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Reflections on Ethics 62
Morality is a heuristic that is complicated by religion

by: Will Petillo

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Disclaimer: the following article is based on personal experience and opinon, not rigorous and unbiased observation of a representative sample. Thus, unless you are aware of some evidence that confirms or denies this, any reason that you have to agree or disagree with it will be based on intuitive assumptions. In other words: if you agree with me already you will think that what I am saying is true and if you don’t you won’t—in much the same way as that the difference between a person considered to be a prophet and person considered to be mad is that the former tells people what they already believe (because the claims are somehow intuitive, people want them to be true, etc.).

There seem to be three things that people consider “good:”

  1. Satisfying the desires of oneself.
  2. Satisfying the desires of another.
  3. Satisfying the desires of the divine.

For some reason, people seem to consider #1 as largely irrelevant to any discussion of morality. Also, being an agnostic, I am not concerned with #3 in my discussion of morality. Thus, the question of what morality is and where it comes from becomes: “What causes a person to strive to satisfy the desires of other people?” Assuming that it is only possible for us to feel our own desires directly—the alternative being that our minds are to some degree melded with others and/or the divine and so we want what they want because we are them—it seems that our striving to help others must come as a result of us helping ourselves in some way. This way seems to be both intrinsic and extrinsic. By “intrinsic” I am referring to empathy, which causes us to gain happiness from helping others in a way similar to how we gain happiness from anything else. By “extrinsic,” I am referring to rewards like being helped in return, improving one’s reputation in society, going to heaven, etc. I have heard compelling cases that empathy exists and that there are societal reasons for people to be nice to each other, so I believe that morality is both intrinsically and extrinsically motivated.

Extrinsic motivation must be learned through instruction or experience—assuming we don’t all have the social contract theory or the categorical imperative hardwired into our brains. Intrinsic motivation seems to be built in through empathy, but its effects can be lost when one forgets that the people one deals with are actually people. This can happen as a result of others being demonized by propoganda, by distance (it is easier to be cruel to a person one will never see), and by self-absorbtion. I am sure there are other ways, but these are the biggest ones I can think of. In other words, the more one is aware of others and the fact that one’s actions have consequences on them, the harder it becomes to hurt those people because that is when empathy kicks in.

The intrinsic motivation of empathy, combined with possible extrinsic motivations, certainly has the potential to make people be nice to each other, but they are often insufficient. Sometimes, extrinsic motivations push us harder towards cruelty than kindness, and empathy is not always there to guide us (even if we are not sociopaths). As a result it is possible that people may, in unusual circumstances, moments of thoughtlessness, etc., act in ways that they will cause them to be punished by others or by their own conscience. In order to be consistently good to others, it can be very useful to have a set of concrete rules that one can always follow. This set of rules is what we call morality. No set of concrete rules can cover every situation or be without exceptions, so this set of rules is best seen as a heurisitic for consistent good behaviour as well as a useful pedagogical tool for explaining to others how to be good without really going into an explanation of why those rules exist.

Given this definition of and observations about morality, it is clear that people are entirely capable of coming up with it on their own. The fact that we can figure something out for ourselves, however, does not exclude the possibility that a divine entity may have tried to push us in the right direction and throw in some suggestions about how to please said divinity, which is something we would not be able to figure out on our own—unless we have a kind of “spiritual empathy” built into us. That which is pleasing to the divine need not correspond in any way with that which is pleasing to other people, but if one makes the claim that “God is good,” then it follows that this God would want what is best for us and therefore one should expect some overlap.

So, what is religion’s effect on morality? First, religions make morality more complicated by throwing in divinity that has to be satisfied in addition to other people. Second, religions often provide one among a code of rules among many for how we should interact with other people. Third, some religions promise a extrinsic reward for satisfying their Supreme Being, which can be helpful or harmful depending on how compatable said Supreme Being’s desires are with the desires of other people. These promised extrinsic rewards are generally very big, which may be a compensation for the fact that they are incredibly ineffective relative to other forms of incentive.