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Why people are "good" - the argument

post #1 of 26
Thread Starter 
My brother and I got into a bit of an argument, not so much heated as just a difference in opinion on a subject.

My brother and I were talking about what motivates people on a daily basis to be "good".

There were two opposing arguments, and I won't tell you which one of us presented which so that there can't be any bias. I'm curious what others think.

To boil down the first position, and to simplify it a bit for purposes of brevity, it was that at the end of the day, we are just animals. While we may be the most intelligent animal on the planet, we are motivated by fear and rewards just like any other animal. The individual fear and reward incentives vary tremendously, but if you distill it, it is still a matter of fear and rewards serving as our incentives. It could be that we try to be good and follow our religion because we fear what comes in the afterlife as a result, or conversely we want to reap the rewards in the afterlife from being a good person. It could be the fear of being punished for breaking the law in society versus the reward of fitting in and being accepted, helping to ultimately allow us feed ourselves and our families instead of sitting in jail or fleeing others. It could be the simple fear of dying versus the perceived rewards of enjoying life. The list goes on. This position isn't saying that we consciously think of these things daily, but that rather they are in our subconscious. We are ultimately good because we fear bad things happening to us and we treasure good things happening to us.

The second position is that our morality is derived from a social contract that we enter when becoming a member of society. We require no religion, no fears or rewards, but adhere to the social constructs set forth for the purposes of allowing society to function. Law and the judicial system are simply the means of ensuring that this contract is upheld by all. This position has its roots in the social contract concept often attributed to Thomas Hobbes. Furthermore, this position disputes the first position's suggestion that people typically act and think rationally and simply act based on simple incentives. It is a gross oversimplification to view humans as simple animals. We have progressed far beyond simple self preservation lines of thought and when being "good" think and act according to the greater good and the social contract we have entered in to.

Okay. That's the two positions. The only information I'll give about what may be behind the two lines of thought is that one of us majored in Sociology in college, the other in Economics. After that, the differences end since I'll be starting law school this fall and he'll be starting law school the following fall. I'll leave it there.

I'm curious as to whether you agree with one or the other, why you do, what your thoughts are on the subject, and if you disagree with both, to discuss your view of the reasoning behind why people are "good".

Let's try to have a good clean intellectual discussion on the matter.
post #2 of 26
Honestly, I think it's a combination of the two. On the big stuff like murder and stealing from your neighbor, stuff like that, I think it's more along the lines of the social contract and morality, regardless of what (if any) religion one follows. But I do think that the fear of consequences/reward for good does play a part as well.

It's an interesting debate. It's one that psychologists and others have been having for a long time when it comes to the most vile of humanity, especially serial killers. Nature vs. nurture. The case can go either way depending on who you use as your case study.

But one of the best examples of the "good" in people comes from my father's (step) 2-year old grand-daughter. She was being a normal 2 year old and her mother was getting frustrated with her. Mom says, "Why can't you just be good?!?!?" to which the little one scrunches up her little face and whines "Because it's so hhhhaaaaaaaarrrrdddd!"
post #3 of 26
Quote:
Originally Posted by valanhb View Post
But one of the best examples of the "good" in people comes from my father's (step) 2-year old grand-daughter. She was being a normal 2 year old and her mother was getting frustrated with her. Mom says, "Why can't you just be good?!?!?" to which the little one scrunches up her little face and whines "Because it's so hhhhaaaaaaaarrrrdddd!"
From the mouth of babes!
post #4 of 26
Lol I can tell the first argument has to be the economics one!!!
I can't stand to think of the world in those terms, that incentives is what drives people to do just about anything. Unfortunately I do think there is probably some truth to it.
I don't like the social contract idea because when you really think about it, it portrays people as savages who are just in it because of the mutual benefit. I've had social theory and studied and read Hobbes' Leviathan and those are my thoughts. Yes law creates organization but I don't think it's what motivates people to be good. A lot of times I do things that are illegal but I think they are correct for me (lol definitely nothing big, but the law has gray areas). I don't think that my motivation not to go and murder someone and take his belongings is because if I did it I'd go to jail, and because I know my own belongings are pretty secure because of the law...
Maybe this is one part of it..I guess the bigger question of your discussion was how did modern society originate and how did we all learn to obey laws and have such beneficial to all organization of society...That's a huge question.. But as far as what motivates people in our daily lives: I think it's simply how we are socialized, I think we've internalized most ideas of right and wrong. There may be a few gray areas...but a lot of people have internalized that wrong is murder,genocide there is no question about that. I guess my thoughts on this are based on the fact that I believe humans are very emotional rather than always rational (and I think our emotions have a lot to do with socialization)especially when it comes to the law. I know that it depends but here is an example: when someone hits a little girl crossing the street with their car and just drives off, everyone I know is APALLED when watching the news story. Everyone is thinking: if that was me i'd never drive away I'd make sure that girl is safe no matter what the consequences. At least I would...and I think most people would, it's probably safe to say that society would. That's why we see the behavior of hit and run as illegal...
post #5 of 26
Hmmmmm. I would have to say that it depends on what "being good" means?

