In which Changing The World is Its Own Reward

Filed under: Reflections — Tags: , , , , — halbyrd @ 10:15

I’ve been seriously thinking over the question of spirituality and morality; namely, does having the latter require the former? David Malki, over at Wondermark, has put up a series of rather talky web comics over the past few days that has helped to crystallize my thoughts on the matter. You can have a look over here, or just look at the reproduction of the thread below:

Now personally, I don’t agree with this position. I’m an agnostic atheist; i.e. I don’t believe there is a God–mainly due to lack of conclusive, verifiable evidence–and I’m not sure that we can even meaningfully talk about a being that exists outside of space-time altogether. That said, there are the seeds of some good ideas in here:

“…there is no Heaven, no Judgement. Your time on Earth is all you get. You better make the most of it.”

This is one of the things I believe, and I believe that this attitude, coupled with a functioning sense of personal responsibility, has done more to motivate works of great good in this world than any promises of a reward in the hereafter. After all, if there’s one thing people have a problem with, it’s delayed gratification. How can anyone expect a promise of a reward in the next life to motivate people when you can’t motivate the average shareholder to look past the next quarter’s earnings?

If we’re going to motivate people to make the world a better place, we need to be emphasizing the personal and collective benefits of those altruistic actions. You don’t fight unemployment and underemployment because it gives you warm fuzzy feelings, you fight it because making everyone a productive member of society reduces the tax burden on us all; you do it because giving people legitimate ways to succeed cuts out the huge portion of crime motivated by sheer desperation. The reward for making the world a better place to live in is that the world is a better place to live in. Promising spiritually-flavored warm fuzzies is superfluous at best, and as some behaviorists are starting to realize, may actually be counterproductive.

“…’Doing God’s will’ is no longer an excuse for hurting others.”

I don’t think I need to explain why this is a good idea, but I have some related thoughts. It’s my position that the people who curse and hate and kill ‘in the name of God’ are just as irresponsible as the nihilists who say ‘if there is no God, no punishment waiting for me after death, then screw the rules, I’m gonna get mine and screw everybody else!’ For some, ‘it will be as God wills’ or ‘it’s all going according to His plan’ are ways of accepting that the world is ultimately out of their control; these people are fine. What’s problematic is that for far too many, those same sentiments are used as justification for selfishness, callousness, cowardice, and any number of other manifestations of the abdication of responsibility both great and petty.

For a child, the threat of punishment is often enough to keep them from doing wrong. It works because the child makes a basic risk-reward comparison, and decides that avoiding the threatened punishment is more important to them than the perceived reward of the bad thing they were going to do. When you become an adult, however, you move from a pain-avoidance motivated sense of morality to one that is guided by your own internal sense of right and wrong. I don’t avoid rape, theft and murder because I’m afraid of the consequences if I get caught and prosecuted; I avoid them because my own internal moral sense tells me that these things are wrong and repugnant. I didn’t develop this moral sense out of any fear of divine punishment, I developed it from an innate sense of empathy. I don’t want people violating me sexually, taking my things, or killing me; and it’s not fair to expect others to refrain from those actions if I don’t afford them the same courtesy.

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you; likewise do not do unto others that which you would not have them do to you. This is the core of my morality, and it is also the core of my altruism. It is simple, robust, and functions with or without any external system of reward and punishment. It is this basic fusion of empathy and reason that forms the basis of all moral codes, whether religious or secular in flavor. This is how adults think; if we’re going to progress as a species, we need to focus less on adolescent games of I’m-right-and-you’re-not, and focus more on getting people to grow up.



