Is morality better with or without religion

It can come from society and from the family. It can come from personal experience, or even “thought experiments”. I don’t say morality must be divorced from religion in order to be valid, I do say that it can exist without the threat of eternal doom.

I strongly suspect that the most important “virtue” in such a median would be “believe in God”.

What I mean is a sense of right and wrong concerning our actions not merely belief. Even so I still wonder. Lot’s of different opinions.


Except that most people’s morality IMHO considers belief at least as important as actions, or more so.

In some cases that must be true. I’ve often wondered how Christians can honestly look at Bush and some others and still think of them as truly Christian. It’s goofy and unfortunate. I’m not sure I’d attribute that to *most * people without some evidence. Got any?

Well, let’s take an extreme example: you’re a 19th century robber baron. To counteract increasing public dissatisfaction with your rapacious business practices, you drop a million dollars on building a new library. Have you just committed a good act, or just bought some good publicity? Or, for a more twee example, consider the child who gives a favorite toy to charity, and then a week later throws a fit because he didn’t get a new, better toy for being so charitable. When someone does a good deed publically, it raises a question of wether it was done to be a good person, or simply because of the benefits of being perceived as a good person. The difference here is almost entirely philosophical, and not at all practical. I don’t sit around sneering at people who donate to charities and don’t keep it secret. That’s still definitly a good deed, but it’s not entirely pure: the charitable person is getting something in return for his investment, and so the act is not entirely charitable. Mostly charitable. 99.99% charitable, even. But there’s still the faintest taint of self-interest there. Not that it matters to the recipient of the charity, of course, and the important thing is that the people who need help get help, not the motives of the helpers.

I know many parents who confess that they have no religious belief, but who send their kids to a religious school in the belief that it will teach them morality.

Ben Franklin said “If men are so wicked with religion, imagine how they would be without it.”

In fact, the allegation that humanity needs religion to be good is demonstrably false. If this were so, then our prisons would be filled with atheists and agnostics who, being godless and without religion, would be incapable of refraining from crime and immoral behaviour.

For what it is worth, Corrections Canada (the people who run the Canadian Prison System) published the following stats on the religious affiliation of inmates in the federal corrections system in 2004.

Catholic: 43.1%; Protestant: 21% No Religion: 19%; Muslim 3.5%; Buddhist 1.8%;
Jewish 0.7%; Native spirituality: 3.2%. The rest were other religions.

It so happens that this is about the proportions (give or take one or two per cent) of these religions (or lack or religion) in the Canadian population as a whole. By the way, “no relgion” is around 19% in Canada and is the fastest-growing category from one census to the next. I understand the US census does not ask about religion, so I cannot give similar stats for that country.

I think one of the problems here is what makes a morality “better”. Many on this thread have argued that the quality of a moral act itself is improved if its motive is a genuine interest in the good act itself, rather than an expected reward/avoidance of punishment. From here, they argue that religion is unnecessary to developing a better morality, and in fact given some of the historic tragedies sparked in the name of religion it’s best to discard it from any moral system.

On the other hand, one could strongly argue that people are more likely to perform morally good acts if there is a corresponding system of reward/punishment that the actor believe in. Religion, of course, can provide that supposed reward/punishment in an extremely effective and ingenious way (ingenious in that the rewards are accepted as coming later and in an unverifiable way), so it’s natural to see this as the kind of morality that religion promotes. I’d also like to point out, however, that other reward/punishment mechanisms (e.g. social standing, legal measures) also follow this model.

The idea that a person is responsible for their own morality–that strictly appealing to something like the Bible, social mores, or external laws is a phony morality–is pure Existentialism, a philosophy that has butted up against the traditional idea that moral laws can be objectively codified. Some Christian thinkers (e.g. Kierkegaad) have applied existentialism in a religious context, which I personally think it is a better way to bring spirituality into moral concerns as opposed to ransacking religious texts for clues as to how God commands us to behave.

The upshot of all this rambling is that, yes, I believe morality can be made better with religion/spirituality, but not if it is used as a substitute for thinking or a way to abrogate personal responsibility. Religion can inform and strengthen a morality, but it’s first commandment is that we are responsible for our moral decisions; the law, to paraphrase St. Paul, is written in our hearts.

Sadly, most religious folk leave the heavy moral lifting to others (who of course have their own agendas), and we get ridiculous moral spectacles like those shrill anti-gay protestors shouting obscure bible verses in the name of pleasing God. It’s no wonder religion gets such a bad reputation.

I don’t have any real proof ( I can’t find a poll or study on the matter ); it’s more of a personal observation. I’ll point out, however that this culture was largely shaped by Protestant values, and IIRC those traditionally include the belief that faith matters and works don’t.

Now here I disagree. As long as it takes nothing from the charitable act ( like, say, using some money paying for advertising on how chairitable you are instead of donating that money ), charity that benefits you is at least as moral as charity that doesn’t.

Yes, I know it’s an odd view, but think about it. If a billionaire with AIDS manages to fund a cure and makes the treatment public domain, does the fact that he’s saved his own life in the process detract from what he’s done ? Making a point of not benefiting strikes me as more self destructive than moral; more like self-flagellation than morality.

