Genuine Morality?

Jonathan Morgan

Begging handsWhat makes a good deed good?  Is it the motivation? If you help someone out just because your religion tells you to, does that taint your good act?  The social psychologist Will Gervais has a new article out that attempts to address these questions by testing people’s perceptions of good deeds.  What he found is baffling, and deeply revealing of our cultural bias.

In the experiment, Gervais is asking whether it makes a difference if someone does a good deed for religious reasons as opposed to other reasons.  Through an online survey site, like this one, Gervais gave people a set of stories about a protagonist, Brad.  Some participants read a scenario where Brad does a good deed for religious motivations (e.g. Brad gave $500 to charity after reading a tragic news story and thinking about his religious beliefs). A different set of people got stories where Brad gives $500 after reading the same tragic story and simply thinking about it.  And a final set read stories where Brad thought about his secular beliefs before donating.

After reading the vignettes, all participants are asked to rank the morality of Brad’s actions and to what degree he deserves praise.  Religiously motivated benevolence was perceived as less moral than both the neutral “just thinking about it,” and the secular motivation.  In other words, these judgments weren’t simply based on whether Brad acted in accordance with a belief system that encouraged altruism.  Instead there seemed to be something particular about religious motivations that make them seem less moral.

Subsequent experiments honed in on this difference and found that it was based on intentionality and responsibility.  By intentionality, Gervais is talking about whether people do a good deed for the deed itself or whether the action is a side effect of some other goal.  If the man paused to think about his religious beliefs, then his benevolence was viewed as a side effect.  If the guy thought about his secular worldview, then his good deed was viewed as an intentional goal, not a side effect.

Gervais measured responsibility by asking, “To what degree was Brad personally responsible for his actions?”  At first this seems like a silly question, but when Brad thought about his religious beliefs before acting, he was seen as less responsible for his actions.  As Gervais summarized, “religiously motivated actors are seen as less responsible for their good deed than are actors performing the identical good deeds for other reasons.”  In the final analysis, Gervais found that these perceptions of losing responsibility were the primary reason people also found religious motivations to reduce the morality of good deeds.

I don’t disagree with Gervais’ methods, analysis, or findings– it’s a pretty straightforward experiment and I can’t argue with the data.  But I’m baffled by people’s judgment!

First off, why would thinking about your religious beliefs make you less responsible for your actions? And why are secular beliefs given a special status such that you can be motivated by them without losing responsibility for your actions?

My sense is that we are all embedded in worldviews that guide a lot of our actions.  The food you eat, the clothes you wear to work, how you get to work, who you say hello to, and what you talk about (and with whom) – all of these things are primarily guided by our culture.  And thank goodness!  If we had to consciously think about everything we do, it’d be exhausting – we need communities and systems of belief that take care of some of those decisions.  Even more strongly – we don’t just need these systems, we’re always part of them.  Does that make us less responsible for these actions?

Of course not.

This negative association between responsibility and reliance on communities is built on the myth of a perfectly rational actor.  We want the purely objective person who isn’t swayed in their judgments by cultural norms or the expectations of others.* This person, the myth goes, would be truly free and responsible for their actions.  But don’t others always influence our actions?  Tying responsibility to an absence of influence seems absurd to me, if not downright dangerous.

Yet this seems to be the myth behind the second connection that Gervais uncovered: if religiously motivated people aren’t responsible for their actions, then they’re less moral.  What?!

Why should being part of a community that encourages you to do good things make your actions less moral than someone who decides on their own to do a good deed?  I’ll admit that being part of such a community makes it easier to act altruistically.  If I don’t want to give to charity, but I know my friends are giving and expect me to as well, then I’ll probably suck it up and give.  Is that still moral?

Apparently many people would say no.  Or at least call it less moral than if I decided to give because of my objective commitment to some secular standard.  But to me, that rational sort of commitment seems way more fragile than the felt obligations to a community.  On our own, we can rationalize our way out of doing pretty much anything that we don’t want to do.  But, if we’re bound to a community, then we’ll probably do those things even if we don’t want to.  I don’t know if that makes someone less moral, but I do know that it often makes for better neighbors.


*And for good reason– sometimes those culture norms can be pretty nasty.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Time limit is exhausted. Please reload CAPTCHA.