  1. Interesting comments. However, I will point out that historically it is those that live for a world not of this one that have been the greatest improvers of this world. To reference a few big names there is William Wilberforce in England for one. In America there are the abolitionists, the women’s rights movement led by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, Jane Adams, and Martin Luther King Jr.and the civil rights movement, which was a major effort by the Christian Left. Not to mention India has the example of Ghandi and this ignores the numerous Muslim and Buddhist people who took stands against darkness in this world. This summary ignores the dozens of additional leaders underneath these heavyweights who were striving day in and day out to create a better world and were led by a religious zeal. One of the slogans of reformers throughout the 19th and early 20th century was “for Christ and His Kingdom.” Now I am not saying that atheists or agnostics weren’t members of these movements, clearly they were given history and played key roles. However, Progressivism in key parts of history and in America especially has been typically predicated on a certain religious zeal coupled with a sense of bettering the world. Anyone who reads Locke’s letter of toleration realizes how much that philosopher-theologian did to end the religious wars and violence plaguing Europe. This leaves out the fact that many people on the ground trying to improve society in gilded age America such as child labor laws, prison reform, and mental health facility reform were predicated on a progressive religious sentiment which back then culminated in Prohibition which only goes to show that even the most well meaning people make mistakes in policy because the results are not understood fully until they happen. This of course leaves out the numerous advances by those living for another world wrought in the Renaissance such as the invention of hospitals for one. Even today it is well known in sociological circles that studies show that religious believers give more than double a percentage of their income to charity than seculars in America after controlling for tithes to a local church. Therefore, given the weight of history I would disagree strongly with your first thesis that living for a world not of this one is not effective in making the world a better place. Instead paradoxically it is those who think of themselves as strangers in this world trying to make it conform to a heavenly standard through their good works and convictions who seem to most often leave the greatest impact.

    Of course for your second thesis I cannot agree more that violence in the name of one’s faith is abhorrent. Any religion that has in the past condoned violence in self righteous fury bears a black mark that must be apologized for. Such should be the fact Christians must always understand and be sad over the fact such things as the Crusades and Spanish inquisition were done in their name and the name of their Lord. But I believe you leave out a key part of the issue also addressed by history. That is violence for self righteous and evangelistic causes is hardly the purview of the religious alone. Lenin and Stalin slaughtered tens of millions of people in a kind of secular fundamentalism trying to make the world a better place through a benevolent atheistic regime. The same can be said of Mao who may have killed more people than Stalin on his way to power in China. This also ignores the major terrorists of the 19th century: the anarchists. Lastly although Hitler probably believed in some sort of Teutonic God who was racist towards non Germans and wanted the thousand year Reich. Many other Fascists never predicated their violence on religious means instead forming a kind of authoritarian religion worshiping the state including many Nazis, Franco’s Spain, and Mussolini’s Italy. This is of course not to say that religion’s have not perpetrated violence for their beliefs but instead that the slaughter of innocents for one’s beliefs whether secular or religious is common in the past to many worldviews of religious or secular stripe. Thus I hope here to expand your argument that we should never hurt, maim, and kill for reasons that have to do with intellectual or cultural homogeneity of beliefs.

    All that said having been a maltheist at one point in my life I admire the tenacity of the fictional character to do good even in the face of impossible odds and a true cosmic horror story. My maltheism tended towards the cynical whereas the character’s is more optimistic. Now there could be an argument about whether eliminating pain by eliminating the creation, and with it life that suffers for no good reason, or trying to reduce pain to spite the malevolent deity was the greater good. I came to the former stance because I saw no need to subject people to horrible pain, suffering, and incalculable evil out of spite to an evil deity, because I could not tolerate a world filled with fools who clung to belief in an imaginary friend who was really an evil bastard out to hurt them, and looking back because doing daily good acts seemed to be more about making myself happy than fixing the world. But I do admire the ability of anyone in the real world with that worldview to do acts of benevolence in the face of infinite darkness as I think we all should.

    Comment by lathaine — 2012-03-02 @ 16:38

    • Holy wall of text, Batman! Did your Enter key break or something?

      That said, I think you missed the main thrust of my argument. Namely: that true morality proceeds from empathy, not a list of rules written down by a temple scribe however many hundreds of years ago.

      That many of the progressive reformers were religious is as much a product of the culture they lived in as anything else. I would argue that we as a society are evolving beyond the need for such crutches, and that the people who cling most fervently to it are the ones who are farthest from rational empathy.

