Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Why C. S. Lewis Was Wrong About Pacifism, Part I

Author: C. S. Lewis
Essay Title: Why I Am Not a Pacifist
Essay Length: 20 pages
Book Title: The Weight of Glory
Publisher: Macmillan (1980)
Language: English
ISBN: 0-02-095980-X


C. S. (Clive Staples) Lewis lived from nearly the turn of the 20th century to the early 1960's. He was a British Christian scholar and author. More specifically, he was an expert on medieval European literature, history, and mythology. In practice, Lewis was an Anglican layman. He was not a clergyman nor an academic theologian. Nevertheless, due in no small part to his brilliant creativity and the accessibility of his thought to the popular listener and reader, his work has been broadly accepted as representative of mainstream Christian thought.

My own Christian faith is deeply indebted to C. S. Lewis. The radio broadcasts, collected and published under the title Mere Christianity, was instrumental in supplying my adolescent mind with the rational arguments needed to thwart skepticism and cynicism. For even though my heart was renewed by faith in Jesus Christ, my mind was constantly assailed by doubt. Lewis approved of the careful reasoning through of one's faith and provided sound arguments for why faith is reasonable. In fact, Lewis' thought not only freed me to think critically about my faith, but also to think creatively. He is perhaps even more well known for his fiction than for his apologetics. As I mentioned in a recent post, I am currently reading The Chronicles of Narnia to my children before bed in the hope that the stories will have the same positive effect on them that they've had on me.

It is because I cherish Lewis' thought so much that it pains me that I must disagree with him on his opposition to pacifism in his essay, "Why I Am Not A Pacifist." On a great many subjects, even controversial ones such as his Inclusivism, we are in agreement. In fact, it is rare that I have found fault with his thinking at all. However, I certainly find the reasoning and conclusions presented in this essay(1) desperately deficient. That is why I have undertaken to write this critique and entitle it, "Why C. S. Lewis Was Wrong About Pacifism."

I. On the Components of Conscience

Before his first criticism of pacifism, Lewis spends a significant portion of the essay setting the stage for his arguments by deconstructing what he presents as the more fundamental question that is raised by the pacifist question(2): "how do we decide what is good or evil?" Lewis proposes conscience as the appropriate answer, but seeks to parse out two distinct ways of understanding conscience. Conscience is not only our sense of moral obligation, or what he describes as "the pressure a man feels upon his will to do what he thinks is right." Conscience is also that aspect of our being that discerns good from evil, or what he describes as "[a person's] judgment as to what the content of right and wrong are." This distinction is critical for Lewis' overall argument because only the latter sense of conscience is susceptible to change through argumentation. To argue with one's own conscience (taken in the first sense) would be to "incur guilt." Lewis intends to appeal directly to our consciences (taken in the second sense), through argumentation, to demonstrate the failure of pacifism.

A. The Reason Analogy

To make clear the conscience’s susceptibility to argumentation, Lewis compares the conscience (taken in the second sense) to reason. He explains that the structure of reasoning is composed of several specific components. The components of reasoning are: 1) Facts—which are a mixture of personal experiences and reports from sources we deem reliable and/or trustworthy (called “authority”); 2) Intuition—self-evident truths perceived inductively; and 3) Argument—the artful or skillful arrangement of intuitively-perceived truths towards a “proof of the truth or falsehood of the proposition [being] considered.” Lewis goes on to explain that what he is calling “intuition” is essential to all rational human beings, “incorrigible” if faulty, and “not amenable to correction by argumentation.” He writes, “...the intuitional element, cannot be corrected if it is wrong, nor supplied if it is lacking.” Components 1 and 3, however, possess the capacity for error and therefore often need correction. This is made even more certain by Lewis’ final comment on reason as an analogy for conscience. He argues that the failure of human beings to acknowledge self-evident truths is often due not to an inability to intuitively perceive them, but is instead due to alternative passions or a “sloth[ful]” lack of effort. Essentially, we tend to “see” only what want or expect to “see.”

B. The Conscience By Comparison

Returning to conscience, Lewis correlates all the components he has described of reason back to our moral discernment center. The fact component is our collective experiences of war, killing, injustice, et cetera. The intuition component is our inductive perceptions of “simple good and evil as such.” The argument component is the arrangement of the truths intuitively perceived in such a way as to “convince a man a particular act is wrong or right.” But Lewis reassigns the authority component slightly, making it not only a replacement for facts as it was used in the reason analogy, but now also a replacement for skillful or artful argumentation. This could be seen as second difference between reason and conscience in addition to the difference Lewis goes on to highlight.

The immediacy of conscience—the fact that we are considering acts that are to be performed or not performed by virtue of their morality or immorality—is the difference between reason and conscience that Lewis emphasizes as primary. Since we would not be considering the morality of an act unless we either wanted to do it or did not want to do it, Lewis argues, we are “bribed from the very beginning.” This is why Lewis gives greater prominence to authority when returning to conscience from reason. Authority is of even greater value for checking our own processes in the case of conscience because of our proclivity toward justifying desirable yet immoral acts.

Lewis’ most relevant points from this section are the positions each of the components occupy in our decision-making process, and how easily corrupted and confused we can become at critical points on our way to a moral conclusion. Lewis argues that what many pacifists claim as intuitive and therefore unarguable is especially debatable since it is based on faulty premises. He uses a teetotaler, someone who questions the Shakespearean authorship of Henry VIII, and those who abstain from vaccinations as examples. The teetotaler concludes that “what can always be abused had better never be used at all.” According to Lewis, he bases this conclusion on opinion, or passions, mistaken for unanswerable intuition. For Lewis, all the components of conscience build a cumulative case for the moral conclusion. Intuition cannot be the sole cause for a stance. The facts must be “clear and little disputed,” the inductively perceived truths must be “unmistakably an intuition,” the connecting arguments must be “strong,” authority must be “in agreement,” and last-but-not-least little motive must be found for the secret bribery of passion. These points will serve to support his overall opposition to pacifism throughout the remainder of the essay while Lewis now turns to consider first the facts component of the pacifist conscience.

(1) According to Walter Hooper, who compiled the book, the essay being critiqued was originally a paper written for a pacifist society at Oxford sometime in 1940.
(2) Here “the pacifist question” refers to the question Lewis assumes is the primary concern of the pacifist group he is addressing. He expresses the question thusly, “The question is whether to serve in the wars at the command of the civil society to which I belong is a wicked action, or an action morally indifferent, or an action morally obligatory.”


  1. I think it's worth distinguishing between liberal Christian pacifism and anabaptist Christian pacifism. Ascribing to the latter position, I see peace making commitment as owning more to revelation than reason. Quite simply, it's Christ commanded and that is enough.

  2. Matt: I think this is addressed in part II and III where TC points out the assumption that Lewis makes about pacifists. Lewis should have defined what he meant by "pacifist" a little better.

    That there is a vast difference between these two types of pacifism is a great point. Someone should write an essay about it! Any takers?

  3. Hi Matt,

    Thanks for the comment. I completely agree.