Why should we be good?

April 4, 2007 at 5:45 am 23 comments

This post is partly in response to a comment I read asking why agnostic atheists should aim to love, be compassionate and what you might call general goodness. One of the things I miss about being a Christian is the motivation I had to be good (for now, let’s assume that goodness includes love, mercy, compassion, kindness, generosity, etc.). However, now that I’m an agnostic atheist, I find myself questioning why I should be good even though I still do my best to be so.

So, why do I bother? Why don’t I selfishly ignore the needs of others in an ongoing quest to promote my own personal happiness? I think for me, it’s because in helping others I do promote my own happiness. When I give money to charity, I no longer do it because I believe Jesus said I should, I do it because I’ve realised that it makes me feel good. In a simplistic way, when I hear stories of starving children, I feel sad, therefore to make myself feel happy again, I give money to the charity in the hope that I have contributed to giving those children a better life. This makes me happy.

If you think about it, all our actions are to selfishly add to our own happiness, otherwise we wouldn’t do it. So the reason I continue to be good is that it makes me feel happy. When I act compassionately, I find people respond in the same way and ultimately my own life improves, and I find that the energy I initially invested to be good has been worth it. I realise that this is a slightly harsh and unromantic way of explaining the reason for human goodness, but I believe it to be true.

ButterfliesSo, why do we bother to be good to each other? Why does it make us feel good? I think it’s all down to good old evolution and survival of the fittest. We are all biologically programmed to want to continue the human race for as long as possible and to increase it as much as possible. Therefore, we do not want other people to be ill as this decreases their chances of survival and their death would mean a decrease in numbers of the human race. Therefore, we do our best to make them well again whether this requires actually being there and looking after them or giving money to charity. In other words, the biological method of making us do things that are good for us is making us happy therefore being good promotes our happiness.

- Mary

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If Christians are wrong, they have everything to lose! 10 Commandments

23 Comments Add your own

  • 1. mysteryofiniquity  |  April 4, 2007 at 7:05 am

    Well said, Mary!! I found that as a Christian I had a very dim view of humanity. After all, we are taught that humankind is fallen and cannot redeem itself without the help of deity. Therefore, if humanity is so fallen, I expected them to act their worst towards me and everyone else. It was self-fulfilling prophecy, especially during morning and evening commute! :-)

    Now, I realize that such a dim view of humanity perpetuates injustice and lack of compassion and there is no reason to help people, except to try to get them “saved” if only God is capable of changing human hearts. Now that I no longer believe in humankind’s innate sinfulness, I am free to act compassionately in hopes that this spurs compassion in others. I understand that they are waiting for it to come to them just as much as I am. Ultimately, it’s a rationally selfish motive for improving the world. There’s nothing wrong with that. :-)

  • 2. Doris Tracey  |  April 4, 2007 at 7:29 am

    You shouldn’t force yourself to be good it should be naturally within us. Your right Mary the action of goodness is enlightened self interest.

  • 3. agnosticatheist  |  April 4, 2007 at 7:39 am

    Mary,

    My struggle centered on the schizophrenia of Christianity. On one hand, Jesus said to be compassionate then on the other hand he (and those after him) encouraged followers to be mean and nasty. There are those, like you, who used Christianity as a motivation to be good. However, there are those who use it to be intolerant, condescending, and just plain mean.

    I think the humanist view of compassion (whether or not the root is in selfishness or survival of our species), is a more consistent and reliable motivation.

    aA

  • 4. mysteryofiniquity  |  April 4, 2007 at 8:27 am

    Doris,
    You shouldn’t have to force yourself to be good, no, but when others kill your spirit at an early age, are cruel to you, beat you, and tell you that you are a piece of shit every day of your life, then it’s easy to see that humanity is fallen and easy to fall for Christianity’s message. If it comes naturally to us, I didn’t know it. It takes great effort for me to see that other human beings have good natures innately and that others began where I must have once begun. I’m still working on my nature and I’m still trying to think well of people. It ain’t easy. People with good upbringings don’t understand the cruelty and harm humans do to other humans and everybody’s got a quick solution, but quick solutions are usually poor substitutes for lifetimes of learning.

  • 5. amandalaine  |  April 4, 2007 at 9:14 am

    I like your blog a lot – it is very thought provoking.

