Lewis’s book ‘The Abolition of Man’, of all his books that I’ve read, has proved to be the most interesting to me, not necessarily because of its content (which is brilliant) but because of how Lewis engages with his topic, which is moral relativism – keeping this in mind, I’m going to focus on the form of his argument as opposed to the content here.
Lewis adopts a tactic that is, by all appearances, without academic integrity. His target is moral relativism, yet he doesn’t cite a single contemporary proponent of moral relativism. He doesn’t merely refrain from attacking easy targets, which any responsible philosopher should do – he refrains from attacking any target at all, easy or difficult. There’s no survey of the literature, no discussion of various religions in relation to moral philosophy, no engagement with the pragmatists, nothing. Instead, he singles out a single school textbook on the subject of reading and writing that was sent to him free of charge in exchange for a review.
Why does he go about it in this way? Why not go after the big, well-read, sophisticated schools of thought? I suspect that Lewis realized that relatively few people are actually influenced by such schools of thought – the ivory tower. Sure, some people are – but Lewis’s target, after reading through the book, becomes clear: it’s not bad philosophy, or philosophy he disagrees with, it’s bad popular philosophy. The dumbed-down kind of things one hears such as ‘Einstein proved it’s all relative, man’. This dumbed down pop moral philosophy is Lewis’s target.
Now, is it legitimate to attack popular philosophy, ignoring the sophisticated ideas of the ivory tower? One could think of the arguments of the new-atheists – a standard rebuttal is that the arguments concern a dumbed-down conception of god, and not (to give one example) the god of classical theism. Well, that may be true – but is it invalid? Lewis used, it could be argued, popular philosophy to launch a deep, powerful critique of positivism/scientism’s ethics – and his argument was anything but dumbed down.
So the question is, I suppose, is there an obligation to engage only ivory-tower positions, or can popular conceptions be engaged as a springboard to larger and deeper arguments that do, in fact, pertain to the ivory-tower positions? Another question: what’s the relation of ivory-tower positions to popular viewpoints? At what point does one get to say, ‘well, you’re just attacking an unsophisticated conception of X’?