Have you seen the add for truth about the big tobacco companies? It claims one company gave a couple hundred thousand to charity and then spent more then ten times that to let everyone know. I have a hard time calling that charity. Jesus speaks to this directly and encourages people to give in secret without thought of reward or acknowledgement. I don’t think that is just advice but born of a deep understanding of humanity. If we are to truly understand the depths of how interconnected we are then we must learn to give without thought of receiving.

I know this question was put to Miller and he already answered it, but from a purely practical point of view a selfless act–one that does not rely on an expected reward/punishment–is better because we–as rational creatures–are aware that any reward/punishment system will be imperfect. The inherent doubt that a rewards/punishment will ensue upon my good/evil act is something I may take into consideration when deciding if I can get away with something.

In short, the selflessness of any particular act does not make that act morally better, but it does show a better moral tendency to do good in potential moral situations. This, of course, is an explanation based strictly on the desired, real consequences of actions, rather than any subjective, personal benefit of selflessness.

You mean you believe something without anything but subjective evidence? {sound of John Lennon’s Imagine playing}
Yes most Protestants say they believe that, but that’s not the point of the thread. We are talking specifically about moral action…I think.

Seeking something for yourself that somehow winds up benefiting others is not a bad thing but it’s not really charity either. IMHO In your example the act of seeking a cure is self serving. The act of giving it away to help others is charity.

If I give in order to appear like a great guy and that perception of me is my goal then it’s not charity. It’s buying a public image. That doesn’t mean someone doesn’t benefit. That’s also true when I just go buy something, but I don’t call that charity. It’s commerce.

OK, I see where you’re coming from. Perhaps I’m thinking more along the lines of whether or not a truely selfless act is possible. Maybe it’s a Zen kind of thing, but how can you not think about what you’re doing? If you do good simply in order to do good, is that actually selfless? You’re doing it because it makes you feel good, or because of some belief you have that you must do such acts. I don’t see how a selfless act is possible unless there is no self in the first place. An ant will feed its fellow ants simply because it is responding to a chemical that impells it to do so. There is no self, only a stimulus-response.

I personally Sir Arthur Clarke hit the nail squarely on the head:

I agree totally with the concept that one should do good because it’s the right thing to do, not because you think Big Juju In The Sky will get you in the head with a lightning bolt if you don’t.

The logical implication of that view is that the only way for him to be charitable in that scenario is for him to refuse the cure and die, which seems to equate charity with pointless self destruction. That seems to me to violate the basic idea of charity/altruism ( which is supposed to be about helping others, not destroying yourself ). Therefore, I consider it charity. Also, note that in my scenario he invests far more resources than others into his project, but gains no more than any other cured person.

Really, we all live in the same world; my example may be more direct than most, but anything we do to make the world better has a good chance of helping us or our interests, sooner or later.

Yes. I’ve heard this argument before; it seem to boil down to a claim that altruism is either logically impossible, only valid if self-destructive, or a form of insanity ( doing something for no rational or emotional reason ).


That is completely illogical. I merely seperated the two acts. Being self serving is not always negative. I am primarily responsible for myself and also connected to society. Taking good care of myself is also good for others. Serving whims and desires at the exspense of others is not.
This is a good example of that principle. By taking good care of himself the man was able to benifit others. The two acts are connected but not that same act. Thats all.

Congratulations. That is pretty much what Jesus taught. Whatever you do unto the least of these you do unto me. Or unto yourself.

I don’t see it that way. The point is not to be self aggrandizing when giving. It’s not self destructive to simply help others without reward or glorification. If I share some of what I have with someone less fortunate and I am the only one who ever knows about it, that isn’t self destructive. If I happen to benefit in some way it doesn’t matter if I wasn’t seeking benefit or personal recognition.

Suppose there’s some morally good act that I could perform (like donating money to a worthy charity), and I can do it either in such a way that no one on earth could ever know that I did it, or in such a way that someone did know and reward me in some way (a metaphorical pat on the back, having them think more highly of me, or something like that). Which way is more commendable; which makes me a better person?

Position #1: They’re morally equal, since either way I performed the same act and did the same amount of good.

Position #2: The first is morally superior. In this world, not all good acts are rewarded and not all evil acts are punished, and if we only did good and avoided evil when we had a reasonable expectation of it being to our advantage, there’d be even less good and more evil in the world than there is. The morally mature person does what’s right because it’s right, not for the sake of personal advantage.

Position #3: The second is morally superior. I know that the more motivation I have to do good, the more good I’ll do, so it makes sense to pay attention to the motivations to do good. If I do good in a way that comes with positive reinforcement, it’ll make me more likely to do more good in the future.

But the two acts aren’t really seperable, in practical terms. The only way he won’t benefit is by self destructively not taking the cure.

So ? I seriously doubt it was original with him, either.

It is if you go out of your way to not benefit/get the glory, or feel all guilty afterwards because you did.

I lean towards this. Especially if the reward is purely emotional; that costs nothing to anyone.

It’s important to remember that we’re talking about human beings here; selfless dedication and self sacrifice without recognition might sound all noble on the surface, but sacrifice too much and too long and it’ll grind you down emotionally. Duty and dedication are good for toughing it out over the rough spots of life, but they aren’t good long term motivators.

I really like position #3 but I still think position #2 is the morally superior but just not a condition I will even strive for and one most people do not approach.

How about Position #4: The Good Deed that goes unknown and unremarked upon still has a reward in the Happy little Endorphins that fire off.