    “We are all biologically programmed to want to continue the human race for as long as possible and to increase it as much as possible.” Why do you think we’re programmed to do anything? It seems that I have no direct or rational cause to make me want to continue living. If I don’t want to continue living, or see value of life for anyone, I may be “happier” killing other people and/or myself.

  • 6. Wolterkabolter  |  April 4, 2007 at 11:34 am

    “This post is partly in response to a comment I read asking why agnostic atheists should aim to love, be compassionate and what you might call general goodness. ”

    Thanks for the response, I feel honoured!

    A few remarks: the implications of your suggestions that you are ‘acting moral’ just because it makes you feel good, which is result of evolutionary process are far reaching. It makes me wonder why you blame conservative christians to be ‘immoral’. It thát is what makes thém feel good?

    About the evolutionary argumentation: I did not find any satisfactory theory about the development of the universal moral disposition of humankind. What would seem logical is that people would act morally for their close family or clan, but till now it is inexplicable why this disposition is so universal. Dawkins would say it is a ‘mistake’ of the evolutionary process.

    As I see it, the broad moral framework on which we are relying now in let’s say, the western, christian, enlighted culture does not sound logical outside a theistic woldview. Nietzsche was the first one who realised which enormous implications the death of God would have, especially on morality. He offered an alternative, which in my view is not very attractive. There are other’s, like MacIntyre who suggests to ‘return’ to an Aristotelian-Thomistic virtue ethics.

    (I am sorry for my poor english…I feel a bit disabled)

  • 7. marymyk  |  April 5, 2007 at 4:52 am

    amandalaine: Perhaps ‘programmed’ makes us sound too much like robots, we are highly intelligent beings and therefore are able to weigh up a number of variables when deciding to live or die. I think the motivation to continue living is simply to contribute to the human race, I see your point that if a person cannot see any reason or benefit to life he/she may consider suicide and/or murder and this is often what happens for people with depression. I know this isn’t a very good answer to your comment, but my theory is only very loosely formed, so I’m a bit confused myself!

    Wolterkabolter: Firstly, you’re welcome, it was an interesting question. I don’t actually blame Christians whether conservative or otherwise for being ‘immoral’. In fact I can see that their motivation to be moral is similar to an atheist’s, in being ‘good’ they feel that they are obeying God and this make’s them feel happy and therefore they continue to be good. However I do think that the atheist’s motivation for goodness is more direct and it could be argued ‘purer’ than a theist’s because they do good good’s sake if you see what I mean, they want to do good for goodness alone rather than because someone else told them to.

    I accept that the motivation to act morally for family and friends is stronger however I do not see why humans should not also wish that human kind as a whole should continue and therefore we have a motivation to care for all the human race.

    As for the broad moral framework that we have in western civilisation, I accept that most of it comes from a Judeo-Christian set of rules and therefore many moral laws are cultural but most people’s aversion to things like murder and rape are so strong, even from an early age that it must also be from something within us and I believe that it is the desire to protect humanity as a whole.

  • 8. epiphanist  |  April 5, 2007 at 5:11 am

    Forgiveness requires practice, patience and discipline.

  • 9. Wolterkabolter  |  April 5, 2007 at 5:11 am

    Thanks for the comment. My point is actually that from an evolutionairy atheists point of view, morality doesn’t make any sense:

    Evolutionairy: it is inexplicable why we are inherited with a universal moral disposition. Maybe we as humans now wish that human race should continue, but that is not an evolutionairy explanation.

    Atheistic: if you admit most of our moral framework comes from a theistic judeo-christian worlview, than this moral standard does not make any sense outside of that worldview. This is the actual point made by Nietzsche in for example his Genealogy of Morals. What is the meaning of ‘good’ if you don’ believe in an universal standard?

  • 10. Wolterkabolter  |  April 5, 2007 at 5:18 am

    P.s.: this is not an attempt to give an apology of the christian faith. Of course, also the christian worldview has many rational problems with morality (just think about the Euyphro Dilemma).
    I just wonder how on earth morality makes sense to an atheist, and if not, why they are blaming conservative christians to be ‘immoral’?

