Religion, motivation, and moral obligation

By Brittany Cody

Not long ago, a friend asked me why a person who doesn't believe in God (or at least not in a Judeo-Christian God) might be motivated to do good things. That is, she wanted to know why a person, having no selfish reason for doing so, would choose to do the right thing.

To me, the answer was plainly obvious: because you should.

Individuals have an obligation to perform those actions that are morally correct, and such an obligation should not be dependent on his or her spiritual beliefs (or lack thereof).

Last week, I found myself taking part m a discussion about altruism (the practice of individuals performing unselfish acts that benefit others and have either neutral or detrimental effects on the acting individual).

The discussion revealed that many, perhaps even most, of the 40 or so people in attendance did not believe people perform completely altruistic acts. This is tantamount to saying that people are purely selfish creatures. Looking only after their own interests.

If an individual were to convince themselves that people are not capable of performing altruistic actions, it seems evident that they themselves must never have performed even one such action.

I find this to be more than a little worrisome. Just imagine living in a world in which people never performed good deeds simply because there is nothing in it for them.

Perhaps an example would better illustrate my point.

Let's say you have a four-year-old child with cancer who will die without a bone marrow transplant and no one among your family or friends is a donor match.

Your child's life now depends on a perfect stranger going through a relatively painful procedure for no other reason than because they wanted to help someone else. In a world consisting only of selfish people, your child would die simply because nobody was willing to suffer the pain and discomfort that would have been necessary to save your child.

There is the possibility that a theist would perform such a good deed expecting no earthly reciprocation while still anticipating a sort of compensation (in that it may help them get to heaven or reap some other reward in the afterlife).

This really isn't altruism since. it would still be a selfish act, but I imagine many theists would say that as long as you’re doing the right thing, it doesn’t matter.

I have yet to decide whether or not I believe ones motives for performing a morally correct action are relevant so long as one does indeed perform the correct action (and the likelihood of one being morally required to perform an altruistic action during their lifetime seems exceedingly high).

However, I think the strict theist is in a position such that they should perform purely altruistic actions (that is, actions not motivated by the desire for heavenly reward).

The reason, a religious person, say a Christian, should perform a potentially selfless act is analogous to the reason a Christian should accept Jesus, I'm pretty sure most Christians would say you should accept Jesus because He is the Christ and because you want to build a relationship with Him. Not because you would rather spend eternity inside the pearly gates rather than in the fiery pits of hell.

If a person is religious for the latter reason, they are religious for love of themselves rather than for Love of God. This means to go against the basic tenets of Christianity, not to mention the fact that it is extremely hypocritical.

All rambling aside, my point is this: doing the right thing isn't always easy. Sometimes, doing the right thing will mean knowing you'll be screwing yourself over, but sucking it up and doing it anyway.

This means that at some point, being morally responsible will require you to perform a selfless action and you have to be willing to make this sacrifice, to do what is right for no reason other than because you ought to.

Dr. Robert Sweetland's notes