In a book called Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis (I’m not religious, but Mere Christianity is an amazingly well-written book that is arguably more philosophical than religious), he talks about something called “the Moral Law.” Lewis states that we all have instincts: the instinct to run, to help others, to kill, etc. He then asks an interesting question - what is it that helps us judge between our instincts? He argues that it’s something called “the Moral Law,” and all humans are born with it. He gives an example:
“Supposing you hear a cry for help from a man in danger. You will probably feel two desires—one a desire to give help (due to your herd instinct), the other a desire to keep out of danger (due to the instinct for self-preservation). But you will find inside you, in addition to these two impulses, a third thing which tells you that you ought to follow the impulse to help, and suppress the impulse to run away. Now this thing that judges between two instincts, that decides which should be encouraged, cannot itself be either of them. You might as well say that the sheet of music which tells you, at a given moment, to play one note on the piano and not another, is itself one of the notes on the keyboard. The Moral Law tells us the tune we have to play: our instincts are merely the keys.” - C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity
“The Moral Law tells us the tune we have to play: our instincts are merely the keys.”
In 2014, I traveled with a friend to Slovenia and we were in Lake Bled. I was in a row boat and my silly friend decided he wanted to swim to the castle in the middle of the lake. Not even five minutes in to the swim, he started to drown. Two instincts surged through me as I was on the boat: the first was fear. Fear that if I jumped in to save him I would down too. The second emotion was the fear that my friend would drown. First let me say that I am not a great swimmer, and so, I naturally hesitated jumping in, which you can’t blame me for. But nonethless, I jumped into the water and with a ton of luck, managed to get him back to the boat.
I still remember the feeling that I felt before jumping into the water: a gnawing feeling telling me to jump. It’s the same feeling that I have when I’m not fulfilling my potential (each person’s idea of potential is different) - which is what the Moral Law tells me I should do.
I think a lot of people can relate and often times refers to this feeling as existential anxiety. The same “Moral Law” that tells us to help people in need also tells us that we should do things and create and when we don’t, it bugs us. (I’m not going to define what it means to create, that’s something that each person should define themselves.)