  • 11. marymyk  |  April 5, 2007 at 6:01 am

    Wolterkabolter: I think it depends on how you look at morality as to whether it is inexplicable or not. For example, murdering your children is universally considered immoral but you can see the scientific reason behind this, scientists agree that we all want to continue our own blood line, clearly killing your own children is directly preventing this, therefore we ‘feel’ it is wrong and we call this feeling a sense of morality.

    This is why I think a lot (but not all) of the Judeo-Christian view of morality does make sense to atheists because the Judeo-Christian morality itself originated in that instinctive ‘feeling’ that all humans have, religious or not. Therefore Christians and atheists alike can sympathise with “Do not murder”. Therefore, there is a meaning to the word ‘good’ as there is a universal standard and it is our wish to preserve human life, any action that contributes to that goal is I believe, universally considered ‘good’.

  • 12. Atheist Observer  |  April 5, 2007 at 1:29 pm

    Wolterkabolter wrote: Atheistic: if you admit most of our moral framework comes from a theistic judeo-christian worlview, than this moral standard does not make any sense outside of that worldview.
    I utterly reject any significant part, let alone most, of our moral framework comes from a theistic judeo-christian worldview. Virtually all the general applicable principles of what we consider morality pre-date the development of judeo-christian theism, and are found as readily in other societies as our own.
    Only a sociopath or psychopath can truly find no reason to act morally either internally or externally.
    We didn’t decide the world is a better place to live in if people act morally because some god told us so. We invented a god and put those instructions in his mouth because we already knew it was true.
    The positive results of people treating people the way they want to be treated is evident both personally and generally utterly irrespective of it’s supposed utterance by some Jew named Jesus.

  • 13. Lenoxus  |  April 7, 2007 at 9:17 pm

    I would add that to tie morality and religion so tightly together, and declare that you cannot have the first without the second, is to do a disservice to morality, saying, in a sense, that it doesn’t really exist in its own right, or that it doesn’t quite “matter” when it occurs in a non-religious context.

    Meanwhile, does altruism make perfect sense in an evolutionary model? Maybe not, but since when was natural selection an ethical command? The reason to do good is because other people’s thoughts and feelings matter; occasionally, bridging that gap is a sort of defiance of our own genes — but that shouldn’t bring us down too much. We haven’t had to depend on evolution to correct for our deficiencies for several thousand years now. Instead, we have culture and society, aspects of life into which religion is certainly closely tied but not absolutely necessary.

    Anyway, keep up the good work, people!

  • 14. nicks  |  April 12, 2007 at 1:48 am

    nice one…very informative

  • [...] Hood impulse” in human nature to do good? Do you agree with Mary’s blog, “Why should we be good?” where she attributes our goodness “to good old evolution and survival of the [...]

  • 16. William H  |  March 14, 2008 at 4:05 am

    “We are all biologically programmed to want to continue the human race for as long as possible and to increase it as much as possible. ”

    Richard Dawkins argued in his famous book “The Selfish Gene” that human are merely a survival machine for our Genes.

    Yes, Christians hate the idea that we’re merely the result of our genetic programming. But to some large extent, it is true.

    “I’m not related to monkeys, it is up to you if you want to believe that you are” is the most common response I got from my devoutly Christians family members.

    But I’d like to believe in what is true, not to believe in something that has no basic in fact (i.e. the world is created in 7 days), just to make me feel better.

    Contrary to your statement, we are not programmed to be good. Yes, there are evolutionary benefits for society who acts kindly towards their kin – namely they tend to survive and pass on their genes to the next generation.

    But for human being to do good, it takes our intelligence and free will to overcome our genetic programming that only cares about breeding and survival.

    We are the only animal (yes, we’re part of the animal kingdom) that has the intelligence, and therefore the ability to refute our genetical programming.

    To say we need God to act decently and do the right thing is an insult to any self respecting, educated intelligent being.

  • 17. E. Wilson  |  April 24, 2009 at 9:55 am

    As a calvinist Christian I can only say the idea of wanting a purposeless existence to have ‘value’ ( is moral distinctions, goodv evil) strikes me as the height of contradiction.
    In a universe where personal existence has no significance ( it just happened to be/ just is) then you destroy the foundations of all morality. ‘Good’ becomes an utterly subjective, capricious thing.
    Now I do not mind the atheist who cheerfully will then consistently live this out but I object strongly to them if they then get on their high moral horse over certain issues. Philosophers call this ‘the naturalistic fallacy’ and you gotta live with it in mind- in an impersonal universe you cannot get ‘ought’ from ‘is’!!