Are we talking good as in not breaking the law, etc.? What about good people who do break the law, are they still considerred good?

Or are we talk good, as in a good soul, a kind and caring person?

The term good is vague, or open to interpretation because what one person thinks as "good" may not be what another thinks as "good".

But on generalisation, I don't agree with either side.

The first one: I do not believe we are motivated by fear and rewards.
The second one: I do not agree that our morality is derived from a social contract that we enter when becoming a member of society.

My indecisiveness comes from the fact that I believe there are good people who do break the law, these people can and do not always fear the consequences, nor do they believe they are breaking a social contract by breaking the law.
post #6 of 26
Quote:
Originally Posted by Snake_Lady View Post
The first one: I do not believe we are motivated by fear and rewards.
Hi,

may I ask you what motivates you personally?

regards,

christine
post #7 of 26
I do not see how the arguments are not saying the exact same thing except phrased differently and choosing different examples. I see the second as a rewording of the first, as the second position did not like the "harshness" of the first one. Adhering to society for the purpose of allowing society to function is 100% a fear/reward based motivation (fear on the failure, reward on the success).
Incentive does not necessarily mean a material object. My incentive for being loving and caring to others for example, is the love and care I aim to receive. Just my opinion, but I really do not see any difference in the positions, just in where the arguments were coming from.
post #8 of 26
You are arguing nature versus nurture to a large extent and both have merit in the behavior of our species.

Your first argument is flawed from the start when you state that humans are the most intelligent animal on the planet. IMO, there is nothing smarter than being a human than a human, but there is also nothing smarter at being a cat than a cat, and nothing smarter at being a dog than a dog. You can extrapolate from there. I know I would make a pretty stupid cat.

And that leads to the debate on what is considered "good". Non human species kill their own kind in nature and that is not considered bad. When humans do it, societal values label this as bad. So is the concept of good and bad unique to a species? A wolf in his pack is bad if he hurts another wolf in his pack but is rewarded when he fends off wolves from another pack. Is this different than human wars with other cultures, and why is it OK to kill another in our species in one context and not the other?

Which brings me back to the original debate. We are not all that different than other animals on the planet when it comes to be driven by natural instincts (survival of self), yet our cultural values are established by the society around us (survival of our tribe). What drives our behavior is the need for survival, either individually or as a culture.
post #9 of 26
I don't believe that people are good in the first place!
post #10 of 26
Both. For instance, why should one not drink and drive?

a) Because someone could be killed or injured
Quote:
we think and act according to the greater good and the social contract we have entered in to.
b) Because it is against the law and getting caught leads to jail and cost a lot of money
Quote:
we fear bad things happening to us and we treasure good things happening to us.
post #11 of 26
Quote:
Originally Posted by cjh27 View Post
Hi,

may I ask you what motivates you personally?

regards,

christine
Hmmmm, now that I think more in depth, it could be considered rewards...

What motivates me to be "good" is the good ol' "treat others the way you want to be treated". I want to be a good person because I think the world is full of sick and twisted people, so I try to do my best. It isn't fear of anything. I chose not to murder someone in coldblood because I do not think taking another's life is my job. There are circumstances that I think I would murder someone, but honestly don't know that I truly have it in me except for one scenerio.

Rewards: I guess you could say there's some rewards... I like to see people happy, I like to help... that could be considered a reward because I see it as if I can make one person smile, or cheer someone up, help with something and have gratitude for it, then I feel my job is done...

Clear as mud right? Sorry, I'm responding in a hurry, as I'm out the door here shortly, but please, feel free to question Your question itself is indeed a good one.
post #12 of 26
Quote:
Originally Posted by Rockcat View Post
Both. For instance, why should one not drink and drive?

a) Because someone could be killed or injured

b) Because it is against the law and getting caught leads to jail and cost a lot of money
Why should one not drink and drive?

Because it impairs your judgement, lessens response time and can cause accidents/deaths/etc.

I chose to not drink and drive because I have seen firsthand the effects of doing so, and know fullwell even if its one drink, unless hours have passed, your judgement can be impaired.

