asa1logo.jpg (5657 bytes)                                On Ethics

A World is Not Made to Last Forever:

The Bioethics of C. S. Lewis

Martin LeBar

Visiting Professor
Bryan College
Dayton TN 37321 

From the Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation 35 (June 1983): 104-107.
1983 American Scientific Affiliation

C.S. Lewis (11002 bytes)      C. S. Lewis

This paper is based on three assumptions. The first is that bioethics is important. I define bioethics as: A study of the ethical questions posed by the application of man's knowledge to his own body, and or the ethical questions posed by our relationship to other organisms. In other words, bioethics considers some aspects of the question of man's place in nature.

The second assumption is that the working out of man's place in nature is not merely, or even mostly, a scientific question, but is, in part, a literary one. It is not a literary question in the sense that a search of literary works will provide a definitive answer. However, It is a literary question in the sense that answers we have already produced to this question about our place are built into literature, and that we get answers for the future partly from our literature. Thus, a search of literature for answers to the question illuminates the assumptions and presuppositions of our own present and recent past, and also predicts what presuppositions and assumptions people will have in the future, since the literature of today will shape the minds of tomorrow.

The third assumption is that C. S. Lewis was an important Christian writer.

Based on these three assumptions, I have chosen to examine the writings of Lewis for bioethical insights, overt or implied. His works are particularly appropriate for such an examination for two reasons. The first is that he wrote a considerable amount of material explaining and defending his world-view. The second is that he wrote ten books of fantastic fiction that are especially valuable for gaining insight into his viewpoint, Some kinds of assumptions and presuppositions are closer to the surface in such fiction. For example, there are often alien beings, whose presence means that certain bioethical questions must be dealt with, as they must not in a historical romance. Would there be immediate mutual empathy between humans and aliens, or gradual growth in understanding, or eternal mutual incomprehensibility? What is the difference between being an alien and being a human being? What, if anything, makes a human being unique? How would we treat rational non-humans?

Not only are there alien beings, but also alien landscapes in fantastic literature. Again, the question of our place in nature emerges. Would new worlds and landscapes be harsh and forbidding? Would they bring unearthly joy? What is our relationship to the land, and to non-rational creatures? How do we treat the land, flora and fauna?

Specific Bioethical Questions

First, what does Lewis think makes an entity a person? What organisms are to be afforded the same rights as people? Part of Lewis' answer is given in Out of the Silent Planet.

Ransom, the central figure of the so-called space trilogy, (Out of the Silent Planet. Perelandra. That Hideous Strength) begins those books by going on a walking-tour of rural England. He soon encounters Harry, who is described by his mother as "a little simple." He also encounters Weston and Devine, who clearly do not speak for Lewis. In Weston, Lewis has embodied a philosophy clearly reprehensible to the author. Weston makes the claim that in a civilized country, retardates such as Harry would be automatically given to a laboratory for experimental purposes. Clearly Lewis did not feel that way, and, based on this episode, apparently considered defectives worthy of receiving human rights.

If defectives, what about non-humans? Let us examine Lewis' fictional treatment of non-humans, beginning with Out of the Silent Planet. One important detail of this book is Lewis' use of the word hnau. Although it is not defined, its frequent use suggests its meaning. It appears to coincide with the rational or reasoning. Ransom has any human chauvinism he possesses destroyed by the evident uncertainty of the Hrossa. an alien species, about his own hnnu-ness. Clearly, Lewis was willing to entertain the possibility that there are rational non-humans, and, more important, that they should be afforded the same basic rights as humans. This is obvious not only from his fiction, but from this explicit statement in Mere Christianity: "There may be creatures in other worlds that are more like God than man is..."1

The use of hnau is not the only aspect of Out of the Silent Planet that indicates that Lewis was willing to concede "human" rights to nonhumans. The episode of Ransom's first encounter with an alien, in which he senses kinship and a desire to communicate, also does.

The key portion of the book, Weston's conversation with Oyarsa, the ruling spirit of Mars, through Ransom as interpreter, also indicates this. Lewis uses the device of translation to make the views of Weston seem ridiculous, or even without meaning. One of Weston's views is his version of why he has developed space-travel.

Weston's claim is that he wants to spread human life to other worlds. Oyarsa points out that. in the first place, Weston would have killed a human life (Ransom's) to do this, in the second place, there are other hnau besides humans, and, in the third, humanity would have to become physically changed to adapt to other worlds. Weston's reply is:

If he cannot understand--as apparently you can`t either--anything so fundamental as man's loyalty to humanity, I can't make him understand it.2

Lewis' point is that Weston's view cannot be understood, because it makes no sense. When discussing Out of the Silent Planet. Lewis stated that he wished to combat the "metabiological" heresy, which is:

... the belief that the supreme moral end is the perpetuation of our own species. and that this is to be pursued even if. in the process of being Gutted for survival, our species has to be stripped of all those things for which we value it.3

It should be noted that Lewis recognized the duty to preserve human life.4 However, he did not see that this duty entitled men to destroy other rational creatures wantonly to achieve this end.

