Friday, October 01, 2010

Doing Good in the Real World

I continue to see atheists attempt to answer the question, "How do we motivate people to do good and to not do evil without appealing to some type of God?" by saying, "We are biologically disposed to be motivated to do good and not do evil."

Which doesn't answer the question.

In fact, it misses answering the question by such a huge margin that it legitimately causes those who ask the question to wonder as to the mental competence of those who provide this answer.

"Well, thank you for that piece of information. You have now demonstrated that you suffer from a complete disconnect from reality."

The reason?

People who are interested in the motivation to do good and avoid doing evil are not interested in in motivating people to do good that we are biologically compelled to perform, or the evil we are biologically incapable of performing.

They are concerned with the very real goods and evils that surround us every day and that can be found in huge quantities by any study of history. They are concerned about the evils that we are clearly biologically capable of committing because we have historical examples of people committing them.

The question is, "How do we motivate people to do good deeds that they are clearly capable of not performing?" and "How do we motivate people to avoid doing those evils that people all to often do to each other?"

The claim is that a God can give the people a motivation to do these goods and avoid these evils and that no other effective method exists.

To answer this question by saying that, "Biology compels us to do good and avoid evil," then gets answered with, "What? You're telling me that slavery, genocide, murder, child rape, spousal abuse, tyranny in all of its ugly forms . . . that none of these things ever happened because biology makes it impossible for humans to do evil?"

Well, clearly, you don't mean that.

However, because you don't mean that, any appeal to the biology of altruism . . .


The question is - the legitimate real-world worry is - how do we prevent these things from happening without appealing to a God?


Travis Morgan said...

People are intrinsically selfish and have an instinct for survival (Which is why many are attracted the idea of a god that gives them everlasting life, it feeds this survival drive). They will ultimately do what they feel is in their best interest. I think what motivates people to do good and to avoid doing bad is based on an evaluated return ration, meaning they will evaluate what is in it for them and try to maximize their return. Reciprocation is what they are looking for, even if it means just getting the "good feeling" from doing something that appears to be altruistic and good even though it isn't truly altruistic. How we motivate people to do good is the same way we motivate them to do anything, you have to give them an incentive, you have to convince them it is in their best interest. People will be motivated with or without god, they will always find some motivation to act, because causality moves us. To motivate people to do god and not do bad we put in place operant conditions, positive and negative reinforcements, punishments, etc… and of course we must ultimately show them it is in their best interest to behave in way that we have deemed acceptable.

Anonymous said...

sooo ... what is the answer ?

Alonzo Fyfe said...


The vast majority of this blog is concerned with "what is the answer?"

If you would like the most recent expression of that answer, you will find it in the podcast:

Morality in the Real world

Brian said...

"How do we motivate people to do good and to not do evil without appealing to some type of God?" is used in several similar sounding arguments that have important differences. For the most common ones, a response giving simple but sweeping biological and sociological facts is the best answer.

The two types are a "noble lie" argument and an inductive argument. A further distinction is how much good from god the questioner sees in society that enables it to reach its present state. The optimistic view is that what we have achieved is without tapping much into the good from god, the pessimistic view is that only such belief enables us to be as good as we are now.

a) noble lie optimist
The least common form of the argument is the one Alonzo discusses to the exclusion of the other forms. He is technically correct about the inadequacy of a biologically based response to it. This is a "noble lie" form of argument in that it argues not that god is true, but that a belief in him is necessary to reach the optimal morality humans can achieve, even if the belief is false. The person making this argument sees society as currently predominantly lacking in important elements of that morality. No false beliefs about sociology/biology are necessarily maintained; it is merely asserted that godlessness and/or degenerate religiosity of the present can be best improved with good religion.

b) noble lie pessimist
Most common, in my experience, is the "noble lie" argument that sees civilization as tenuous, with morality corresponding basically one-to-one with belief in god at most. This view imagines that without any belief in God, the world would be a dystopian chaos. People presenting this argument are likely to believe many false things about the nature of both science and atheism because this view can't survive knowledge of Scandinavia's secularism and prosperity, "altruism" among bonobos, etc.

The response "We are biologically disposed to be motivated to do good and not do evil," twisted into a ridiculous straw man "Biology compels us to do good and avoid evil," is obviously inadequate even for this type of argument. However, a similar argument along biological/sociological lines provides facts that can't be reconciled with the theory of the questioner and is often the best response here.