It is not that I feel fear of what "could" happen, it is because I know I am impaired. Same reason I won't drive when taking certain medications (which technically is not against the law), I know I am impaired.....and to do so (drive) is stupidity.

I answered the drinking and driving, NOT to debate on drinking and driving, but to add to the fear/reward motivation....

and welcome any input as to whether you think my reasoning for choosing not to drink and drive is either #1 or #2 of the OP.
post #13 of 26
Quote:
Originally Posted by Snake_Lady View Post
Why should one not drink and drive?

Because it impairs your judgement, lessens response time and can cause accidents/deaths/etc.

I chose to not drink and drive because I have seen firsthand the effects of doing so, and know fullwell even if its one drink, unless hours have passed, your judgement can be impaired.

It is not that I feel fear of what "could" happen, it is because I know I am impaired. Same reason I won't drive when taking certain medications (which technically is not against the law), I know I am impaired.....and to do so (drive) is stupidity.

I answered the drinking and driving, NOT to debate on drinking and driving, but to add to the fear/reward motivation....

and welcome any input as to whether you think my reasoning for choosing not to drink and drive is either #1 or #2 of the OP.
So you are saying we obey the laws and we are "good" also because we have the ability to reason, logic, etc. I think so too, I think that's a big part of it. I think that if it is only fear of what will happen if you do not obey the law that motivates someone, that person is already a criminal and it is just a matter of time before he feels brave enough to commit the crime and not worry about what happens after.
post #14 of 26
Quote:
Originally Posted by ut0pia View Post
So you are saying we obey the laws and we are "good" also because we have the ability to reason, logic, etc. I think so too, I think that's a big part of it. I think that if it is only fear of what will happen if you do not obey the law that motivates someone, that person is already a criminal and it is just a matter of time before he feels brave enough to commit the crime and not worry about what happens after.
Well put. Reasoning, logic, etc. is a huge part of how we act, as well as emotions (everyone has the desire to be loved) to an extent.

Although I respectfully disagree on the fear part based on my own personal experiences.

I have broken the law. I have no issues with admitting it because I do have a criminal record. I have a charge for theft under. (I can get it pardoned, and plan on it, just don't have the $ at the moment).

Long story short: I was a single mom (19, might have been 20 when caught) on welfare. Anyone on welfare knows they hardly give you enough money to pay rent, let alone live.

I shoplifted. Alot. I would steal from grocery stores, and from chain department stores. It was quite an elaborate system.

The items I stole, were to provide for my family.

Yes, I knew eventually I would get caught but it was worth it to me, to be able to support my family.

The only time fear entered it was the day I got caught. It was fear of my dd father being able to use this against me.

I have not stolen since. The court gave me a sentance of 2yrs probation and debt councelling. Best thing that ever happened to me actually. The debt councelling has helped me to this day.

Point being: I have a criminal record, I broke the law, does that make me a bad person? IMHO, no.
post #15 of 26
Hmm.. I wasn't saying that everyone who breaks the law is a bad person.
I have broken the law many times, nothing big I don't think I've shoplifted..maybe once when I was 13 or 14 and that must have been my biggest "crime" but the fear hasn't stopped me. If I wanted to commit a crime that badly, nothing can scare me..My point was that most people don't want to commit crimes because they know it's wrong and it makes them feel bad so I was saying that a lot of times fear isn't an issue with people. Especially for big crimes like murder or something. I dunno I could be wrong, like in your example of how fear did stop you. But looking at myself that's how I feel.
post #16 of 26
Quote:
Originally Posted by ut0pia View Post
Hmm.. I wasn't saying that everyone who breaks the law is a bad person.
I have broken the law many times, nothing big I don't think I've shoplifted..maybe once when I was 13 or 14 and that must have been my biggest "crime" but the fear hasn't stopped me. If I wanted to commit a crime that badly, nothing can scare me..My point was that most people don't want to commit crimes because they know it's wrong and it makes them feel bad so I was saying that a lot of times fear isn't an issue with people. Especially for big crimes like murder or something. I dunno I could be wrong, like in your example of how fear did stop you. But looking at myself that's how I feel.
nono....I wasn't meaning it the way it read. (the bad person comment was made regarding the OP implying that people who break the law are not good people)

I was trying to disperse(sp) the thought of fear as a motivation to "be good".

Fear didn't stop me, a security guard did and ultimately it was debt couselling. The fear was when he approached me, as to how he was going to handle it and then the worry of whether my ex could use it against me if we had had a custody battle.

I think we're saying the same thing LOL.... it just didn't come out right.
post #17 of 26
Quote:
Originally Posted by Snake_Lady View Post
nono....I wasn't meaning it the way it read. (the bad person comment was made regarding the OP implying that people who break the law are not good people)

I was trying to disperse(sp) the thought of fear as a motivation to "be good".

