This year, I have read an awful lot of books by Jack Vance, Gene Wolfe and CS Lewis. This has caused me to reflect on the nature of morality and how we conceptualise it.
Wolfe, being a Catholic, wrote fiction that was infused with a commitment to the notion of natural right, which here I will use, in the Straussian sense, to refer to the notion that there are objectively good ways for human beings to live, that these derive from an underlying metaphysics, and that there are hence morally better or worse modes of life - both at the individual and societal levels.
The Book of the New Sun, which I reread this year after having first encountered it probably 20 or more years ago, encapsulates this commitment. Some people think of Severian as an analogy for Christ, but this never passed the sniff test for me first time around, and I was gratified to read somewhere that Wolfe himself also dismissed the idea. Severian is not an analogy for Christ but for a christian, in the same manner as John Bunyan's pilgrim: his tale is one of gradual spiritual and moral growth and redemption. He begins steeped in a morally degraded culture, and over the course of the four books very slowly finds his way - through what can only be attributed to divine grace - not only to the discovery that his culture is morally degraded, but to a position in which he can attempt to change both it and himself for the better. This is basically the christian story, as I understand it at least: humankind's redemption through grace, and its slow discovery of how to be better in light of God's revelation.
The point, to put it in a more spoilerish way, is that Severian begins as a torturer but comes ultimately to achieve empathy - albeit very imperfectly - and indeed to abolish torture. He slowly discovers, and effects, a better morality. And this happens not from the application of his own reason or intrinsic goodness but through the intervention of grace - at certain moments that I think will be evident to anybody who has read the novels and reflects on them.
(Wolfe's genius of course is that one doesn't have to be a christian to appreciate the books, whose essential premise is: here's a set of incredibly dense and symbolic novels that you could spend a lifetime unpicking, but if that's not your cup of tea, how about all this virtuoso prose, these peerless feats of imagination and a side of horrible monsters?)
Lewis's That Hideous Strength echoes the same themes as The Book of the New Sun in a more explicit way. In one of the more important sequences in the book our antihero, Mark, finds himself being forced to undergo a series of apparently arbitrary and puerile mental exercises designed to achieve absolute objectivity and hence the ability to apply pure reason. The aim of this, of course, is to be in a position to put traditional morality or conceits about natural right before what Oakeshott calls the 'tribunal of the intellect', and cast it all aside when it is inevitably found wanting. The novel's punchline - again, to get a little spoilerish - is that such a state can be attained only through utter relativism and the absolute dissolution of meaning itself: meaning only comes from living in such a way that God intended, and the application of human reason alone to the task of constructing a fresh morality in practice ends in nihilism of the most extreme kind - a war of all against all in which it is just the loudest voices that win.
This is elucidated for us in Vance's very different approach to the question of metaphysics. In Vance's fiction, particularly the Gaean Reach novels, we find a universe in which there is no concept of natural right, either explicit or implicit - the people in that universe do not believe in it, and nor (apparently) does the author. What exists instead is innumerable cultures whose moral codes and laws rest on mere circumstance; they happen to have developed in the manner in which they have because that is what the history and evolution of those societies has produced in the millennia of their separation from Earth. The endless variety that results is one of the great charms of the Gaean Reach books, and nobody in their right mind would have them any other way, of course, but there is no denying that it is the result of an essentially relativistic understanding of morality. No culture can objectively be said to be "better" or "worse" - they are all simply different (and indeed a persistent theme in Vance's fiction is that they all seem to have malevolence simmering either right at the surface or somewhere deep within).
This means that Vance is basically a Nietzschean, although I'm not sure he would have described himself in those terms. Since there is no underlying metaphysics upon which morality rests, and it is simply a product of evolution, it can be made subject to human reason, and if an individual human being has sufficient will and vitality he can apply his reason to constructing a moral code of his own. This is indeed what Vance's heroes almost inevitably do, albeit generally unconsciously. The trouble, though, is that the number of individuals who actually do have the will and vitality to achieve this task is very few, and what ends up happening for the mass of human beings is that the moral code which they end up following is simply imposed upon them by those who shout the loudest. When there is no notion of natural right, embodied in a tradition, to draw from, everything is up for grabs in moral terms, and a struggle emerges which is settled only by (literal or metaphorical) force. The result is societies dominated by the moral codes of the victors of such struggles - and laws and customs tending to be harsh, capricious and without any capacity for self-critique. This describes most of Vance's cultures aptly.
Whether Wolfe and Lewis or Vance is correct about how the universe and its underlying morality (or lack of it) is arranged is a question I leave for you to answer.