C.S. Lewis’ Meditation in a Toolshed on the Sacredness of Life

August 27, 2014

In the year 1945 AD, law was dead. It was dead in the same sense that God was dead: It had never existed. It had all been an illusion. Only gullible people and religious zealots believed in legal obligation, duties, rights, customs, and rules.

A half century before, in 1897, the great American jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. had dissolved the illusion in a lecture titled, The Path of the Law. Holmes had insisted that to know the law one “must look at it as a bad man, who cares only for the material consequences which such knowledge enables him to predict, not as a good one, who finds his reasons for conduct… in the vaguer sanctions of conscience.”

Viewing law from this external, scientific perspective, one can see that there really is no such thing as law. The Bad Man has no obligation to honor his promises, or to pay his taxes, or to refrain from stealing another’s property. He simply has a choice between either obeying the command of the sovereign or paying the consequences. If it is less costly to disobey the sovereign and pay the consequences then that is what he will do.

Holmes thus untrammeled the Bad Man from the bonds of law. His restraints dissolved, the Bad Man captured the most powerful institutions in American society and acted out the convictions of social Darwinism. Under the euphemism of “social hygiene,” he implemented programs of forced sterilization, abortion, and euthanasia. Our nation had earlier experimented with human beings as property. But this was at least equally unjust: an attack upon the inviolability of human life itself.

In 1927, Holmes, then an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, ratified these eugenics programs in Buck v. Bell, a rigged legal challenge to the forced sterilization of a young woman named Carrie Buck. In upholding the program Holmes wrote, “It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind.” Holmes ended his opinion with the infamous rhetorical flourish, “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”

News of these shameful assaults upon human dignity found their way to Germany, where the Bad Man turned eugenics into a national industry. Nazi atrocities shocked the world, and the world regretted the death of law. So in 1945, just 18 years after Holmes’ decision in Buck v. Bell, prominent lawyers tried to bring law back from the dead, both in practical action and in theoretical inquiry.

In practical action, Robert Jackson and Benjamin Kaplan went off to Nuremberg to prosecute Nazi officials for war crimes. On this side of the Atlantic, many (but not all) states quietly dismantled their eugenics programs and strengthened legal prohibitions against assisted suicide and euthanasia.

That same year, 1945, a lawyer was appointed to the faculty of Oxford University who would revitalize the study of law. He set to work on a book that would make it not only acceptable to believe in law but actually imperative. The lawyer was H.L.A. Hart; the book, published sixteen years later, was The Concept of Law.

Hart’s foundational insight was a mechanism that he called the internal point of view. Hart observed that one who wants really to understand law must look at law not only from the external perspective of the scientist who observes the actions of the Bad Man and their consequences, but also must view law from the internal point of view of the law-abiding person, who accepts and uses law as a guide to her own choice and action. The businessman performs his contract because he made a promise. The lawmaker votes against a eugenics bill because she has taken an oath to uphold and defend the Constitution.

Adopting the perspective of these people enables the scholar to view law as law, and therefore to think and act as if law is possible. Hart’s work thus founded a reinvigorated movement in Anglo-American jurisprudence. But Hart was not the first scholar to note the significant potential of the internal point of view. He was not even the first scholar at Oxford to do so. In 1945, when law was still dead—the same year that Hart began his career at Oxford and sixteen years before the publication of The Concept of Law—an essay appeared in the Coventry Evening Telegraph under the title, Meditation in a Toolshed. It read in part,

I was standing today in the dark toolshed. The sun was shining outside and through the crack at the top of the door there came a sunbeam. From where I stood that beam of light, with the specks of dust floating in it, was the most striking thing in the place. Everything else was almost pitch-black. … Then I moved, so that the beam fell on my eyes. Instantly the whole previous picture vanished. I saw no toolshed, and (above all) no beam. Instead I saw, framed in the irregular cranny at the top of the door, green leaves moving on the branches of a tree outside and beyond that, 90 odd million miles away, the sun. Looking along the beam, and looking at the beam are very different experiences.

The essayist perceived the important implications of this insight. Observing that “[y]ou get one experience of a thing when you look along it and another when you look at it,” he wondered, “Which is the ‘true’ or ‘valid’ experience?” He lamented that “for the last fifty years or so… [t]he people who look at things have had it all their own way; the people who look along things have simply been brow-beaten.”

It has even come to be taken for granted that the external account of a thing somehow refutes or “debunks” the account given from inside. “All these moral ideals which look so transcendental and beautiful from inside”, says the wiseacre, “are really only a mass of biological instincts and inherited taboos.” And no one plays the game the other way round by replying, “If you will only step inside, the things that look to you like instincts and taboos will suddenly reveal their real and transcendental nature.”

The essayist was C.S. Lewis.

Hart’s insight, which is really Lewis’ insight, has important implications for medical law today. Reports of the demise of the eugenics movement were greatly exaggerated. Assisted suicide is legal in some American states, and nonvoluntary euthanasia and infanticide are standard practices in European nations.

Other eugenic practices have also re-entered American jurisprudence; the Bad Man is once again on the move. In 2012 a state court in Massachusetts issued a decision that is evocative of Buck v. Bell, ordering a young woman to undergo a forced abortion and sterilization against her express wishes. After having an earlier abortion, the woman had suffered a “psychotic break,” becoming agitated about the abortion and lamenting that she had “killed her baby.” When she later became pregnant again, her parents got themselves appointed guardians and obtained a court order which the Massachusetts Appeals Court later described this way: “The judge ordered that Moe’s parents be appointed as co-guardians and that Moe could be ‘coaxed, bribed, or even enticed … by ruse’ into a hospital where she would be sedated and an abortion performed.” The Appeals Court reversed the sterilization order on procedural grounds but, astonishingly, remanded the case for further hearings on the evidentiary basis for the forced abortion order.

Why have eugenics returned? Why do some human beings today not enjoy the equal protection of the law? I suggest it is because we look at life from the wrong perspective. The inviolability-of-life principle, long a cornerstone of law and bioethics but now under serious threat, supposes that life is an intrinsically valuable good. Looking along a life from the internal point of view of the person living it, life, much like a beam of light through a keyhole, is transparent for the ends toward which it is directed, goals and commitments that supply life’s instrumental value. One can also step outside the beam to view life from the internal perspective of another human being, who perceives its intrinsic and unique beauty.

To see the full worth of each member of the human family one must view each life from both directions. At the beginning of life, the beam has not yet projected itself into space and time, and can thus elude observation. The corrective here is to look along the life of the newly existent being and to recognise the capacities for future, distinctly human, actions and experiences, which are already present in the very young human being. The tendency at the end of life is to defer to the internal point of view of the patient who, suffering from physical, mental, or emotional anguish, sees no point to it all. This person needs the external perspective of others, whose view is not obstructed by pain and depression.  Looking at the patient one sees a human being with intrinsic worth. By considering the internal perspectives of both patients and those who encounter them, we might correct many misunderstandings about the important role that law and ethics play in protecting the equal dignity of all human beings.

This essay is adapted from a presentation delivered at a celebration of the life and works of C.S. Lewis on November 21, 2013, which was co-sponsored by the Auburn Montgomery Department of English and Philosophy and the Huntingdon College Department of Religion.

Adam J. Macleod

Adam MacLeod is an Associate Professor at Faulkner Law, where he has taught since 2007.  During the 2012-2013 academic year, he was a visiting fellow in the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University, and since 2014 he has taught private law theory in the Witherspoon … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24