Fear didn't stop me, a security guard did and ultimately it was debt couselling. The fear was when he approached me, as to how he was going to handle it and then the worry of whether my ex could use it against me if we had had a custody battle.

I think we're saying the same thing LOL.... it just didn't come out right.
Ohhh sorry I got confused. I see what you were saying now lol
post #18 of 26
Quote:
Originally Posted by Snake_Lady View Post
The items I stole, were to provide for my family.
So your motivations were based on the survival of you and your family. Good versus bad doesn't play into things as strongly when individual survival is at stake. In a larger context, societal "goods" are things that allow the survival of that society. By stealing from another, it is possible that you have affected their ability to survive. But the strongest drive is always for self preservation, then preservation of those within your family, then the society around you.

The fear part, IMHO, is all based around the fear of not surviving, and the strength of that fear is going to radiate outward within your realm of contacts (self, family, society).
post #19 of 26
Quote:
Originally Posted by Momofmany View Post
So your motivations were based on the survival of you and your family. Good versus bad doesn't play into things as strongly when individual survival is at stake. In a larger context, societal "goods" are things that allow the survival of that society. By stealing from another, it is possible that you have affected their ability to survive. But the strongest drive is always for self preservation, then preservation of those within your family, then the society around you.

The fear part, IMHO, is all based around the fear of not surviving, and the strength of that fear is going to radiate outward within your realm of contacts (self, family, society).
I think a key here is that she shoplifted which is different than stealing where stealing implies taking from someone and harming them by limiting their own food or clothes or whatever. Shoplifting can be justified by those who shoplift: I'm sure they think along the lines of "wal mart is an evil corporation anyway look at how they rob their employees of the healthcare they deserve" or even "they have more than enough money than they need"
In cases of extreme need I know people will steal even from someone who isn't much better off than themselves. But still they have to re define what is good vs. bad in order to do that, kind of like in cases of a plane crash in a remote place with only a few survivors, and the survivors beginning to eat each other.
post #20 of 26
Quote:
Originally Posted by Momofmany View Post
So your motivations were based on the survival of you and your family. Good versus bad doesn't play into things as strongly when individual survival is at stake. In a larger context, societal "goods" are things that allow the survival of that society. By stealing from another, it is possible that you have affected their ability to survive. But the strongest drive is always for self preservation, then preservation of those within your family, then the society around you.

The fear part, IMHO, is all based around the fear of not surviving, and the strength of that fear is going to radiate outward within your realm of contacts (self, family, society).
Quote:
Originally Posted by ut0pia View Post
I think a key here is that she shoplifted which is different than stealing where stealing implies taking from someone and harming them by limiting their own food or clothes or whatever. Shoplifting can be justified by those who shoplift


I have never stolen from a person, only stores.

But if you want to get technical tho, shoplifting does add to the economy issues because stores end up raising the prices, etc. which could indeed affect another persons ability to survive. But OTOH, prices have risen not solely because of the shoplifting, there are many other variables involved....so no, at the time I did not think it would affect anyone except myself and my family.

I do agree re: the fear of not surviving. That does indeed motivate me, not so much my survival, but that of my children.

ETA another but... The fear of not surviving, does not affect whether what I do is right or wrong, it affects the length at which I would go to ensure survival, irregardless if my actions are right or wrong.
post #21 of 26
Quote:
Originally Posted by Snake_Lady View Post


I have never stolen from a person, only stores.

ETA another but... The fear of not surviving, does not affect whether what I do is right or wrong, it affects the length at which I would go to ensure survival, irregardless if my actions are right or wrong.
Sorry if I mis-stated my intentions of using your story as an example. Was trying to put your story in a larger context.

Totally agree with your last point. All bets are off on right or wrong when survival is at stake.
post #22 of 26
Quote:
Originally Posted by Momofmany View Post
Sorry if I mis-stated my intentions of using your story as an example. Was trying to put your story in a larger context.

Totally agree with your last point. All bets are off on right or wrong when survival is at stake.
I'm easily confused LOL. Anything can be taken differently than meant when written.

But yes I do agree with your points.
post #23 of 26
Quote:
Originally Posted by Rockcat View Post
Both. For instance, why should one not drink and drive?

a) Because someone could be killed or injured

b) Because it is against the law and getting caught leads to jail and cost a lot of money

Hm,

do you think b) only applies if people think they'll be caught and in some way punished or socially disgraced?