Brian said...


c) noble lie hybrid
If a person combines the "noble lie" arguments and says that a) the best potentially widely accepted morality involves belief in god and b) without religion mankind would be savages, a biological/sociological response is appropriate to the extent the second argument is invoked on false premises.
a) inductive pessimist
More sophisticated is the inductive argument from the necessity of god. Unlike the "noble lie" argument, it argues directly that a god exists from sociological evidence. The argument is that materialism alone, along with everything we know about science, evolution, etc., predicts that all people should be sociopaths, and is baffled (or should be) that this is not the case. Furthermore, even non-belief does not lead to such negative behavior, but only because humans are infused with a "divine spark" or soul. This protects premise protects the argument from much sociological evidence and makes it harder to falsify.

This is a valid argument that only fails because it rests on false premises. That is why a biological/sociological response devastates it. "Biology compels us to do *much* good and avoid *much* evil," is something that should be advanced and will be contested. The answer also includes, "How we *do* motivate people to do good deeds that they are clearly capable of not performing," and "How we *do* motivate people to avoid doing those evils that people all to often do to each other"-already, naturally, and without conscious effort, and most importantly why this is exactly what we should expect of soulless creatures.

b) inductive optimist
In practice, the inductive argument from god's necessity takes the pessimistic point of view. The inductive argument from necessity could work with the more positive view of mankind, i.e. that we see saints who could never have been such wonderful people if not for the support of a true god.

I have never encountered this argument absent unsubstantiated miracle stories that in any case are themselves stronger evidence than the nature of the person in the miracle story.

In sum, a biologically oriented response is appropriate for all arguments from necessity relying upon false beliefs about the nature of the world. These include both the "noble lie" and inductive pessimistic arguments, including hybrids that contain them as components.

Anonymous said...

You say:

>I continue to see atheists attempt to answer the question, "How do we motivate people to do good and to not do evil without appealing to some type of God?" by saying, "We are biologically disposed to be motivated to do good and not do evil." Which doesn't answer the question.

Can you give an example of that exchange? I don't often see the “how do we motivate people” question asked.

Rather, I much more often see the “how do we explain good deeds in terms of biology and evolution?” question. (For example, here is a recent iteration of that question and answer.)

If the question is about “why, in fact, do people behave as they do?” then answers from evolutionary psychology and evolutionary biology etc. are entirely appropriate.

If you have an example elsewhere of the quite separate question of how we could consciously motivate certain behaviours, I'd like to see it.

Brian said...

First, I badly punted the definition of inductive in my previous posts. Sorry about that. If anyone can come up with a good name for this type of argument that would be great.

Thanks Anonymous for an example of argument 2)a).


"We will be best off if people believe in god. Therefore, let us induce belief." -Natural science is not sufficient to address this.

"We would be sociopaths if not for belief in god. Therefore, let us induce belief." -Natural science proves the premise wrong.

"We would be sociopaths if not for a divine soul. Therefore, there is a god." -Natural science proves the premise wrong unless the soul is equated with mundane, low level biological functions and unless (when) other animals are arbitrarily distinguished from humans.

"The altruism of some can only be explained by their divine soul. Therefore, there is a god." -Natural science may or may not prove the premise wrong, depending on the example used.

Anonymous said...

Here you go, Anonymous: Billy Graham: Atheists have no reason to be moral

Melissa said...

I'm not hugely versed in all the philosophical reasoning used in the comments so far...and really I think everyone is complicating a simple situation. As an atheist I think the way to motivate people to do good without god is simple. Most people just want to live out their lives in a safe environment. Therefore people should be motivated to do good and not evil on the basis that good conduct and actions are good for society as a whole, and thus them as well. There's the rationale of, "well, if I just think it's ok to go rob & kill someone, then they might think it's ok to do it to me - right, nobody kill anyone!", and also, "if I am good then people will like me and be good to me in return". Basically I think the un-godly motivation of doing good revolves around creating a reasonably safe and predictable social structure to live and raise children in. I think "good" itself is just whatever establishes and maintains a safe and happy society for individuals. Even some animals can pretty much do that without god, eg meerkats, chimps etc, so why wouldn't humans be able to do it?