As far as I know, Lewis never wrote, or spoke of, his views on killing or exploiting great apes, whales and dolphins. But, based on his fictional presentation of alien rational beings, and on his view of the suffering of non-rational animals, one would expect his view to to have been one of outspoken opposition to exploitation or killing.

Although his treatment of aliens is not unique, Lewis was probably in the minority. Much science fiction written at approximately the same time as the space trilogy assumes that all aliens are enemies, or makes the same point in a subtler way by portraying humans as innately superior to rational aliens.

Did Lewis hold that humans are God-franchised exploiters, or part of a democracy of organisms? Lewis was not only a Christian but a medievalist. He documents his personal view of the medieval state of mind in The Discarded Image. Lewis was aware of, and accepted as authentically medieval, the "Principle of Plenitude" analyzed in A. O. Lovejoy's The Great Chain of Being. Belief in this principle caused the ancients to suppose that the gaps between God and mere inanimate matter were filled with an array of beings of progressively lower rank. The Narnia books, and the space trilogy, show signs of this.

In Out of the Silent Planet, besides humans, there are four coequal species of hnau (one extinct), also eldila, and the Martian Oyarsa. In Perelandra, besides humans, there are eldila, the Venusian Oyarsa, the human-shaped, but not human, Adam and Eve of that planet, the demon inhabiting Weston, apparently intelligent mermen, the inhabitants of underground, and perhaps others.

In the Narnia books, the same tendency is evident. There are humans, witches, giants, fauns, dwarves, satyrs, werewolves, and other mythological creatures, plus many species of rational mammals and birds. Lewis apparently made up some additional beings--the inhabitants of Bism, far underground, the marshwiggles, the monopods, and the people from under the Eastern sea.

What does all of this have to with bioethics? My answer is that it exposes Lewis' idea of man's relationship to non-human nature, Humans are members of a hierarchy. We are higher than the animals (even talking animals) and the fauns. Only Sons of Adam and Daughters of Eve may sit on the throne of Cair Paravel (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe). Talking Badgers and mice do not wear clothes, nor do Talking Apes, except when they are apostate (The Last Battle). But man has responsibilities to these creatures5 Humans are not to eat Talking Stag (The Silver Choir), and are to remember the proper role of Talking Bears, even when they suck their paws (Prince Caspian). Humans are not superior to every entity. The star people, of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, can commit sins that humans cannot imagine. Asian appears as a Lion, not a man.

Again, although he was not writing explicitly of bioethical matters, the view of C. S. Lewis about the role of humans seems clear and consistent with many Christian thinkers: we are to be responsible stewards.

Vivisection and dealing with pain are important and related bioethical issues. The written views of Lewis on vivisection were deemed sufficiently anti-vivisectionist that they were printed by an anti-vivisectionist society.6 The only circumstances under which Lewis was willing to concede even the possibility that surgery on animals to advance human medicine might be morally acceptable were quite carefully circumscribed. The experimenter had to be a Christian who was convinced that humans had a real, and divinely ordained, superiority over animals. The work must be done so as to avoid animal suffering as much as possible, and must be motivated by a desire to preserve the best in human life. Even under these conditions, Lewis was not certain he could approve.7

The most succinct fictional expression of Lewis' views on animal experimentation is in The Magician's Nephew, when Uncle Andrew justifies his use of a guinea pig by stating that he had bought it, and thus he could do anything he wanted to with it. The tone of the passage clearly indicates that Lewis held this attitude in contempt.

As shown by both fictional and non-fictional statements, Lewis held that man inherently has authority over animals. But he held that this authority, even though Divinely given, should be used with great restraint, because in a fallen world it is so likely to be abused.

Pain inflicted on animals by humans was not the only type of animal pain Lewis wrote about. The existence of animal pain was a challenge to his philosophy. He himself was not satisfied with his chapter on animal suffering in The Problem of Pain.8 He did not wish to see animals suffer, and found it difficult to reconcile accidental injury, disease, and predation in animals with his concept of a supremely good creator. Lewis' treatment of The Problem of Pain in humans was much more satisfying to him. Pain is not good, but God allows it because the world is fallen, and because we (unlike animals) can make wrong choices. God uses suffering to bring us to Himself. This is the burden of A Grief Observed. Fictional examples of this include the cleansing of Eustace in Voyage of the Dawn Treader and the scratches administered by Asian in The Horse and His Boy.

A Martian philosopher, basing his perceived philosophy of citizens of this continent on television commercials, might conclude that avoidance of pain was one of our chief ends. Some people's bioethics, or their expectations of what the medical profession should be about, appear to agree. Avoidance of pain is important to us. Lewis didn't like pain any more than any normal person does. But he reminds us over and over again in his philosophical and theological, as well as fictional writing, that pain may be used to make us more Christ-like, and that the world was not designed for our convenience. I can only speculate as to what he might have said about aborting a fetus because it is "subnormal," or shooting someone to put them out of their misery, but the speculation seems based clearly on the expressed beliefs of Lewis. I speculate that he would have been vigorously opposed to either.

