I recently started reading Mere Christianity, and I am trying to figure out Lewis's view on whether morality is taught or is something that every person knows by nature. He seems to claim both views, and I am trying to figure out how he reconciles them (or if I have just misunderstood something).

In chapter 1 ("The Law of Human Nature"), Lewis states the following:

This law was called the Law of Nature because people thought that every one knew it by nature and did not need to be taught it. They did not mean, of course, that you might not find an odd individual here and there who did not know it, just as you find a few people who are colour-blind or have no ear for a tune. But taking the race as a whole, they thought that the human idea of decent behaviour was obvious to every one. And I believe they were right.

Then in chapter 2 ("Some Objections"), Lewis addresses an objection that the Law of Nature is just a social convention "that is put into us by education." He responds with the following:

The people who ask that question are usually taking it for granted that if we have learned a thing from parents and teachers, then that thing must be merely a human invention. But, of course, that is not so. We all learned the multiplication table at school. A child who grew up alone on a desert island would not know it. But surely it does not follow that the multiplication table is simply a human convention, something human beings have made up for themselves and might have made different if they had liked? I fully agree that we learn the Rule of Decent Behaviour from parents and teachers, and friends and books, as we learn everything else.

He then goes on to explain why the Law of Nature / Moral Law / Rule of Decent Behavior falls into the same category as mathematics, being a real truth instead of a convention.

On the surface, it seems like Lewis is making opposing statements: first that this moral law is intrinsically known by humans without being taught and second that it is something that is in fact taught. My guess at this point is that he sees our sense of right and wrong as a faculty that must be developed. While we may know the principles of morality as children, we do not know all of the applications of those principles and must be taught. And perhaps it is a sense that can become sharpened or dulled, so good teaching could sharpen it.

That's how I would reconcile those statements based on how in the first quote someone without moral knowledge is likened to someone with an impaired sense. But that may just be the way I would explain it, and I'm not confident that that is actually the way he would explain those statements. Perhaps there is something that is so obvious to him (and everyone else in the world since his target audience was all of the UK) that it goes without saying, and I have completely missed it.

So if anyone has any insights into what Lewis has said or would say on how morality is inherently known while also being taught, please share. Thanks!

  • 2
    I think your guess is correct. Like mathematics, morality is known in its fundamentals, but must then be developed and extended by human effort. I believe Lewis was somewhat Augustinian in his thought, so he might have traced this idea back to Plato's Meno where the same topic comes up.
    – zippy2006
    May 1, 2021 at 21:16
  • @zippy2006 Yes, there's a similarity between C.S. Lewis's view in The Abolition of Man and Plato's Meno on virtue. I didn't see the Augustinian connection though, maybe because I don't know where St. Augustine referenced Meno. I welcome your input on my answer. God bless. Oct 18, 2021 at 21:28

2 Answers 2


The Question

How would Lewis explain morality being inherently known but also needing to be taught?

C.S. Lewis on Moral Education

In his October 2005 Imprimis speech digest C.S. Lewis on Moral Education, Christian Ethics professor Gilbert Meilaender acknowledges that C.S. Lewis is not entirely consistent between your first quote in The Case for Christianity (1942), the first pamphlet of what later became Mere Christianity (1952), and his more mature expression of objective morality in The Abolition of Man (1943) where he argues for the need to discover this objective morality through moral education:

  • WRONG WAY: teach children that all statements of value (such as "this waterfall is sublime") are mere statements about the speaker's feelings and say nothing about the object. This will lead to subjective morality (individually / socially constructed).
  • RIGHT WAY: train children in "ordinate affections": to like and dislike what they ought and to love the good and hate the bad. This will lead to discovering objective morality that is already there (called the Tao by Lewis).

