Hnau What?: C. S. Lewis on What It Means to be a Person

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Moral, Believing, and Spiritual Animals

My field of behavioral and social sciences has favored theories of human nature and behavior that explain away or “see through” morality, spirituality, and religion-from Freud’s psychoanalysis (The Future of an Illusion), through Skinner’s behavioral determinism (Beyond Freedom and Dignity), to Wilson’s sociobiology or evolutionary psychology (“The Biological Basis of Morality,” 1998). Peter Singer (1996), the Princeton bioethicist, is a prime example of how these kinds of ideas have consequences. On the basis of his materialist and utilitarian assumptions, he argues that humans have no more innate value than any other animal and that any “right to life” they might have is tied to their capacities of self-awareness and agency-their self-conscious capacities to anticipate the future, to make choices, and to take action based on that awareness. On this basis he justifies infanticide for those creatures which, upon proper testing, do not show themselves to have the potential for full development of these capacities, and euthanasia for those creatures which, for whatever reason, have lost the exercise of those capacities.

However, other voices are being raised that take a more holistic approach to understanding what it means to be a person. A prime example is Christian Smith, Professor and Associate Chair of sociology at the University of North Carolina. He has written a courageous (in the light of the academic culture) and ground-breaking work by telling the old, old story that Lewis tells in Out of the Silent Planet in the language of contemporary social sciences.

In his book, Moral, Believing Animals: Human Personhood and Culture (2003), Smith argues that there is no way to be human except through moral order. He says,

One of the central and fundamental motivations for human action is to act out and sustain moral order, which helps constitute, directs, and makes significant human life itself. Human persons nearly universally live in social worlds that are thickly webbed with moral assumptions, beliefs, commitments, and obligations. (p. 8)

He argues that until this is recognized and built into sociological and psychological theories and analysis our understanding of human action and culture will be impoverished and inadequate (p. 11).

And by this, he does not mean that “moral” is another way of saying personal preferences, self-interested utilitarian behavior, or internalized socialization. He argues that “Science as we know it can only ever proceed by first placing faith in a set of unprovable cosmological, metaphysical, and epistemological assumptions and commitments…Nothing human, not even science, escapes moral order” (p. 25). Smith argues that moral order is external to and objectively existent for human actors, but it finds imperfect expression in human actors (pp. 27-27).

Sociobiology and evolutionary psychology, which require a remarkable faith in the ability of genes to stimulate behavior that perpetuates the genes but not necessarily the carrier of the genes, do not provide a plausible account of actual human behavior. The logical conclusion of this explanation eliminates any shred of belief in human morality-freedom, dignity, choice, rights, and responsibility. Smith, like Lewis, observes that,

When human morality is redefined entirely in relation to reproductive fitness-so that morality is no longer driven by natural law or the will of God or self-evident inherent moral values-then we lose any real standard to judge actions. Genetic survival and extinction in a competitive environment is all that is. Beyond that we can have nothing evaluative to say about which genes successfully reproduce or how they do it. Indeed, we no longer even possess standards for value judgments about what constitutes progress in evolution. It is finally of no more value that humans survive than do bacteria. (p. 37)

I happen to believe, with good reason, that Smith’s thinking has been directly influenced by the writings of C. S. Lewis. His office was across the hall from me once upon a time when he was a newly minted Ph.D. and we both taught at Gordon College. Now Chris is a one of the most widely published and important sociologists of religion of our time. Lewis did not claim originality for his ideas and Smith is radical only for being willing to publicly bring the old ideas to the contemporary academic arena. He is skilled in the tools and language of the academic guild and a remarkably capable thinker and writer who may be disagreed with, but cannot simply be ignored. I hope I have said enough about what he wrote to stimulate your interest in reading more. Academia needs more such voices.

Ideas and beliefs matter. What we believe about what it means to be a person will profoundly affect the way we treat people, as Weston and Devine clearly show. As Ransom learned, a person is not simply someone who looks or thinks like me. A person has inherent dignity and value. Hnau are moral, believing animals, no matter where they are found or what they look like. They understand that they are accountable to a transcendent and real moral order.

Works Cited

Freud, S. (1989). The future of an illusion. New York: W. W. Norton and Company.

Lewis, C. S. (1960). Mere Christianity. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company.

__________. (1962). Out of the silent planet. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company.

__________. (1962). The abolition of man. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company.

Singer, P. (1996). Rethinking life and death: The collapse of our traditional ethics. New York:

St. Martins Griffin.

Skinner, B. F. (1971). Beyond freedom and dignity. New York. Knopf.

Smith, C. (2003). Moral, believing animals: Human personhood and culture. New York:

Oxford University Press.

Trueblood, D. E. (1957). Philosophy of religion. New York: Harper and Row.

Wilson, E. O. (April 1998). The biological basis of morality, Atlantic Monthly, 65.

Selected Materials of Related Interest

Brown, W., Murphy, N., Maloney, H. N. (Eds.). (1998). Whatever happened to the soul?

Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.

Dupre, J. (2001). Human nature and the limits of science. New York: Oxford University Press.

Ellis, G. F. R. (1993). Before the beginning. London: Bowerdean Press/Marion Boyers.

Evans, C. S. (1977). Preserving the person: A look at the human sciences. Downers Grove, IL:

InterVarsity Press.

Etzioni, Amatai. (1988). The moral dimension. New York: Free Press.

Meilaender, G. (1996). Bioethics: A primer for Christians. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing


Murphey, N. (1997). Anglo-American postmodernity: Philosophical perspectives on science, religion,

and ethics. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Murphey, N., & Ellis, G. F. R. (1996). On the moral nature of the universe: cosmology, theology, and

ethics. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.

O’Hear, A. (1997). Beyond evolution: Human nature and the limits of evolutionary explanation.

Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Polanyi, M. (1946). Science, faith, and society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

__________. (1958). Personal knowledge: Toward a post-critical philosophy. Chicago: University of

Chicago Press.

Polkinghorne, D. (1988). Narrative knowing and the human sciences. Albany: State University of

New York Press.

Taylor, C. (1998). Sources of the self. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Wuthnow, R. (1987). Meaning and moral order. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

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