  • 18. E. Wilson  |  April 24, 2009 at 10:02 am

    William- if you ever read this thread again, I’d only say that your blithe rejection of creation ex nihlo as ‘no basis n fact’ is a biased reading of the evidence. Evolution is just as much a FAITH assumption based on refusal to accept a personal God who speaks, communicates, instructs. Naturally as a consequence you will rule out reading the ‘evidence’ in line with a Creator’s description. The alternative inevitably will need to read the evidence in an evolutionary way- unless you hold every single complex living thing just happened instantaneously into existence by chance!!

  • 19. BigHouse  |  April 24, 2009 at 10:28 am

    E. Wilson:

    of creation ex nihlo as ‘no basis n fact’ is a biased reading of the evidence.

    Would you care to offer up the evidence of 7 day creation?

    Evolution is just as much a FAITH assumption based on refusal to accept a personal God who speaks, communicates, instructs.

    Not even close. And you must be super smart if you can divine the intentions of motivations of people you read exerpts from on a message board.

    as a consequence you will rule out reading the ‘evidence’ in line with a Creator’s description.

    Biases are natural and human, but what you write here is equally true of the Christians who treat evolutionary evidence this way. At least I can honestly say I am trying to minimize my biases in my analysis, can you say the same thing?

    The alternative inevitably will need to read the evidence in an evolutionary way- unless you hold every single complex living thing just happened instantaneously into existence by chance!!

    This is an odd ending for you post. Who holds this position?

  • 20. LeoPardus  |  April 24, 2009 at 3:39 pm

    the idea of wanting a purposeless existence to have ‘value’ ( is moral distinctions, good v evil) strikes me as the height of contradiction.

    I can see why. And in frank honesty, existence does not have an intrinsic purpose or value. We create or assign it.

    In a universe where personal existence has no significance ( it just happened to be/ just is) then you destroy the foundations of all morality. ‘Good’ becomes an utterly subjective, capricious thing.

    You are completely correct. That’s why morals are so changeable, subjective, and capricious. We all have to make it up as we go along.

    I object strongly to them if they then get on their high moral horse over certain issues.

    I’m inclined to agree. When one admits that one is creating value (i.e., that value is not intrinsic) then one ought to remain on lower horses.

    in an impersonal universe you cannot get ‘ought’ from ‘is’!!

    I think you’re largely right on this. And I also understand the view that if you have a personal, creator deity, you could look to that deity for a purpose, for value, for “ought”. The idea that “the maker provides the meaning” makes sense and was a guiding ideology for me, and most of the de-converts here, for much of my life.

    Here’s what I ran up against though. We don’t and can’t know what this maker is like or what morals he would have us adapt. Sure you can point to a holy book and say, “This is what the maker says.” But then which book do you point to? And having picked a book, which interpretation do you pick? And having picked that, how the dickens do you justify excluding all others?

    You should be aware that through history and throughout the world today, you can find just about everything held up as “moral” and “god-ordained”. For you or I to sit in our current time and country and church, and insist that we have it all worked out and can say who was wrong and right in all places at all time…. well that’s a pretty high horse isn’t it?

  • 21. ashok  |  April 20, 2011 at 1:55 pm

    In Hinduism there is an explanation. Being good is not the goal. But realizing that we are the divine infinite is the goal. So, both good and bad deeds are simply chains that prevent us from such realization. But good deeds are better than bad deeds because that makes us forget ourselves (ego- ‘I’ consciousness) in the long run. Infinite means total connectivity. That is why we are happy when others are happy and feel sad when others are sad. So, by doing good to others I am doing good to my self (forgetting the false ‘I’) ;and by doing bad to others I am in fact doing bad to myself (binding myself thinking myself as the ‘I’ body consciousness). So good deeds act only as a means and not the end.

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Whether or not you believe in God, you should live your life with love, kindness, compassion, mercy and tolerance while trying to make the world a better place. If there is no God, you have lost nothing and will have made a positive impact on those around you. If there is a benevolent God reviewing your life, you will be judged on your actions and not just on your ability to blindly believe in creeds- when there is a significant lack of evidence on how to define God or if he/she even exists.

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