Does the Promise of a Reward Eliminate True Morality?

Greg responds to the atheist claim that true morality can only exist without the enticement of reward or the threat of punishment.



00:06 There's a meme in play right now that basically says, "True morality is a

00:14 morality that is not motivated by the enticement of a reward or the threat of

00:22 a punishment." If you're doing something because there's a reward involved, or

00:28 you're not doing something because you fear punishment, well that's really not

00:32 morality. Now you know where this is going or you know the purpose of this, and that

00:37 is to demonstrate in some way that Christianity is really shallow when it

00:42 comes to morality because after all, people who do good go to Heaven, people

00:46 do bad go to Hell. That's a mischaracterization, but let's just deal

00:49 with that for the moment. We'll just accept that for the moment. And so it's

00:53 meant to show, "How shallow is that? That's not real morality." Okay, so let me make a

00:58 couple of observations. Pretty much as far as I know, every religious system

01:04 that has God in the picture has that kind of system. That is, reward for good,

01:09 punishment for bad. That's the first thing.

01:11 So if that is shallow morality, the only way to get rid of that shallowness is to

01:15 get rid of God. But the minute you get rid of God you have gotten rid of

01:19 morality. You cannot be a good moral law keeper for the right reasons, for the

01:27 right motivations, if there are no transcendent moral laws to keep. And by

01:34 the way, don't go to evolution here. This is just not going to work. If evolution

01:39 explains our moral impulses, then this whole objection doesn't even apply

01:44 because all it does is explain why we believe in a morality that does not

01:49 exist. We are tricked by evolution to do certain things we call moral that aren't

01:54 moral to get our genes into the next generation.

01:56 So this whole discussion about exalted motivations for being moral wouldn't

02:02 even apply. That's not even in the picture. If God doesn't exist, there is no

02:06 transcendent morality, and if there's no transcendent morality, there is no

02:11 moral virtue of any kind regardless of how you think your actions are motivated,

02:16 all right? So you're kind of stuck with a system where God makes the moral rules

02:21 and He also oversees them, but there's a fundamental flaw I think in the whole

02:26 enterprise, okay. Is it the case that all moral behavior – just think about it – that

02:34 all moral behavior is somehow disqualified from being really good if

02:40 there is a reward involved or if there is a threat of punishment? I don't think

02:47 so. If both Jesus and Aristotle before Him

02:54 talked about morality in the sense that morality is a thing that you ought to do

03:00 for its own sense, for its own good, for its own value, okay, not for some other

03:06 kind of external reward. So there's some truth to this. But notice, even in this

03:11 case, there's a reward. You live the moral life so you can have the satisfaction of

03:17 being virtuous. There's a good feeling to being virtuous. There's a bad feeling to

03:24 being viceful if you're morally in touch. So you can't really avoid, in a

03:29 certain sense, the the equation of reward or punishment. That's kind of built-in.

03:35 But what about additional stuff? If I am nice to Grandma just to get the

03:41 inheritance, obviously that is an illicit motivation for being nice to Grandma.

03:47 However, if I'm seeking to be a noble virtuous person in order to honor God,

03:56 and bring pleasure to God, and to be closer to God, well there the reward, so

04:06 to speak, is the appropriate satisfaction for the behavior. Now C.S. Lewis

04:13 talks about this – I wish I could remember exactly where it is – but he points out,

04:17 sometimes there are illicit motivations for doing good, and that does undermine

04:22 the goodness of the action, just like being nice to

04:25 Grandma for the sake of getting the inheritance. But there are other things

04:30 that are the appropriate either rewards or punishments for certain behaviors. And

04:38 so when you get those rewards, you are not somehow undermining the moral

04:44 substance or value of the behavior itself, and if you get the punishment

04:51 then you are not kind of undermining the legitimacy of that punishment or

04:57 the behaviors. Look, if a person becomes a Christian to avoid the punishment that

05:05 is due them, okay, that's smart. Not particularly noble, all right? However,

05:11 once one is a Christian and their temperament is tuned in to satisfying

05:17 God, then there's a reward that comes from that. As I mentioned before, that is

05:22 the appropriate satisfaction of the thing that they're doing without taking

05:28 away any of the moral quality at all. See the difference there? Okay, so what we're

05:34 faced with is a meme that is meant to undermine the shallowness of

05:38 Christianity. First of all, if we get God out of the picture, rewards and

05:43 punishments, then there's no morality at all. So you forget about your so-called

05:46 good, noble motivations for doing good because good does not exist in any

05:52 ultimate sense, okay? With God in the picture of course, you could have bad

05:56 motivations for doing good, but their getting rewarded is not necessarily a

06:04 bad motivation. Careful thinking about the moral project helps us to show that

06:09 this meme is just a shallow attempt to discredit the moral substance of

06:17 Christianity. It does not work.

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Greg Koukl