Motivations for altruism

Atheism Ethics

Why act ethically if not out of (self-interested) thoughts of your own eternal reward? According to the LDS-Freemen (hat tip TBBB), you wouldn’t:

Is it okay for me to admit that the reason I have faith and hope in an afterlife is because I am interested in myself? Is that selfish? I don’t think it’s selfish; I think it’s logical and true. Self-interest is behind everything we do, even altruistic things like serving our neighbor. I also believe it’s behind everything God and Jesus Christ do.

It’s probably not fair to suggest that the LDS Freemen represent the typical believer. However, their post opens up some intriguing questions:

  1. Is it typical for believers to see their own ethical/charitable actions as motivated by self-interest (with one eye on the prize in the afterlife)?
  2. I hear that atheists give less to charity on average than religious people do — does that mean that “the carrot and the stick” work better than “helping others for others’ sake” when it comes to charity?

2 thoughts on “Motivations for altruism

  1. John Locke argued that government could tolerate any religion except for atheism. Without the fear of god, there would be no accountability and barbarism would overwhelm civilization.

    Lately, there is a considerable body of research from game theory to evolutionary biology and neurology that indicates that religion is build on a foundation of goodness rather than the other way around.

    Cooperation can be explained in terms of tit for tat. Mammals fare better with cooperation than with conflict. Others suggest that the golden rule is hard wired into our brains.

    While I am skeptical about the neurological claim, it becomes increasingly clear that human beings do not need promises of transcendent bliss to be good.

  2. I don’t know about believers’ motivations. I’m also not sure about the second claim – that atheists are less likely to give to charity. Is that the case? What about people who are not self-identified as atheists, not active in any religion, and who still give to charity? Who gets to count them? And what is considered charity, anyway? Non profits? Educational institutions? Churches? Mosques? Do taxes count as charity, if part of the taxes go to the greater good?

    I suppose I see them (spiritual belief, active church membership and charity) as unrelated.

    Although, perhaps it is easier to give a 10% tithe when you attend a religious service regularly or have a specific holiday where you are counseled to donate a specific percentage of your income to charity. Humans are inclined toward the path of least resistance, after all – if you’re not attending a religious service regularly to remind you to contribute, perhaps it’s more difficult to remember to contribute.

    Personally, I think that tax laws are actually much more likely to explain charitable giving. Not that there aren’t truly generous people, but the fact that many people give right before December/the new year for tax purposes is telling. I think for some, that is much more of an indicator of charitable giving than religous beliefs.

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