Chapter 1: What Motivates People to Behave Ethically?
Chapter 1 Preface
For centuries, philosophers, theologians, and other scholars have attempted to determine what factors motivate people to act ethically. Religion has frequently been cited as a primary force motivating ethical behavior. All religions contain specific ethical principles that believers are expected to follow. People may follow the ethical guidelines of their religion through fear of divine punishment if they transgress or in anticipation of being rewarded for leading a virtuous life.
Recently, however, some scientists have proposed that humans’ sense of ethical behavior evolved through natural selection. They maintain that an individual’s altruistic behavior, such as warning relatives of the approach of dangerous animals, increased the likelihood that these early humans would survive the threat and would live to pass on their altruistic genes to their descendants. According to this theory, humans are “hardwired” for ethical behavior.
The idea that humans may be biologically predisposed to ethical behavior is disturbing to many theologians and religious individuals. Even some scientists find the proposition unsettling, as Randolph Neese confesses: “The discovery that tendencies to altruism are shaped by benefits to genes is one of the most disturbing in the history of science. When I first grasped it, I slept badly for many nights, trying to find some alternative that did not so roughly challenge my sense of good and evil.” According...
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Belief in God Motivates People to Behave Ethically
About the author: Benedict de Spinoza (1632–1677) was a Dutch philosopher. Born a Sephardic Jew, as a young man he was excommunicated from the Jewish community for his thoughts and practices. Spinoza proposed that people are guided by their own natures, and that virtuous people understand their own natures and ultimately seek to understand the nature of God. Spinoza wrote the books A Treatise on Religious and Political Philosophy, Political Treatise, and Ethics, from which this viewpoint is excerpted.
I should like to say a few words about perfection and imperfection, and about good and evil. If a man has proposed to do a thing and has accomplished it, he calls it perfect, and not only he, but every one else who has really known or has believed that he has known the mind and intention of the author of that work will call it perfect too. For example, having seen some work (which I suppose to be as yet not finished), if we know that the intention of the author of that work is to build a house, we shall call the house imperfect; while, on the other hand, we shall call it perfect as soon as we see the work has been brought to the end which the author had determined for it. But if we see any work such as we have never seen before, and if we do not know the mind of the workman, we shall then not be able to say whether the work is perfect or imperfect. This seems to have been the first signification of these words; but...
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Atheism Motivates People to Behave Ethically
About the author: Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) was a German philosopher, author, and poet. He is renowned for his statement, “God is dead,” by which he meant that religion had lost its meaningfulness and efficacy in modern society. He rejected Christianity, arguing that its values were based on fear and resentment, that it incorrectly accepted all people as equals, and that it denied this world in favor of an illusory other world. Nietzsche’s concept of the “superman”— the passionate individual able to control and utilize passions creatively— expressed his view of the ideal manner of human existence. He wrote the books Thus Spake Zarathustra and Beyond Good and Evil, from which this viewpoint is excerpted.
The human soul and its frontiers, the compass of human inner experience in general attained hitherto, the heights, depths and distances of this experience, the entire history of the soul hitherto and its still unexhausted possibilities: this is the predestined hunting-ground for a born psychologist and lover of the “biggame hunt.” But how often must he say despairingly to himself: “one man! alas, but one man! and this great forest and jungle!” And thus he wishes he had a few hundred beaters and subtle well-instructed tracker dogs whom he could send into the history of the human soul and there round up his game. In vain: he discovers again and again, thoroughly and bitterly, how...
(The entire section is 4334 words.)
Biological Imperative Causes People to Act Ethically
About the author: Scientist and author Edward O. Wilson is the Pellegrino University Research Professor at Harvard University, as well as Honorary Curator in Entomology for Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology. His books include The Diversity of Life, On Human Nature, and Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, from which the following viewpoint is adapted.
Centuries of debate on the origin of ethics come down to this: Either ethical principles, such as justice and human rights, are independent of human experience, or they are human inventions. The distinction is more than an exercise for academic philosophers. The choice between these two understandings makes all the difference in the way we view ourselves as a species. It measures the authority of religion, and it determines the conduct of moral reasoning.
The two assumptions in competition are like islands in a sea of chaos, as different as life and death, matter and the void. One cannot learn which is correct by pure logic; the answer will eventually be reached through an accumulation of objective evidence. Moral reasoning, I believe, is at every level intrinsically consilient with—compatible with, intertwined with—the natural sciences. (I use a form of the word “consilience”—literally a “jumping together” of knowledge as a result of the linking of facts and fact-based theory across...
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Biological Imperative Does Not Cause People to Act Ethically
About the author: Philip Yancey is a columnist for Christianity Today and a frequent contributor to Books & Culture and other magazines. He is also the author of numerous books, including What’s So Amazing About Grace?? and The Jesus I Never Knew.
A representative of Generation X named Sam told me he had been discovering the strategic advantages of truth. As an experiment, he decided to stop lying. “It helps people picture you and relate to you more reliably,” he said. “Truth can be positively beneficial in many ways.”
I asked what would happen if he found himself in a situation where it would prove more beneficial for him to lie. He said he would have to judge the context, but he was trying to prefer not-lying.
An Unprecedented Dilemma
For Sam, the decision to lie or tell the truth involved not morality but a social construct, to be adopted or rejected as a matter of expedience. In essence, the source of moral authority for Sam is himself, and that in a nutshell is the dilemma confronting moral philosophy in the postmodern world.
Something unprecedented in human history is brewing: a rejection of external moral sources altogether. Individuals and societies have always been im-moral to varying degrees. Individuals (never an entire society) have sometimes declared themselves amoral, professing agnosticism about ethical matters. Only...
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