficulty of the third step (as well as the limitations imposed by our finitude), Lewis adds a fourth element for our consideration: Authority.

Many of the judgments we make are not based on our own extended acts of reasoning, but instead are based on the moral authority of others. Others have done the fact-finding and reasoning, and we accept their results because we believe them to be reliable. This is both unavoidable and, in general, a good thing. Not everyone has the leisure to work through the complexities of so many issues that we face, and no one has unlimited leisure to work through all complexities.

Argument Corrects Reasoning

In our moral debates, correction comes via argument. Argument may correct our facts; things that we believe to be facts may (in fact) not be facts. Or argument may correct our reasoning; we may have made an undue jump from one claim to another. Argument may also help us to make intuitions easier and conclusions more compelling. But, importantly, Lewis notes that you don’t correct intuitions via argument, because our intuitions are what we argue from, not what we argue to.

“Passions can corrupt our reasoning, whether intellectual or moral.”

This last point is crucial. Lewis insists that we must distinguish our inarguable intuitions from our debatable conclusions. Our intuitions are very basic, so basic that only lunatics and psychopaths can be said to lack them. The trouble is, as Lewis notes, that “people are constantly claiming this unarguable and unanswerable status for moral judgments which are not really intuitions at all but remote consequences or particular applications of them, eminently open to discussion since the consequences may be illogically drawn or the application falsely made” (69).

Intuition in Moderation

Lewis illustrates this problem by referencing temperance fanatics who claim to have an unanswerable intuition that all strong drink is forbidden.

In reality, such a person has no such thing. Instead, he has a real moral intuition about the goodness of bodily health and societal harmony. From that intuition, the person has reasoned to teetotalism via the bodily and social harm produced by drunkenness. He might also attempt to add the voice of biblical authority to his case. But the crucial element is that all of these latter steps are part of moral reasoning and therefore eminently debatable.

The feeling of the temperance fanatic that his conviction is really a universal and unarguable moral intuition is a false one, perhaps produced by early associations, arrogance, passions, or the like.

Four Steps to Reasoning

Lewis’s sketch of the process of intellectual and moral reasoning is clarifying and helpful as we engage in our own moral debates.

1. Beware of your passions.

First, Lewis alerts us to the danger of our passions. Passions can corrupt our reasoning, whether intellectual or moral. Fear, desire for money or social approval, anger, laziness — any and all of these may lead us to distort facts or deny arguments. We so easily make illogical leaps. Our desires can cloud our judgment so that we don’t clearly see the proper inferences. The apostle Paul describes this sort of thing at work in Romans 1, where he writes of men “who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” (Romans 1:18). Our passions really are treacherous, and we must constantly be alert to the danger of motivated reasoning.

2. Pursue a proper confidence.

Despite this danger, Lewis’s outline demonstrates that we can have confidence about our reasoning, including our moral reasoning. While we may not have mathematical certainty about some moral and intellectual conclusions, we can arrive at a kind of moral certainty, or perhaps better, a kind of proper confidence in our conclusions.

Not only does Lewis hold up such confidence as attainable, but he also shows us how to attain it. Such moral confidence is to be gained by the strength of the four factors that make up our reasoning. If the facts are clear and little disputed, if the intuitions are unmistakably intuitions, if the reasoning that connects the intuitions to our conclusions is strong, and if respected moral authorities are in agreement, then we can have proper confidence in our judgment (and doubly so if we have little reason to suppose that our minds are being swayed by our passions).

On the other hand, if the facts are in dispute, if the intuition that we start from is not obvious to all good men, if the reasoning is weak, and if respected moral authorities are against us, then it is likely that we are mistaken (and doubly so if we discover that our conclusions flatter or fulfill some passion of our own). In either case, Lewis’s outline helps us to evaluate our own moral reasoning.

3. Test authority humbly and carefully.

Lewis’s sketch underscores the importance of authority. On the one hand, authority can act as a check on our passions. If we find ourselves out of step with great moral teachers and theologians from the past, it is worth pausing to explore the source of the divergence. Perhaps the sages erred; they are human, after all, and there is no one righteous, save for one. Conversely, humility demands that we consider whether our own reasoning is as airtight as we like to believe. For we too are human, and there is no one righteous, no, not one.

“Rather than repeating our conclusions with increasing shrillness, we can begin to engage in real persuasion.”

When authority has been corrupted, however, its effect is disastrous. Our consciences can be smothered by wicked custom, established by the ungodly and reinforced by both our passions and our respect for our ancestors. While we are never left without a moral witness — since God has written his law into our very nature — it is possible for that witness to become a whisper, drowned out by human traditions and the philosophies of men.

4. Discern the nature of debates.

Finally, perhaps the most helpful dimension of Lewis’s outline is the way that it helps us to clarify where our moral debates actually lie.

To return to our COVID-related issues — masks, vaccines, lockdowns — are we actually debating whether “love for neighbor” is morally obligatory (which would be a debate about an inarguable intuition)? Or are we debating whether masks are a successful mitigation strategy (which would be a debate about facts)? Or are we debating the trustworthiness and credibility of government officials and the medical establishment (which would be a debate about authority)? This last question is particularly potent in the age of social and mass media, in which many of our “facts” come prepackaged and wrapped in a ready-made narrative for our acceptance. In many cases, our debates about COVID were simply manifestations of deeper divisions over the credibility of certain authorities — whether government officials, news media, or church leaders.

Once we determine where the debate actually lies, we can then seek to unpack or simplify our reasoning in hopes of making the series of moral intuitions clearer to our opponents. We can grow in our own self-awareness by becoming mindful of the various passions that might distort our reasoning. We can also grow in our awareness of the sorts of passions that may be affecting our opponents, and thus find ways to confront and disarm them.

Rather than simply repeating our conclusions with increasing shrillness and volume, we can begin to engage in real persuasion, seeking God’s help in bringing together our moral intuitions, the facts on the ground, and the relevant authorities in hopes of coming to one mind.

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