In the speech Prof. Meilaender distinguished 3 key related elements:

  1. what moral truths we know: the maxims of the Tao

    What do we know when we know moral truth? Most fundamentally, we know the maxims of what Lewis—in his book on education, The Abolition of Man—calls the Tao. These “primeval moral platitudes” (as Screwtape, in Lewis’ Screwtape Letters, once terms them) constitute the human moral inheritance. We would not be wrong to call them the basic principles of natural law: the requirements of both general and special beneficence; duties both to parents/ancestors and to children/posterity; and requirements of justice, truthfulness, mercy and magnanimity. These are the starting points for all moral reasoning, deliberation and argument; they are to morality what axioms are to mathematics. Begin from them and we may get somewhere in thinking about what we ought to do. Try to stand outside the Tao on some kind of morally neutral or empty ground, and we will find it impossible to generate any moral reasoning at all.


    We can, of course, criticize one or another of these moral truths, or, at least, particular formulations of them. But we will inevitably call on some other principle of the Tao when we do so. Thus, for example, we may think Aristotle’s magnanimous man insufficiently merciful and too concerned about his own nobility, using thereby one principle of the Tao (mercy) to refine another. In pursuit of our duties to posterity we may be willing to sacrifice the weak and vulnerable on the altar of medical research, but then we will have to ask whether we have transgressed the requirement of justice—every bit as much an element of the Tao as our duty to posterity. But to step—or try to step—outside the Tao entirely is to lose the very ground of moral reason itself.

    Thus The principles of the Tao do not solve moral problems for us; on the contrary, they create, frame and shape those problems. They teach us to think in full and rich ways about them, as we recognize the various claims the Tao makes upon us.

  2. how we know them: we just “see” them as the first principles of all moral reasoning.

    If, as I put it a moment ago, the world around us is shot through with moral value, then to recognize a moral duty—as something other than our own choice or decision—is to see a truth. Lewis thinks we just “see” those primeval moral platitudes of the Tao. They cannot be proven, for it is only by them that we can prove or defend any other moral conclusions we reach. It is, as Lewis puts it at the end of The Abolition of Man, “no use trying to ‘see through’ first principles. . . . To ‘see through’ all things is the same as not to see.” We might say, as Lewis says for instance in Miracles, that these first principles of moral reasoning are “self-evident.” One can argue from but not to the maxims of the Tao.

  3. how we become able to know them: only as our character is well formed by moral education.

    ... Without such education we will never come to know the human moral inheritance. We may be very bright and very rational, but we will be what Lewis calls “trousered apes.” Lacking proper moral education, our freedom to make moral choices will be a freedom to be inhuman in any number of ways. The paradox of moral education is that all genuine human freedom—a freedom that does not turn out to be destructive—requires that we be disciplined and shaped by the principles of the Tao.

    Our appetites and desires may readily tempt us to set aside what moral reason requires. Hence, from childhood our emotions must be trained and habituated, so that we learn to love the good (not just what seems good for us). And only as our character is thus shaped do we become men and women who are able to “see” the truths of moral reason. Moral insight, therefore, is not a matter for reason alone; it requires trained emotions. It requires moral habits of behavior inculcated even before we reach an age of reason. “The head rules the belly through the chest,” as Lewis puts it. Reason disciplines appetite only with the aid of trained emotions. Seeing this, we will understand that moral education does more than simply enable us to “see” what virtue requires. It also enables us, at least to some extent, to be virtuous. For the very training of the emotions that makes insight possible has also produced in us traits of character that will incline us to love the good and do it.

    Moral education, then, can never be a private matter, and Lewis follows Aristotle in holding that “only those who have been well brought up can usefully study ethics.” Hence, the process of moral education, if it is to succeed, requires support from the larger society. Ethics is, in that sense, a branch of politics. Thus, for instance, to take an example that Lewis could not precisely have anticipated, consider the problem of protecting children from internet pornography (which the U.S. Congress attempted in what was known as the “Child Online Protection Act,” but which the Supreme Court ruled, in Ashcroft v. ACLU, was in probable violation of the First Amendment’s free speech guarantees). True as it may be that this protection should be the primary responsibility of parents, they face daunting obstacles and almost inevitable failure without a supportive moral ecology in the surrounding society. Moral education, if it is to be serious, requires commitment to moral principles that go well beyond the language of freedom—principles that are more than choice and consent alone.