As might be expected, since Lewis died nearly twenty years ago, he had little to say on genetic engineering. One passage. however. is directly related:

...what we call man's power over Nature turns out to be a power exercised by some men over other men with Nature as its instrument.

It is, of course, a commonplace to complain that men have hitherto used badly, and against their fellows, the powers that science her given them. But that is not the point I am trying to make. I am not speaking of particular corruptions and abuses which an increase of moral virtue would cure: I am considering what the thing called 'Man's power over Nature' must always and essentially be ... All long-term exercises of power, especially in breeding, must mean the power of earlier generations over later ones.9

It seems clear from this that Lewis would have opposed cloning, sperm banks, and in vitro fertilization, among other things.The preceding quotation leads to the consideration of two final bioethical topics: conservation/prcscrvation and birth control in general.

I am not aware of any coherent statement on conservation per se in any of Lewis' writing. However, the above statement makes it clear that Lewis didn't trust absolutely any of our activity toward nature. Another attitude that is obvious from his fiction is that Lewis liked nature. Fictional passages that show this include the descriptions of the marsh and the caves in The Silver Choir. Ransom's view of the mountains in Out of the Silent Planet, much of Perelandria. and some of the descriptions of mountains in Till We Have Faces. He felt that his liking was based on the best possible example. As he put it: "God never meant man to be a purely spiritual creature ... He likes matter. He invented it."10

Besides liking nature, Lewis was concerned about its destruction. In The Last Battle, the Calormenes fell the Narnian trees, a development that is clearly meant to fill the reader with indignation. In That Hideous Strength, that most repulsive of fictional institutions, N.I.C.E., seems to have the goal of stamping out all organic life:

In us organic life has produced Mind. It has done its work. After that we want no more of it. We do not want the world any longer funned over with organic life, al sprouting and budding and breeding and decaying. We must get rid of it.11

It seems reasonable to assume that Lewis would have had sympathy for preservationists.

The final bioethical question I shall consider, birth control, is linked with preservation in the minds of many. Paul Ehrlich, for example, (The Population Bomb) has argued that one aspect of preservation must be a strong program of human population control. Lewis didn't seem to think so.

Birth control is touched in three ways in That Hideous Strength. First, it is championed by a repulsive character, Filostrato, described as an "Italian eunuch,"12 who succinctly states his opposition to copulation and to organic life itself in the context of the preceding block quote.

Secondly, Merlin, a Christian, roused from his medieval slumber, queries Ransom about the moon. Ransom replies that an accund people, full of pride and lust, dwell there, and rather than using normal sexual relations, couples mate with images of each other, fabricating children by "vile arts." Thirdly, Merlin nearly kills the heroine because she and her husband have not produced a child who would have protected England, being barren of their own will.

I have been able to find only two nonfictional statements by Lewis concerning birth control. When he was asked if he thought venereal disease was to be considered just moral punishment, and if this was why the Church of England did not wish prophylactics to be used, Lewis-is replied that he didn't think the church held that view and that he didn't either.13 He also wrote that "the biological purpose of sex is children."14

Lewis seemed to believe that the fallen state of man may drive us to overpopulate our planet, and perhaps even do the same on others. But, it seems, he would not condone the solution of one evil (the destruction of nature by overpopulation) by what he considered to be another (birth control). As Oyarsa asked Ransom about Weston's scheme: "Does he think Maleldil wants a race to live forever?" and, as Ransom was told: "A world is not made to last forever, much less a race."15 This is reinforced by Lewis' statement, in a sermon, that "Nature is mortal; we shall outlive her."l6

The views of C. S. Lewis on population biology were unsophisticated. His Hrossa maintained an apparently stable population, but seemingly had a maximum of two offspring per couple. His Narnian Dwarfs seemingly maintained themselves with no females at all, and the populations of Talking Animals were usually so small as to be courting extinction. His apparent belief in reproduction as the exclusive biological purpose for sex is certainly questionable. However, Lewis' grasp of eternal verities transcends a shaky grasp of reproductive mathematics, or a controversial or even wrong belief. The burden of the bioethics implicit in Lewis' writing is that this world is good, but that individuals are not made to last forever in it.


1C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Macmillan, 1960) p. 139.

2Lewis. Out of the Silent Planet (New York: Collier Books, 1962) p. 138.

3Walter Hooper, ed. Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1966) p.77.

4Lewis, The Abolition of Man (New York: Macmillan. 1965) pp. 97-100.

5C. S. Lewis,. The Weight of Glory (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970) p. 16.

6Walter Hooper, ed. God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, by C. S. Lewis (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. 1970) p. 16.

7God in the Dock, pp. 221-228.

8God in the Dock, pp. 166-171.

9Abolition, p. 69

10Mere Christianity, p 6.

11C. S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength, (New York: Collier Books, 1962) p. 173.

12That Hideous Strength, p. 70.

13God in the Dock, p. 51.

14Mere Christianity, p. 89.

15Silent Planet, p. 123, p. 100.

16Weight of Glory, p. 13.