I was pleased to find a discussion of value lock-in C.S. Lewis’s Abolition of Man from 1943.

The three lectures of The Abolition of Man argue against subjectivism in education.

The final lecture discusses the long-term consequences of the trend as Lewis sees it. His view is that subjectivism favors conditioning students instead of initiating them into the way. Read more about that here

Lewis’s discussion of lock-in can be understood without reference to his overall argument and purpose.

Here’s the full excerpt:

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…

In order to understand fully what Man’s power over Nature, and therefore the power of some men over other men, really means, we must picture the race extended in time from the date of its emergence to that of its extinction. Each generation exercises power over its successors: and each, in so far as it modifies the environment bequeathed to it and rebels against tradition, resists and limits the power of its predecessors. This modifies the picture which is sometimes painted of a progressive emancipation from tradition and a progressive control of natural processes resulting in a continual increase of human power. In reality, of course, if any one age really attains, by eugenics and scientific education, the power to make its descendants what it pleases, all men who live after it are the patients of that power. They are weaker, not stronger: for though we may have put wonderful machines in their hands we have pre-ordained how they are to use them. And if, as is almost certain, the age which had thus attained maximum power over posterity were also the age most emancipated from tradition, it would be engaged in reducing the power of its predecessors almost as drastically as that of its successors. And we must also remember that, quite apart from this, the later a generation comes — the nearer it lives to that date at which the species becomes extinct—the less power it will have in the forward direction, because its subjects will be so few. There is therefore no question of a power vested in the race as a whole steadily growing as long as the race survives. The last men, far from being the heirs of power, will be of all men most subject to the dead hand of the great planners and conditioners and will themselves exercise least power upon the future. 

The real picture is that of one dominant age—let us suppose the hundredth century A.D.—which resists all previous ages most successfully and dominates all subsequent ages most irresistibly, and thus is the real master of the human species. But then within this master generation (itself an infinitesimal minority of the species) the power will be exercised by a minority smaller still. Man’s conquest of Nature, if the dreams of some scientific planners are realized, means the rule of a few hundreds of men over billions upon billions of men. There neither is nor can be any simple increase of power on Man’s side. Each new power won by man is a power over man as well. Each advance leaves him weaker as well as stronger. In every victory, besides being the general who triumphs, he is also the prisoner who follows the triumphal car. 

I am not yet considering whether the total result of such ambivalent victories is a good thing or a bad. I am only making clear what Man’s conquest of Nature really means and especially that final stage in the conquest, which, perhaps, is not far off. The final stage is come when Man by eugenics, by pre-natal conditioning, and by an education and propaganda based on a perfect applied psychology, has obtained full control over himself. Human nature will be the last part of Nature to surrender to Man. The battle will then be won. We shall have ‘taken the thread of life out of the hand of Clotho’ and be henceforth free to make our species whatever we wish it to be. The battle will indeed be won. But who, precisely, will have won it?


One could formulate the argument as follows:

  1. With each advance in social and biological conditioning technology, a minority gains the power to determine increasing amounts of the future.
  2. If (1), then there’s some level of social and biological technology which would grant a minority the power to determine the entire expected future.
  3. There’s some amount of social and material technological progress which would grant a minority the power to determine the entire expected future.

Of course, one doesn't need to focus the argument on just social and biological conditioning technology, though it's understandable that Lewis did.

This argument is reminiscent of Caplan’s piece on The Totalitarian Threat

After searching the forum, I found this excerpt has partially been footnoted before, but it deserves a top-level post as an interesting piece of history and a good example of someone thinking about important issues in a different social and technological landscape.

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