A little more than seven decades have passed since the publication of The Abolition of Man (1943), and we are fortunate that the world is not yet as bad as C.S. Lewis imagined. Nonetheless, we cannot deny that Lewis possessed impressive foresight in his critical and cautionary exposition of modernity. Joseph Ratzinger (Benedict XVI), like Lewis, was prescient about the ills of the modern West. Comparing Lewis’s and Ratzinger’s accounts of modernity’s missteps provides a striking and sobering picture of our world’s condition.
When Benedict XVI gave a lecture in 2005 about the crisis of Western culture, he expressed fears about the direction of modernity that are strikingly similar to Lewis’s critique. Unlike Lewis, however, Benedict XVI saw modernity’s danger directly and concretely rather than theoretically:
Less visible, but no less disquieting, are the possibilities of self-manipulation that man has acquired. He has plumbed the depths of being, has deciphered the components of the human being, and is now capable, so to speak, of constructing man himself, who thus no longer comes into the world as a gift of the Creator, but as a product of our action, a product that, therefore, can also be selected according to the exigencies established by ourselves… Thus, the splendor of being an image of God no longer shines over man, which is what confers on him his dignity and inviolability, and he is left only to the power of his own human capacities. He is no more than the image of man – but of what man?
Ratzinger fears how scientific and technological development – especially in the different fields of human sciences, and particularly those that deal with stem cells and embryos treating man as mere scientific subjects – has far overtaken the development of moral sense and energy of humanity. Indeed, man’s moral faculty is actually supposed to direct and put into proper order mankind’s rapidly increasing scientific power. Left to itself, this enormous amount of technological enterprise becomes a great force for destruction.
Like Lewis in The Abolition of Man, Ratzinger blames the relegation of morality into the subjective and private lives of individuals for this stagnation of moral energy, which is a result of what he calls the modern “self-limitation of rational positivism.” This rather convoluted phrase refers to an ideology that accepts as true only those things that are verifiable and falsifiable, namely empirical facts. Everything beyond is a matter of opinion, opinions that should not be imposed on everyone. This is altogether the destruction of the Tao (Lewis’s term for the eternal, universal, and self-evident moral law) resulting from modern philosophy’s separation of fact and value and its popularization that has Lewis predicted.
A Diagnosis of Our Moral Sense
One indication that people in Western societies have loosened their moral sense is the fairly recent sociological study lead by Christian Smith on the moral views of emerging adult Americans (ages 18-23). The researchers found that “six out of ten (60 percent) of the emerging adults interviewed expressed a highly individualistic approach to morality. They hold that morality is a personal choice, entirely a matter of individual decision. Moral rights and wrongs are essentially matters of individual opinion, in their view.”
Moreover, when pressed to elaborate upon their moral views, the informants exhibit “an essentially subjective and ‘emotivistic’ approach to moral reasoning and rational judgment” and most began their explanations by saying “I feel that”. These findings support the veracity of Alasdair MacIntyre’s critical analysis of the modern culture. The Scottish moral philosopher sees that the dominant narrative in today’s society is that “all evaluative judgments and more specifically all moral judgments are nothing but expressions of preference, expressions of attitude of feeling, insofar as they are moral or evaluative in character.” He calls this the doctrine of “emotivism.”
Without Objective Morality
Although it would be hyperbolic to say that a few powerful “conditioners,” are insidiously manipulating the world as Lewis feared, there is strong evidence that sense of stable and orderly morality is unraveling in Western societies. Lewis’s prediction that conditioners would eventually follow nothing but their irrational impulses due to the absence of a higher authority, even reason, can now be seen in the dictatorship of emotions among the majority of the youth population. Again, we are faced with the paradoxical effect of destroying the idea of Tao: it began by discrediting emotions vis-à-vis objects lacking empirical basis, rendering them insubstantial and irrelevant. But empirical facts alone cannot in any way satisfy our longing for meaning. Therefore we revert back to feelings, but they are detached from any objective reality.
The individualism, relativism, and emotivism of our contemporary society first affirms Lewis’s warning about the breakdown of all value judgments once we remove the Tao. This moral confusion further enables man, using science and technology, to undertake dangerous experiments such as tampering with human life. This shift in moral understanding is blameworthy not simply because of any sacred precept, but because doing so is a clear path towards self-destruction. The destruction we now face attests to the need to proclaim the prophetic message of Lewis’s The Abolition of Man.