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.


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