Friday, August 04, 2006


Blissfully short yet provocative essay which argues that 1-external motivations displace internal motivations, 2-people raised without religion have internal morality, 3-religion as an external morality has the potential to displace inherent internal goodness.

It's making an analogy to religion from these experiments. Scientists have kids work on math problems, and the kids love it. The scientists then start paying the kids to work on the math problems, and the kids keep doing them. The scientists then stop paying the kids and the kids stop doing them. The reward eliminated their original intrinsic joy in the activity itself.

I briefly skimmed the comments section of the blog entry, and it looks like there's a debate going on about who's being more or less "truthy." Which, I'm sure, is a really rewarding debate.


Arfanser said...

I've actually read that study, and the follow up studies. As far as I remember (fairly acurate I think) the authors of the studies never attempt to make any statements about religion. The thing with these experiments, they are not as readily generalizable as many other things in the world. So yes, the study stood for your proposition #1. But citing that study as authority for proposition #2 and #3 is bad science.

As for your general premise, true religion is internally motivated so the generalization you want to draw falls apart there, at least for me. A leader of my church described it as outward expression or inward commitment.

scarlet panda said...

I agree with arfanser (!!!). The premise that religion is externally motivated is flawed.

Extremely weirdly, just minutes before I took a break to check out this blog, I read the following passage in a book:

"...the Christian is in a different position from other people who are trying to be good. They [the other people] hope, by being good, to please God if there is one; or--if they think there is not--at least they hope to deserve approval from good men. But the Christian thinks any good he does comes from the Christ-life inside him. He does not think God will love us because we are good, but that God will make us good because He loves us . . ."

This is from "Mere Christianity" by C.S. Lewis. It's not a perfect book, and he may be operating from a flawed premise as well (that non-Christians are necessarily externally motivated). But I think the characterization of the true Christian view of morality is decent.

Certainly, some religious people (Christian or otherwise) are externally motivated (they want to go to heaven or whatever), but then so too are some non-religious people (they want to get societal approval).

Matt said...

The stories and morals are always extrinsic. The specific things one believes and the duties that are imposed have to come from the outside.

Jesus doesn't exist if nobody else tells you about Jesus.

scarlet panda said...

The specific stories of a religion are obviously extrinsic, but I'm not totally seeing what that has to do with the present discussion.

As to the morals, I think there are really two questions:

First: where do we get the sense that some things are moral and some things are immoral?

Most people have a certain sense of intrinsic morality--that certain basic things are generally good and moral (kindness, generosity, helpfulness) and certain things are not(killing, lying, stealing). This intrinsic sense might come from evolution, God, natural law, or something else.

Some other moral guidelines have an extrinsic source. Those would be the more specific things your church (or your parents, or the Bible, or Ayn Rand, or your cult leader, or whatever) teaches you that would not necessarily be considered universal intrinsic moral values.

Second: Where do we get the motivation to do what we think is the moral thing?

This is, I think, the discussion we were having above. As I mentioned above, I think the motivation can be intrinsic or extrinsic.

Matt said...

You can't separate out the source and the motivation - they're the same thing. Religion establishes the rules and the contexts for obeying them, and in doing so displaces the conscience. As in the suicide bomber dying for Allah.

If it were otherwise, then there'd be no point to having organized faith. If religion truly were just an understanding of the expression of one's own conscience, then there wouldn't be dogma, and everybody'd be at most unitarians or buddhists or some other faith.

scarlet panda said...

Where do you get the idea that religion displaces conscience?

At least in my own religion, the individual's conscience is extremely important.

From the Catechism:

"Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey. Its voice ever calling him to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil, sounds in his heart at the right moment…For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God…His conscience is man’s most secret core and sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths."

In my religion, religious teaching helps explain why you have this sense of right and wrong ("man has in his heart a law inscribed by God")--it doesn't displace it.

It also gives guidance about how to apply the abstract sense of right and wrong to specific and difficult cases (e.g., "You know how you kind of have a sense that killing people is wrong? Well, you're right about that, and it's wrong even for embryos and criminals.")

Matt said...

Because that first part - telling you where your conscience came from - it defines your understanding of conscience. And you don't lay it upon your own heart, it's laid there for you by somebody else. Your conscience is somebody else's divine plan, not your own concern which you can nurture, discover, and develop on your own. It's preordained and fixed. How can there be variance from god's idea of right and wrong? Isn't this impossible by definition?

The second part tells you how to apply it, which is telling you how your conscience should react to certain things. Which means it creates the substance of your conscience. It tells you what to think about abortion and embryos, but it does it for all other issues, including the less hot-button ones.

Maybe this is how I would put it - religion sets out the law and its interpretation, which seems to me to be the whole ball of wax.

I could see a place for the individual conscience in faiths like buddhism and unitarianism. But for more dogmatic religions, what is the role of the individual's conscience? Could you possibly get wisdom from another faith, or from faithless morality? Could you read a book and from the story decide that you have a particular notion of what the right thing to do in a given situation, if that were contrary to the tenet of your faith? Are you required to go first to your own religion to understand what's right?

Arfanser said...

I think the problem you are having in this study is the definition of extrinsic and intrinsic rewards. These are the motivation for doing something. In the studies, the reward started as the feeling of accomplishment (intrinsic reward), and became the money (extrincis reward). If you are going to analogize these studies to religion (again I repeat that is a bad idea based on the scope of the study) the intrinsic reward would be the feeling one gets for obeying the rules of the religion. The extrinsic reward would be the affirmation of other people who see you obeying the rules of the religion. Incidentally Jesus warned against this in the bible. The study would indicate that the people who received outside positive feedback for their obedience would only obey in order to get that positive feedback. In other words, the person would cease to follow the rules in their private life when no one else is around.

What you are trying to say is that a person teaching about a certain religion is providing the extrinsic reward. This is the equivalent to the person who taught the kids math in the study. Simply teaching the children math merely provided the children with knowledge, not rewards.

You are jumbling your variables in the study to support a proposition the study never supported.

what is the role of the individual's conscience? Religion does not force an individual to choose to do something. Religion teaches and the individuals conscience shows him or her the way.

Could you possibly get wisdom from another faith, or from faithless morality? Yes, for example, my being against the death penalty is not based on my religion's teachings, yet I still think it is right.

Could you read a book and from the story decide that you have a particular notion of what the right thing to do in a given situation, if that were contrary to the tenet of your faith? I don't know about contrary, but I look to books from outside my religion to give me guidance in my life constantly. As I believe you would use the word contrary in this question I would have to say yes.

Are you required to go first to your own religion to understand what's right? Not in my religion. In fact in my religion if you disagree with any principle you are encouraged to ponder the issue and pray and make up your mind with the help of God and your conscience. There is a famous quote from the first prophet of my religion. When asked how he governed such a large body of people he responded, "I teach them correct principles and they govern themselves."