Anonymous said...

Kip, thanks for the link.

The article you linked to doesn't address the question that Alonzo is claiming has been so ill-treated.

Rather, the author (Dianna Narciso) takes a question asked about “why do people, in fact, do good?” That calls for an *explanation* of observed behaviour, not a discussion of how to change it. And that's what the author gave; it would be silly to complain that the author didn't answer the question.

The exchange I'm not seeing is the one Alonzo complains of:

* Person asks “how can we *change* behaviour so that people who were not already avoiding evil or doing good will begin?”

* Atheist responds as though the request was to explain people already doing good.

In the absence of examples of that exchange being widespread, I don't see what Alonzo is complaining about.

Henri Dangerfield said...

I don't think it is the duty of the atheist to provide a philosophical basis from which people can draw the desire to do good. That is the duty of the individual. I, as more or less an atheist, don't seek to replace religion but rather to dissolve its deep grasp on society.

That being said, I think existentialism offers some empowering points.

But the truth is that we're just little particles in the universe, and for us to think that there is some intrinsic and specific human quality we have that makes us good (excluding some evolutionary functions, which are essentially morally arbitrary) is more than hopelessly idealistic.

Jeffrey A. Myers said...

The origins of morality are doubtless biological, but the ongoing evolution of morality and moral behavior are doubtless less biological or physical and tend towards more sociological origins.

Clearly organisms with helpless young, like most chimps and humans, have an inherent biological tendency to form more complex social behaviors out of the need to protect and raise helpless young than animals with young that do not require any sort of parenting. Given the fact that humans are forced to live in groups for survival, the formation of rudimentary social mores is easily attributable to biology.

More complex moral formulations, those relating to good and evil are more questions of sociological development than biological development. Those societies that functioned best are likely those with the greatest amount of internal social cohesion, so moral attitudes and norms that facilitated greater group cohesion likely win out over the long term.

Despite some hiccups, those morals that enabled societies to function best eventually replaced those that did not. In recent years (the last several hundred) as oppressed peoples grew unhappy and militant, decreasing social cohesion. In response, sometimes violently, societies reevaluated their prior codes of ethics, and we began to enter an era in which freedom was itself seen as a virtuous characteristic. Indeed, if one views the entire span of human history, it is remarkable NOT that we have men and women who behave immorally, but the fact that as a whole, our society is more moral than at any point in human history.

We no longer tolerate many of the evils that were utterly commonplace in the ancient world - slavery, public executions, torture, genocide. The fact that such things still occur is viewed not with approbation, but with disgust.

It is worth noting that modern human societies are moral in ways that our ancient forebearers could not have possibly dreamed of. What is even more noteworthy is the fact that the MOST moral societies on Earth, those that give the most, those with the lowest crime rates, those who are least likely to engage in aggression, with the lowest prison populations, with the highest literacy, life expectancy and education rates are virtually uniformly the LEAST religious states on Earth. Conversely, the MOST religious countries on Earth are those riddled with the most civil unrest, the most strive, the highest crime rates, the most violence, the highest poverty and hunger rates, the lowest education and literacy rates and the lowest levels of personal freedom.

Clearly God does not EQUAL morality either. I believe the question is less HOW to motivate people to do good rather than evil. Indeed, in the aggregate, we seem to do so as a matter of sociological evolution. It is WHY do those who profess to believe in a Divine Arbiter of Morality act in a less moral fashion than those who do not.

Anonymous said...

I disagree about people being biologically motivated to do good. Rapists who get away with it (even for a limited timespan, like -say- a year) are evolutionary success stories.

I have no doubt that us males have (at least in a small part) a genetic predisposition for rape (maybe only in certain limited circumstances, but it is there nonetheless).

Unknown said...

I appreciate the idea that we can do good in a world without God. Unfortunately who actually does that? Do you know of anyone right now that is doing good? Name anyone in history that does good without having some form of evil motive mixed in, whether it be pride, selfish ambition, etc. Somebody please!!

Enoughie said...

My simple answer to the question "why should we be good without God?" is: if we're not good we're being destructive (to ourselves, our community, our city, or our world)

For a more complex answer, I wrote this post: "Why should We Be Good? : Salvation and Paradise"