In other words: how many people would really murder if they thought they could commit the perfect crime and get away scott free?

regards,

Christine
post #24 of 26
Quote:
Originally Posted by LawGuy View Post
To boil down the first position, and to simplify it a bit for purposes of brevity, it was that at the end of the day, we are just animals. While we may be the most intelligent animal on the planet, we are motivated by fear and rewards just like any other animal. The individual fear and reward incentives vary tremendously, but if you distill it, it is still a matter of fear and rewards serving as our incentives. It could be that we try to be good and follow our religion because we fear what comes in the afterlife as a result, or conversely we want to reap the rewards in the afterlife from being a good person. It could be the fear of being punished for breaking the law in society versus the reward of fitting in and being accepted, helping to ultimately allow us feed ourselves and our families instead of sitting in jail or fleeing others. It could be the simple fear of dying versus the perceived rewards of enjoying life. The list goes on. This position isn't saying that we consciously think of these things daily, but that rather they are in our subconscious. We are ultimately good because we fear bad things happening to us and we treasure good things happening to us.
Yes, we are very much guided by our instincts. For example there was a studie that looked at the rate of child survival at the turn of the century, where either the maternal grandmother or the paternal grandmother was living with the family. In families, where the maternal grandmother was living with the family the child survival rate was significally higher... persumably because the maternal grandmother can be sure the grandchild she is tending to is related to her and as such put more effort in child care.

On another note: with how many other people can we as humans resonably be expected to socially interact with on a personal level. In other words: When does WE against THEM start?

Someone once said that humans can have close personal contacts to about 20- 30 people maximum (or what would have been the size of a tribe way back when in the stone age), after that other people start becoming strangers, which whom we don't feel that closely attached: they become THEM or the others.

Obviously (?) we won't do as much for others (Them) then we would do for our own "tribe".


Quote:
Originally Posted by LawGuy View Post
The second position is that our morality is derived from a social contract that we enter when becoming a member of society. We require no religion, no fears or rewards, but adhere to the social constructs set forth for the purposes of allowing society to function. Law and the judicial system are simply the means of ensuring that this contract is upheld by all. This position has its roots in the social contract concept often attributed to Thomas Hobbes. Furthermore, this position disputes the first position's suggestion that people typically act and think rationally and simply act based on simple incentives. It is a gross oversimplification to view humans as simple animals. We have progressed far beyond simple self preservation lines of thought and when being "good" think and act according to the greater good and the social contract we have entered in to.
The interesting point of this opinion is that social contracts can vary considerably depending on social back ground and time in history.

The ancient greeks had no problems with being sexual with minors and homosexuality, hench the lovely scenes on ancient vases. The sultans of the ottoman empire hat vast harems (by the way- the topkapi palace is stunnig, if you get a chance to see it). Slavery was common place in the South untill the American revolution. And so on.

So obviously (?) there is no absolute biological basis for what you call the social contract, though there seem to be some underlying tendencies.

Which differes from what we see in the animal kingdom, where a pack of wolves is always governed by the same rules.


regards,

christine
post #25 of 26
Quote:
Originally Posted by Snake_Lady View Post
Hmmmm, now that I think more in depth, it could be considered rewards...

What motivates me to be "good" is the good ol' "treat others the way you want to be treated". I want to be a good person because I think the world is full of sick and twisted people, so I try to do my best. It isn't fear of anything. I chose not to murder someone in coldblood because I do not think taking another's life is my job. There are circumstances that I think I would murder someone, but honestly don't know that I truly have it in me except for one scenerio.

Rewards: I guess you could say there's some rewards... I like to see people happy, I like to help... that could be considered a reward because I see it as if I can make one person smile, or cheer someone up, help with something and have gratitude for it, then I feel my job is done...

Clear as mud right? Sorry, I'm responding in a hurry, as I'm out the door here shortly, but please, feel free to question Your question itself is indeed a good one.

Hi,

actually yes, that was pretty clear

The nice thing about understanding what we do for a reward is that it can help you lead a happy life.

For example- you like to make people smile because it makes you happy- so why not tell the next shop assistant or checkout girl that her hair do is lovely or you like her jewlery and think she's got good taste? Start looking out for nice things to say on purpose.

regards,

christine
post #26 of 26
Quote:
Originally Posted by cjh27 View Post
Hm,

do you think b) only applies if people think they'll be caught and in some way punished or socially disgraced?

In other words: how many people would really murder if they thought they could commit the perfect crime and get away scott free?

regards,

Christine
I think the fear of punishment prevents some crimes, including murder. I couldn't begin to guess on the amount.

For instance, a mother killing an abusive father would likely go to jail and lose her children. Fear of that may prevent her. If it didn't she might resort to killing as a way to protect her children.
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