Advice Goddess Blog
« Previous | Home | Next »

The Big Thumb
Many who believe, without evidence, in god, defend their beliefs with a number of silly arguments; for example, the notion that without this irrational belief, the world would descend into a hotbed of crime. Heather Mac Donald clears a few things up:

It may be the case that what prevents most people from running red lights at 5 A.M. or stealing from their neighbor is the fear of hell. That is an empirical question. But I bet that another reason why most people in Western cultures obey the law is that they fear anarchy and realize that if they start taking the law into their own hands, everyone else might as well. We all operate with an innate broken windows theory. Most of the cultures where anarchy reigns are even more religious than ours. What they lack is not the fear of God but the many traditions of civil society, including a respect for rule of the law, a stigma against corruption, and a conception of society beyond tribe and family.

Can you really call yourself moral for behaving well out of fear of going to hell -- or should you just call yourself extremely self-interested?

Posted by aalkon at August 21, 2006 10:26 AM

Trackback Pings

TrackBack URL for this entry:
http://www.advicegoddess.com/mt4/mt-tb.cgi/1607

Comments

Can you really call yourself moral for behaving well out of fear of going to hell -- or should you just call yourself extremely self-interested?


Good question. I've been wondering in a simplistic way whether anyone would do "good" if there were absolutely no prospect of a reward. (Simplistic = idle speculation, not reading an ethics book to see if anyone has already been there.)


In fact would anyone do anything at all if there were absolutely no prospect of a reward of any kind? Kind of hard to find a counter example, because a reward could include just a feeling of satisfaction that you had done whatever it was, and that would be difficult to prevent. Perhaps severe clinical depression is the state of not having even an internal reward.


Mark Twain's "What is Man?" covers some of this ground.

Posted by: Norman at August 21, 2006 1:17 AM

At the evolutionary psychology preconference in Palm Springs this Spring, Randolph Nesse from University of Michigan called depression "low mood," and deemed it "adaptive." He explained it as a reaction against frustration. If you keep going at a task where you fail, time and time again, you're going to use up precious energy and resources. Depression slows you down and makes you stop behaving futilely. Here's Nesse's book, Why We Get Sick:

http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/redirect?link_code=as2&path=ASIN/0679746749&tag=advicegoddess-20&camp=1789&creative=9325

Moreover, there's evidence we have built in "morals" -- cheater detection, reciprocal altruism, and more, that allowed us to live within our small Pleistocene hunter-gatherer bands.

Unfortunately, we, as in the royal we, can't say more right now, because we're on deadline and up past our bedtime.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at August 21, 2006 1:32 AM

All morality at its core involves self-interest. That's really the only way it can perpetuate. That self-interest can be material gain, psychological gain, or evolutionary gain, or it can be avoidance of some bad, whether losing money, going to jail, or just feelng bad about yourself.

Personally, I'm wary of certain religious bases of morality, because they're so loose (disclosure: I'm Roman Catholic). Some of the "cheap Grace" Christianity running around isn't very inspiring: Jesus died for our sins, so let's make it worth his sacrifice! The very real consequences of jailtime, fines, or possessions taken away have more of an impact than the Jesus-speak in the churches, as Jesus is going to love you no matter what you do, but the judge isn't going to stop sending you to jail.

Posted by: meep at August 21, 2006 3:43 AM

From what I've seen of depression, I would be surprised if it had any silver lining. Nesse's explanation reminds me of an incident I saw as a student. A student had climbed on to a railing. His trousers got caught and he fell on his head. When he came to, he had no memory of the incident and kept asking us to describe what had happened. My friends explained this by saying that the experience was so awful that his brain had deleted it. My explanation, that his brain was a delicate instrument that had been knocked about and wasn't fully functional, did not have the same appeal. People like to think everything that happens is part of a plan, whether God's or Nature's. I don't think that's so, and I'm not convinced that depression is a good thing in disguise. I think it's simpler to see it as a malfunction of some kind.


Regarding morals: from an evolutionary point of view, morals make sense for social animals. No problem there. But if all morality has a core of self-interest, where does that leave religion which espouses self-denial? Is the putative self-denial of Christianity (better to give than receive, etc) all a sham?

Posted by: Norman at August 21, 2006 7:22 AM

Actually, there is a plan - it's survival of the gene. We have very old psychology, and in an evolutionary environment, it would be fatal to pursue a frustrating course of action.

Religion is the irrational following of a leader -- which may also have made sense in evolutionary times. There's work on this, but I haven't read much of it.

We seem to have built-in modules for cheater detection and we would have felt positively toward people who acted in the group or others' interest. In a Pleistocene environment, unpopularity could be deadly - ie, being thrown out of the group and made to go it alone. Those who were cooperators, or clever enough to disguise themselves as cooperators were more desirable as group members, and less likely to be thrown off the island, so to speak. Gotta go write!

Posted by: Amy Alkon at August 21, 2006 7:43 AM

"Can you really call yourself moral for behaving well out of fear of going to hell -- or should you just call yourself extremely self-interested?"

"Good question. I've been wondering in a simplistic way whether anyone would do "good" if there were absolutely no prospect of a reward."

I think that people obey the law probably because they don't want to get fined or go to jail, and that they are charitable and civil because it makes them feel good about themselves. This is self-interest, yes?

Posted by: Lena at August 21, 2006 7:54 AM

Very much so.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at August 21, 2006 3:46 PM

Many who believe, without evidence, in god, defend their beliefs with a number of silly arguments; for example, the notion that without this irrational belief, the world would descend into a hotbed of crime.

All who believe in god without evidence can only defend the position with silly arguments. However, those who believe with evidence, even if it's subjective? ...their arguments aren’t necessarily silly.

Posted by: Ken Shultz at August 21, 2006 6:11 PM

I say "without evidence" to emphasize that there is no evidence of god, not because anybody has come up with any.

Feeling there is a god isn't evidence.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at August 21, 2006 6:37 PM

When someone applies the principles of his religion to the world around him and finds that they provide wisdom, and that person finds a way of life better than what he's found elsewhere--that is evidence. ...Not conclusive, not objective, but evidence nonetheless.

I maintain too that if someone finds that when he's in some kind of emotional pain, for instance, and he prays for peace and finds relief over and over again throughout his life, that this too is not conclusive, not objective evidence.

You may not find the evidence persuasive, but that doesn't mean there isn't any evidence.

There are millions of reasonable people in this world--I believe the overwhelming majority are agnostic. I suspect that most of the agnostics in this country, believe it or not, self-identify as Christian. They profess belief, but they're riddled with doubt. ...always testing their hypothesis against the world around them. ...checking it against the evidence.

I'll concede that most of the irrational people are probably religious.

Posted by: Ken Shultz at August 22, 2006 11:28 AM

You don't have to justify your religion-just accept that it is not logical, and don't try to force it on other people. It's just a feeling and your hooked on a feeling!

Posted by: Canada at August 22, 2006 1:14 PM

Leave a comment