Saturday, August 23, 2008

Motivators for morality

After a previous post, which compared moral development to an exercise program, I read a very interesting essay by a guy named Michael Dayah which did the same thing, from a slightly different perspective. You can find it here. I went ahead and read a couple more of his essays, and they seem very interesting and thoughtful, so I have added a link to a feed of his essays to the sidebar on this blog (a long while ago, actually - this essay was written several weeks before it was published because I decided to start spreading out my work so I don't spend so much time at it each week). You do have to watch very carefully for his biases when you're reading, though, as some things can seem reasonable which aren't when you think more carefully. Keep your eyes open for blanket statements without support. :)

His basic idea was this: Studies into how internal vs. external motivation work have something to say about our motivation to be moral people. Now, his argument appears to come from a pro-atheist viewpoint, and his other essays do cross over into sneering-at-religion territory at times, but the thought process is still interesting.

First, let's define our terms. Internal motivation is the kind of motivation an artist gets from creating something beautiful, or I tend to get when I solve a particularly tricky programming problem. How he relates this to exercise was to say that most of us start an exercise program because it feels good. Anyone who has gone on and off an exercise program can attest to this. There are some endorphins released during exercise that are quite nice.

External motivation is something given to us as a tangible reward. Some people go to work because they like their jobs (internal motivation, likee me most times) but many go to work because they're paid (external motivation, like me sometimes). So for example, (parents will like this one) a child might help out around the house because he/she wants to be helpful and wants to do what the adults are doing (internal motivation). Or he/she might do so because you've agreed to give him/her a quarter for making the bed each day (my mom did this, but it was more about teaching me about money than anything else). Thing is, once someone comes to expect external reward, the internal motivation dies. You take away that quarter, and the child no longer wants to help with the housework in the way they did before. You start seeing external results from your exercise program, displacing your internal motivation, and then the external results slow down, and you become demotivated and quit.

Dayah's argument is that the same concept can be applied to doing good in the world - either you get some internal satisfaction out of it, or you believe there will be an external reward or punishment (heaven or hell) based on your behaviour in life. He says that atheists commit significantly less than their share of crime (without citing any sources) but he can understand how externally-motivated religious people would think that without the motivation of heaven or hell, society would collapse. He argues that for those externally motivated people, this is true, and he expresses concern that studies have shown that in children once you displace the internal motivation with an external one, if you remove the external motivation, the internal one doesn't come back. This scares him because he wonders what happens with people whose main motivation for doing good is wanting to get into heaven and avoid hell, but who for one reason or another lose their belief in heaven or hell, and therefore have no motivation to be good at all. So he views religion as sort of an "amoral person factory", displacing our natural internal motivation and then (when we eventually come to our senses and drop religion - remember, he's pro-atheist) letting people loose on the world with no moral structure. I can't help thinking that this would cause atheists (many of whom were formerly religious) to commit a greater share of crime than average... So his assertion about the goodness of atheists doesn't really support the argument he's trying to make, although it might get a thumbs up from an atheist-dominated audience for his work.

Now, it seems to me that the number of people whose sole motivation for goodness is external is probably pretty small. A lot smaller than this guy seems to think. And I'll lose my motivation for exercise for a while, and it will eventually come back, so I reject the idea that once internal motivation is gone, it's gone for good. But he makes a valid point that in those few cases where someone is solely externally motivated, there is a danger if the external motivator gets removed. It would be the same with a criminal whose only motivation not to commit crimes is fear of going to prison. If you remove the police, those type of people will cause a lot of damage. And I suppose it is legitimate to say that for people whose main motivation towards good relates to heaven and hell, if they lose their belief in those things, they will go through a dangerous time when they are morally lost. But eventually I think their internal moral motivation will reassert itself. Dayah ends his essay by asking how we can help externally-motivated people to reestablish interal motivation. I think if I was a parent I would have some examples of how this could be done, aside from just waiting around for it to happen naturally. Would any parents out there like to share some ideas? And question for the religious: what's your guess at the number of people who are mainly externally motivated, and/or think that without the idea of heaven or hell, society will probably collapse?

Update: Very soon after publishing this post, I got a message on Facebook from Michael Dayah. He thanked me for pointing out the inconsistency between his statistics and his theory, and said he appreciated that I read his work "for what is written, rather than what [you] want it to say". Open-mindedness is rare, I guess. So, in my turn, I'd like to give him a thumbs up for open-mindedness and responding gracefully to what some would have taken as criticism.


JackieD said...

Setting up religion as an external motivator is a straw man. These days very few Christians follow their religion simply out of fear of hell or for the promise of heaven. They follow it because they believe that it is the truth, the way the universe works. A religious person's joy in following his religion is no different than the child's joy in helping around the house. There are often external motivators that come along with the internal (praise from others, community status, etc.) but any faith based on those external motivators melts away when they fail, and is generally recognized as faulty to begin with.

Myron said...

I'm not so sure. Do you have a survey or anything that conflicts with the one Kevin posted up earlier? (here)

According to that survey, 73% of protestants say they believe in hell, and 60% of Catholics. Do you personally? I can't see believing in hell and yet not being afraid of it. And while it may be true for a lot of Christians that their motivation is primarily internal, I can't say that of the 60-70% that believe in hell, "very few" of them would do things based on fear.


JackieD said...

I don't have any competing surveys right now, I'll take a look later and see what I can dig up. My immediate thougt though is that believing in hell and using it as the sole motivator for your religion are two different things.

The survey also mentioned that 70% believe there is more than one religion that can lead to eternal life. (I'm assuming that means eternal life in heaven and not one of the less pleasant alternatives) That means that they haven't picked their religion because they fear damnation lies down every other route. Many Christians believe that it is by no means impossible for atheists to make it to heaven (again, I don't have stats on this, only personal experience).

Myron said...

The survey also mentioned that 70% believe there is more than one religion that can lead to eternal life. (I'm assuming that means eternal life in heaven and not one of the less pleasant alternatives) That means that they haven't picked their religion because they fear damnation lies down every other route.

That is an excellent point. For the record, I would agree with you that using heaven and hell as your sole motivator for morality is probably only done in a small number of cases (I said "Now, it seems to me that the number of people whose sole motivation for goodness is external is probably pretty small" right in my blog post). But that's an opinion that's pretty well unfounded speculation on my part, because I'm not involved with the Christian community. I'm glad to hear you agree with me, but I wouldn't personally be willing to disregard the argument of someone who doesn't as a straw man, in the absence of a survey or something which supported that conclusion.

That said, let's not confuse following a religion with being moral. (Stay with me here, my line of argument isn't going to be as offensive as that last sentence probably sounds :) )

I would say (speculation, of course) that most of those people who believe there are multiple ways to heaven would still say that in order to earn an afterlife reward, you have to "be a good person" in some way. So even if they don't define their religion as the only way into heaven, those who believe in heaven probably think you need to be good to get there, and those who believe in hell think you don't get sent there unless you're bad. So saying 70% of people believe there are multiple ways to eternal life doesn't remove the possibility that beliefs about what will happen in that afterlife could motivate someone to act morally.