Moral Motivation and God's Rewards

The connections between religion and morality may be less secure than presumed.

Posted Apr 19, 2015

A Thought Experiment

Consider two scenarios.  In the first, Tom is walking down the sidewalk to work when he hears gunshots and sees a car speeding out of the parking lot of the bank up ahead and coming in his direction.  He stares at the car speeding by and readily notes its make, color, and license plate.  He also gets a brief but unobstructed view of one of the occupants.  Tom works at the store across the street from the bank and realizes that he had previously handled some minor transactions with this bank robber, whom he presumes had really been in the store so that he could inconspicuously observe the bank’s layout and security measures.  When he sees the police at the bank a few minutes after the robbery, Tom goes across the street to share with the investigators what he knows. 

The second scenario is exactly like the first, except for one detail.  Unlike Tom, Harry (our salesperson pedestrian in this second scenario), decides not to volunteer any information to the police, that is, until he learns the next day that the bank is offering a $10,000 reward to anyone providing information that leads to the robbers’ apprehension.  With hopes of getting the reward, Harry goes to the police and tells them what he knows. 

Religious versus Secular Moralities

People often differ about exactly what is morally obligatory or blameworthy, and, no doubt, people’s judgments about these two scenarios will exhibit some variability.  Still, regardless of either people’s moral orientations or what they take to be the foundations of those orientations (whether religious or secular), the bet is that most people’s moral intuitions will tilt in favor of Tom’s conduct over Harry’s.  Regardless of whether people judge that providing information to the police in this case is morally obligatory or recommended or supererogatory (that is, good-but-not-required) or that failing to do so is morally allowable or problematic or wrong, overall most will judge that Tom has acted comparatively better than Harry.  The sticking point is probably the fact that Harry’s forthrightness turns on the prospect of him receiving a reward.

Again, the bet is that substantial majorities of religious and non-religious people will concur about this.  This, in itself, is interesting.  But the more pressing point for now is that critics of religious conceptions of morality and of moral motivation, in particular, stress that the modes of proceeding, which such religious conceptions encourage, resemble Harry’s scenario more than they do Tom’s.  Which, in short, is better -- to do the better thing because it is better or to do the better thing because of the gods’ promises of cosmic rewards (be it heaven, paradise, nirvana, etc.)? 

The psychological prominence of such reward-based moral motivation for religious people may go some way toward explaining their skepticism about the morality of atheists.  After all, atheists cannot be expecting any cosmic rewards.  Thus, those who subscribe to reward-based moral motivation would conclude that atheists have no motivation to be moral. 

Classical Formulations

That the ancient Greek philosopher, Plato, raised a related concern in the fourth century BCE in his dialogue, Euthyphro, is evidence that such criticisms do not turn on any features of the world religions that dominate contemporary religious markets.  Cutting to the heart of the philosophical issue at stake, Plato’s Socrates asks his interlocutor, Euthyphro, whether the gods approve what is right because it is right or whether what is right is right because the gods approve it. 

These are exceedingly brief sketches of two normative arguments that philosophers have traditionally posed for thinking that morality is not necessarily connected with religion.  Both also suggest that humans’ moral sensibilities stand on grounds that are more philosophically and psychologically fundamental than anything religious.  The comparison of the two scenarios turns on moral intuitions that appear widespread in human populations, regardless of people’s religious proclivities.  The Platonic argument suggests that, at least upon reflection, if not intuitively as well, human beings have means for ascertaining what is right, independently of any appeals to the gods. 

Cognitive scientists of religion have argued for the psychological fundamentality of morality on a variety of independent grounds, which I will explore in subsequent posts in the coming weeks.