Author Greg Koukl
Published on 12/11/2017

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.


There’s a meme in play right now that basically says, “True morality is a morality that is not motivated by the enticement of a reward or the threat of a punishment.” If you’re doing something because there’s a reward involved, or you’re not doing something because you fear punishment, well that’s really not morality. Now you know where this is going or you know the purpose of this, and that is to demonstrate in some way that Christianity is really shallow when it comes to morality because after all, people who do good go to Heaven, people do bad go to Hell. That’s a mischaracterization, but let’s just deal with that for the moment. We’ll just accept that for the moment. And so it’s meant to show, “How shallow is that? That’s not real morality.”

Okay, so let me make a couple of observations. Pretty much as far as I know, every religious system that has God in the picture has that kind of system. That is, reward for good, punishment for bad. That’s the first thing. So if that is shallow morality, the only way to get rid of that shallowness is to get rid of God. But the minute you get rid of God you have gotten rid of morality. You cannot be a good moral law keeper for the right reasons, for the right motivations, if there are no transcendent moral laws to keep.

And by the way, don’t go to evolution here. This is just not going to work. If evolution explains our moral impulses, then this whole objection doesn’t even apply because all it does is explain why we believe in a morality that does not exist. We are tricked by evolution to do certain things we call moral that aren’t moral to get our genes into the next generation. So this whole discussion about exalted motivations for being moral wouldn’t even apply. That’s not even in the picture. If God doesn’t exist, there is no transcendent morality, and if there’s no transcendent morality, there is no moral virtue of any kind regardless of how you think your actions are motivated, all right?

So you’re kind of stuck with a system where God makes the moral rules and He also oversees them, but there’s a fundamental flaw I think in the whole enterprise, okay. Is it the case that all moral behavior—just think about it—that all moral behavior is somehow disqualified from being really good if there is a reward involved or if there is a threat of punishment? I don’t think so.

If both Jesus and Aristotle before Him talked about morality in the sense that morality is a thing that you ought to do for its own sense, for its own good, for its own value, okay, not for some other kind of external reward. So there’s some truth to this. But notice, even in this case, there’s a reward. You live the moral life so you can have the satisfaction of being virtuous. There’s a good feeling to being virtuous. There’s a bad feeling to being viceful if you’re morally in touch. So you can’t really avoid, in a certain sense, the the equation of reward or punishment. That’s kind of built-in.

But what about additional stuff? If I am nice to Grandma just to get the inheritance, obviously that is an illicit motivation for being nice to Grandma. However, if I’m seeking to be a noble virtuous person in order to honor God, and bring pleasure to God, and to be closer to God, well there the reward, so to speak, is the appropriate satisfaction for the behavior. Now C.S. Lewis talks about this—I wish I could remember exactly where it is—but he points out, sometimes there are illicit motivations for doing good, and that does undermine the goodness of the action, just like being nice to Grandma for the sake of getting the inheritance.

But there are other things that are the appropriate either rewards or punishments for certain behaviors. And so when you get those rewards, you are not somehow undermining the moral substance or value of the behavior itself, and if you get the punishment then you are not kind of undermining the legitimacy of that punishment or the behaviors. Look, if a person becomes a Christian to avoid the punishment that is due them, okay, that’s smart. Not particularly noble, all right? However, once one is a Christian and their temperament is tuned in to satisfying God, then there’s a reward that comes from that. As I mentioned before, that is the appropriate satisfaction of the thing that they’re doing without taking away any of the moral quality at all. See the difference there?

Okay, so what we’re faced with is a meme that is meant to undermine the shallowness of Christianity. First of all, if we get God out of the picture, rewards and punishments, then there’s no morality at all. So you forget about your so-called good, noble motivations for doing good because good does not exist in any ultimate sense, okay? With God in the picture of course, you could have bad motivations for doing good, but their getting rewarded is not necessarily a bad motivation. Careful thinking about the moral project helps us to show that this meme is just a shallow attempt to discredit the moral substance of Christianity. It does not work.