Motivations for good works: believers vs. non-believers


So, when believer does good and avoids evil obeying Jesus, that is supposed to be “sad”, but when an atheist does good and avoids evil “obeying” oxytocin, that is supposed to be “joyfyl”?

Would you care to explain, why?

Are you also going to end up claiming that emotions and instincts are good and reason is evil?


OK - I see the difference. I think my link and answer is still applicable to your question about why non-believers do good. Because it makes us happy - yes with the release of chemicals in the brain.

I an currently living that… my mom is very hard to talk with. After a visit I always need some time to decompress. On the other hand I love her and value opportunities for hugs. I know in the long run I will remember being nice to her, I know she appreciates and is happy with my visits (especially now that I let her talk away and I do my best to be civil and not argue - I try to remember I’m there for her) plus it gives me a chance to demonstrate for my kids my love for my mom. Some day they may even visit me from time to time. :slight_smile:

Hugs to you man… forgive yourself and take care. Parents and other relations can make things very hard and we all try our best. If you have kids let them know how you feel so they can learn from you and hopefully don’t make the same mistakes.


I beg to differ on one point you made, namely, that psychology is protoscience or even pseudoscience. Such a claim is usually made by people who have never studied psychology. As a psychologist myself, I must advise you that you (and many others who have little or no familiarity with psychology and its many branches) are wrong. The rest of your argument you can battle out with Bradskii, but please do not demean the field of psychology; rather, take a course or two to become more aware of what it really is.


External vs interior motives. “I’m told or made to do this.” vs “I choose to do this”. It’s kinda like saying you would do bad things (or forego good) if you no for the penalty of the most horrific unending punishment possible. Or it means you believe yourself to be so broken that literal supernatural help is needed to keep you from pillaging the next village.

I know it isn’t exactly this for most, but that is how it comes across initially. Especially those who claim faith had reformed their bad habits.


Philosophically - If the only reason to do a good deed an expectation of a reward, is the deed actually a good? If the only reason not to do a bad thing is because of fear of punishment, is the non-act a good? We could spend a ton of time without a good answer.

I don’t think “obeying” that you used above is the right word… I would use “rewarded with”. People (and critters) get feedback by doing or not doing things. We can be happy or sad based on our actions and even our inaction. I think it is helpful for people to understand their motivations and to examine them and also how their motivations make them and other feel. I guess in my view there is no true altruism but I do have a ton of empathy and love for others as motivation.

To answer your question, the statement that the primary motivation for good deeds is religious teachings seems to me sad. Jesus was a great example for how to live and love. He didn’t love because there was a rule that told him to do so, correct? He loved because that is a beautiful way to live and was perhaps closest to perfect. We should live like Jesus not because we are following rules and teachings but because we are following an example and want to live and love in the same spirit. Love, joy and happiness seem a better and more positive reason than because one must (as you to put it) obey.

The atheist in me says living a life of love will bring me and others happiness and that is my reward. What is yours?


I don’t think the two ways of living are necessarily mutually exclusive. We can follow rules and teachings, but we don’t have to follow them BLINDLY. In other words, we can also consider WHY they were established and WHY it would be to our benefit to follow them. By doing so, we can better appreciate the beauty of practicing them since we will understand that they make our lives and the lives of others more harmonious, more loving, and more holy.


You’re still making a choice whether or not to follow the Ten Commandments, the Sermon on the Mount, etc .

Think of it like owning a car. You can choose to follow the owner’s manual or not. The outcome is better when you follow it, but we often fail to do so.

Similarly, I know my health would be better if I eat the right foods and exercise regularly. I’m good at doing the exercise, but horrible at eating the right foods. My willpower is weak regarding food, so it’s something I have to choose to work on.

Same with doing good for others. I’m naturally lazy/selfish/un-caring, so I sometimes need to “force myself” to do what’s right.


Depends. You might. Most Christians probably do make a choice as well.

Just that phrased the way you first did implies something short of coercion to those of us outside.

If I neglect my car it will stop working but it’s unlikely to lock the doors and burst into flames. It’s hard to find an analogue to something explained to me as infinite bliss vs eternal pain (over simplified).


I think that you have already been taken to task in regard to your suggestion that psychology is psedoscience. I need comment no further on that.

I couldn’t have made that statement any more generic as a lead in to what I was discussing. It’s like saying ‘people are either born short or tall or anywhere in between’. How on earth you can find fault with that is beyond me. And do you not consider generosity or being miserly an aspect of morality?

Instinct has got us to where we are now. But it gets us only so far. Reason takes us the rest of the way. And the reptillian portion of our brains is still required. You might find it handy if a guy pulls a knife on you in a bar.


True, but you need to believe in God in order to believe in perfect love. Our love is marred by our own selfishness and imperfections. What we think is good is tainted by our own desires. And nothing can lift us out of our own muck and self deception except a guiding light outside ourselves that is pure Truth and love itself, that has no deception in it. And that could only be the Perfect God.

The focus of this topic has largely been about the good works that we can do. But far more interesting is the good work that God has done for us and in us. And continues to do.


So, you choose to, um, fail to understand my point.

Yes, it is hard to avoid facing the contradiction between your talk about “reptilian portion” as the source of evil in abstract and your talk about instinct (for which that “reptilian portion” is supposed to be responsible for) as the source of good when you are dealing with an example…

Are you sure your metaphysics can support such a distinction?