      Regarding Stalin and his ilk; yes, they were anti-religious. I’m not arguing that being areligious by itself makes you a good person; you still need that core of morality and rational judgement. Extremists, of whatever stripe, are always going to do more harm than good.

      The point is not to say “God is bad, let’s all be atheists.” The point is that there are quite a few people who need to stop using religious dogma as a substitute for growing up and learning to think like a rational adult.

      Comment by halbyrd — 2012-03-02 @ 16:53

      • Well simply doing things because an authority told you to do so can be problematic of course. However, in the case of Christianity for instance I would argue, along with a great deal of others, that empathy is what is commanded of people to strive for. The very statement “love your neighbor as yourself” can be taken as a moral injunction from an authority that determines your actions or can be understood instead as the advice of a teacher trying to get people to empathize with their neighbor otherwise how could one love them as them-self and understand what that truly means? Empathy is required to follow even the most basic of Christian ethical points. Thus I would not at all disagree with you that empathy is key to ethics but to say it is the core requires strong evidence and I have seen no solid evidentiary arguments to limit the key of morality to empathy. What of other important aspects of what we do such as moral obligations, social obligations, or societal socialization as some examples? Your idea seems flawed in its current form due to its minimalism.

        Lastly, to say that we have grown beyond religion as a source of ethics is a very absolutist statement and an extraordinary claim and thus I want strong arguments and in this case preferably social science to show that such a claim is anything more than opinion. I have seen plenty of sociological evidence to the contrary of your thesis and I can recommend at least one book which would hurt it: the Death of Character by sociologist James Davison Hunter and Who Really Cares: The Surprising Truth About Compasionate Conservatism Who Gives, Who Doesn’t, and Why It Matters by social scientist Arthur C. Brooks.

        Comment by lathaine — 2012-03-02 @ 17:22

  2. I appreciated your sharing your thoughts through this blog. Since we know each other well, I know you will not be surprised to hear that I hold different views than you. At the same time I look forward to continuing this dialog with you.

    You stated you do not believe that God exists due to lack of evidence. – I see evidence of God’s existence each time I look through my macro camera lens. There is a whole world that cannot been seen with the regular eye. This world I have photographed is one of order, color, shapes and lines. It is often exquisitely beautiful. There is no way this “just happened”. There has to be a master creator. In Romans 1:20 (yes, I will quote the Bible as a reference, because it is an authoritative source for me as a God believer), :”For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities-eternal power and divine nature-have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.”

    The web comics above do not reflect the character of God as mentioned in the Bible or what I have experienced in my personal relationship with him.
    What is God’s character?
    He is holy – worthy of worship.
    He is just – note there is a difference in justice and our human concept of fairness.
    He is loving, compassionate and generous.
    He cannot lie.
    He is all wise.
    He is all these things and much more – all the time. As humans we may sometimes be some of these things, but never all of them, and certainly not all the time.

    When one says that doing God’s will is their reason for harming someone else, it would be wise to research what the Bible actually says. If what the person says doesn’t match the Bible, it would cause me to doubt their understanding or character, not God’s. Reading a verse in context is crucial. Without a grasp of the context, one can twist and manipulate the content to justify almost anything. The real question is whether one is really seeking God’s truth or justifying one’s actions or agenda.

    You mentioned fear of punishment or rewards to come in the future. Those are not necessarily bad things. We are all to some extent motivated by these two. Are these my main motivations to follow God’s principles? No. God’s principles/laws were given for both our protection from harm and the opportunity to experience his abundant provisions. Because of a personal relationship with him, I want to honor and please him in response to the great love He has shown me. (Do I always do this? Certainly not. I am a human, I am not God.) Love is a stronger motivator than fear in this relationship.

    “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” is found in the gospel of Matthew, chapter 7, verse 12. I would encourage you to read Matthew 5, 6 and 7. In this you would see the full context of the “golden rule” mentioned in Matthew 7:12.

    Looking forward to our next dialog.

    Comment by stephaniehalstead — 2012-03-11 @ 00:16

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