C. S. Lewis vs. Sigmund Freud on Good and Evil

By Nicholi, Armand M., Jr. | The American Enterprise, March 2002 | Go to article overview

C. S. Lewis vs. Sigmund Freud on Good and Evil


Nicholi, Armand M., Jr., The American Enterprise


Moral relativism (the prevailing doctrine in our culture today) argues that humans have no moral point of reference, that nothing I think can be more wrong or right than what you think. Such a worldview prompts an important question: Is there a universal moral law, a set of rights and wrongs that is permanent and absolute and has existed in nearly every culture?

For many years I have contemplated that question by comparing the contrasting views of two of the last century's most influential thinkers: C. S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud. Their writings run in striking parallels, yet lead us to completely different conclusions. Lewis serves as one of today's primary spokesmen for absolute truth and religious faith. With Marx discredited, Freud remains the spokesman for moral relativism and materialism.

We all possess an awareness of right and wrong, or what we "ought" to do. Are these feelings an indication of a God-given moral law? Or do they simply reflect what our parents taught us? Freud believes that we simply make up our own moral codes, just as we make up traffic laws, and that these codes can change randomly from culture to culture. Lewis maintains that we discover moral truth, good and evil, just as we discover the laws of mathematics, and that the universal moral law transcends time and culture.

"There are no sources of knowledge," Freud wrote, "other than carefully scrutinized observations--what we call research." He declares that there is "no knowledge derived from revelation." The Ten Commandments of the Old Testament and the two Great Commandments of the New (to love God, and to love one's neighbor as oneself) come, according to Freud, from human experience, not from God. The scientific method, he insists, is our only source of knowledge.

Lewis couldn't disagree more: The scientific method simply cannot answer all questions, cannot possibly be the source of all knowledge. The job of science--a very important and necessary job--is to experiment and observe and report how things behave or react. "But why anything comes to be there at all, and whether there is anything behind the things science observes ... this is not a scientific question."

Lewis argues that the question of whether or not an Intelligence exists beyond the universe can never be answered by the scientific method. Attempts to answer that question are based on philosophical or metaphysical assumptions, not scientific principles. Similarly, we cannot expect science to answer questions concerning the existence of a moral law.

Lewis continues: "We want to know whether the universe simply happens to be what it is for no reason or whether there is a power behind it that makes it what it is." He thinks that one way we could expect this power to show itself would be "inside ourselves as an influence or a command trying to get us to behave in a certain way. And that is just what we do find inside ourselves ... something which is directing the universe and which appears in me as a law urging me to do right and making me feel responsible and uncomfortable when I do wrong."

Lewis cites two sources of evidence for the existence of a Creator: "One is the universe He has made ... the other is that Moral Law which He has put into our minds." The moral law is better evidence because "it is inside information ... you find out more about God from the Moral Law than from the universe in general just as you find out more about a man by listening to his conversation than by looking at a house he has built." Lewis is joined in this opinion by none other than Immanuel Kant, who also pointed to the "moral law within" as a powerful witness to the existence of God.

Freud disagrees with both men. He thinks it "strange" that Kant would use the moral law within men as evidence for God's existence. From his observations of severely depressed patients, Freud concluded that feelings of conscience and guilt come and go.

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