Also, can you demonstrate that “External vs interior motives” align in the way you want? Can you demonstrate that command of Jesus is more “external” than “command” of oxytocin?

Not to mention that the further points will apply here as well, for you do not explain why “internal motives” are supposed to be better.

Well, let’s see: what does your “metaethical” theory say?

Under utilitarianism (a common choice among the atheists) the answer is obviously “Results are the same (good), and only results matter, thus the action is good.”. As easy, as it gets.

So, are you going to reject utilitarianism and choose deontology or virtue ethics instead?


I’m sure that I’m unsure of nearly every and anything. :grinning:

Seeing how this “command” of oxytocin would literally come from within, I’m not sure I get your point. The commands of Jesus are often interpreted or detailed by a church which is external. Do this our risk eternal punishment. (Over simplified)

This is completely subjective on my part. How well do you complete a task you want to do versus one you are made to do?


You wrote the second part as if you were very sure about many things.

For if you really are not sure if there is a real difference between “internal” and “external”, how can you be so sure that oxytocin is “internal” and command of Jesus is “external”?

Now, of course, all that is easy for Thomists: we believe that soul maintains unity of the human body, in which oxytocin exists virtually, thus it is a part of human body - thus it is “internal”; we believe that Jesus is separate from us and thus “external”.

But do you believe in souls? Do you believe that the commands in question are given by real Jesus who is definitely separate from us?

A common atheist metaphysics will claim that we are not as real as the fundamental particles of which we consist. That we are mostly arbitrary collections of fundamental particles that interact in a complex way.

But in that case, why is one collection of fundamental particles (oxytocin) supposed to be “internal”, and a different collection (Church) - “external”? Not to mention that someone who obeys such commands is likely to be the member of the Church, and thus fundamental particles will be “shared”.

That’s what I’m pointing out when I ask if your metaphysics can handle this.

If that was the reason, you would be checking if believers or nonbelievers perform good works in a superior way according to some criteria.

That is much easier than the tortuous method you chose, and directly checks something you claim to be relevant.

Though, of course, the tortuous way has its advantages in the case when you fear what you will find in straightforward way… :slight_smile:


This is an incorrect representation of the utilitarian ethical system. The correct one would be: “All other things being equal, one should chose the option which a) yields better results or b) causes less harm”. It is incorrect just to consider one side of question. Using simple terms, a “cost - benefit” analysis needs to be performed.


You can’t envisage two opposing instincts? Surely you can…


On the contrary, utilitarianism is based on the belief that only results matter. There is no “All other things being equal” about it. (What would be the point? Other things are never equal. Such an addition would make utilitarianism mostly useless.)

For example, see Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy ( “Consequentialism, as its name suggests, is the view that normative properties depend only on consequences.”, “The paradigm case of consequentialism is utilitarianism,”, “Classic utilitarianism is consequentialist as opposed to deontological because of what it denies. It denies that moral rightness depends directly on anything other than consequences, such as whether the agent promised in the past to do the act now.”.

Now, of course, it might well be that you are an inconsistent utilitarian. That would not be very surprising - atheists who are consistent are rather rare.

Sure. I can also imagine an atheist offering a red herring to distract me. :slight_smile:

If your position really was that some instincts are good and some are bad, and you were consistent about it, you would not be praising an action by saying that it is “instinctive” (also implying that reasoned action is going to be evil). At the very least, you would give some contrary examples as well. Although, of course, in such case it would be much harder to claim that there is anything wrong with doing good and avoiding evil to obey a religious rule or authority.

Yes, I know: consistency would destroy all fun in being an atheist. :slight_smile:


That is still a misunderstanding, no matter how many times it is repeated. And yes, the “all else being equal” proviso is the most important part.

An example:

Suppose, that one can develop a cure for cancer, but needs sufficient funds to do so. To acquire the funds there can be two methods; one: to rob a bank, the other is to start “GoFundMe” project. No sane person would say that “only the results” matter, regardless of the method which is used.

The point is that the “cost - benefit” analysis is the only proper way to decide which method is preferred.


Ah, it is really a misunderstanding. Just a different one.

“Results” obviously include not just intended results. If one robs a bank to fund search for cure for cancer, the results are both a robbed bank and funded search for cure for cancer (and, perhaps, cured cancers).


If my position was that some instincts are good and some bad? What? What do you mean by ‘If’? Isn’t it obvious? (and not all religious rules or authorities were or currently are morally correct).

So you do accept that there is an internal ‘debate’ between oposing instincts. Making some headway I guess…

Now what do you think would be more beneficial to the group and which would be more beneficial to the individual? A tendency to help the group even though you lose out in the short term, or a tendency to get whatever you could to the detriment of the group but which would benefit you only in the short term.

Again, the answer is blazingly obvious. But I’d just like to know you’re following.


The positive result is: “getting a cure for cancer”. That is the same whether one uses a bank robbery, or a “GoFundMe” scheme, or an extra one cent tax on gasoline, or maybe an accounting trick of diverting one hundredth of one cent from every bank account to a hidden account somewhere. This means different “costs”, while the benefit is the same. Just ponder the meaning of the phrase: “cost - benefit analysis”. There is clearly a distinction between the “result = benefit” and the “price = cost”.

The rules of accounting expressly forbid to “hide” the costs within the obtained “benefit”, if any. (Not that it has not been tried sometimes.)

As soon as you include the “cost” to obtain the “positive outcome”, you are a relativist and a utilitarian. As for referring to SEP, those articles are not necessarily “precise”.

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