    We should not think of this moral education as indoctrination, but as initiation. It is initiation into the human moral inheritance: “men transmitting manhood to men.” We initiate rather than indoctrinate precisely because it is not we but the Tao that binds those whom we teach. We have not decided what morality requires; we have discovered it. We transmit not our own views or desires but moral truth—by which we consider ourselves also to be bound. Hence, moral education is not an exercise of power over future generations. To see what happens when it becomes an exercise of power by some over others, when we attempt to stand outside the Tao, we can look briefly at two ways in which Lewis’ discussion of morality in The Abolition of Man takes shape in That Hideous Strength, his “‘tall story’ of devilry.”


Lewis sees the modern education tendency as reflecting the atmosphere of subjective morality: that it is society which comes up with what is good or bad and that the role of parents, teachers, schools, government, and other "noble" institutions is to "indoctrinate" (ahem, to "socialize") the kids to our chosen high-minded values that the best "ethical researchers" have come up with as what's good for the society. Lewis thinks this is VERY dangerous since it has the tendency to arbitrarily selecting one part of the Tao and elevating it above the others, whether it is socialism, patriotism, environment, equal rights, etc. Louis Markos, a C.S. Lewis scholar, wrote about this danger in a 2005 Touchstone magazine article Excluded Middle School: Why C.S. Lewis Was Right About Chests and talked about The Abolition of Man in a Jan 2021 podcast.

Instead, Lewis, along with Aristotle and Plato, argue that the principles of morality (natural law) are discovered through the training of emotions and the development of virtues until we "see" what is objectively there, just like learning enough math to "see" the Pythagorean Theorem being true (my own example). The education is needed because we are like "trousered apes" due to original sin. But unlike "indoctrination" into a society's chosen values, it is "initiation" into the human moral inheritance put in our conscience by God in our human nature. The evidence of the objective Tao is how different cultures came up with a list of basic values listed in the Appendix of The Abolition of Man. The more virtuous men and women are, the more they should agree with each other on what "good" is.


Q: Mere Christianity Book I Chapters 1 and 2: How would Lewis explain morality being inherently known but also taught?

Lewis made the point that there are Laws of Human Nature or morality which are known to almost all people on Earth. He believed that most people in most cultures would agree that stealing or murder are wrong. Yet Lewis also pointed out that theft and murder happen all the time. Why? Lewis answers:

...a body could not choose whether it obeyed the law of gravitation or not, but a man could choose either to obey the Law of Human Nature or to disobey it.

[Lewis, C. S.. Mere Christianity (C.S. Lewis Signature Classics) (p. 4). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.]

Lewis summed this issue in this passage:

...These, then, are the two points I wanted to make. First, that human beings, all over the earth, have this curious idea that they ought to behave in a certain way, and cannot really get rid of it. Secondly, that they do not in fact behave in that way. They know the Law of Nature; they break it. These two facts are the foundation of all clear thinking about ourselves and the universe we live in.

[Lewis, C. S.. Mere Christianity (C.S. Lewis Signature Classics) (p. 8). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.]

The laws of gravitation or mathematics are universal. Drop an object and it falls. Try to disobey the law of gravitation by jumping from a building and you will fall.

Lewis described Laws of Human Nature that are inhereent in our nature. These laws are known to all, but they can be disobeyed unlike natural laws such as gravitation.

If the Laws of Human Nature are known to all, yet frequently disobeyed, what is the purpose of teaching them?

Parents, family members, teachers, and preachers all emphasize the need to follow these laws and I believe they do so in order to make it more likely that the students or children or friends would actually choose to follow the moral laws Lewis described.

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