Sunday, July 22, 2007

Doing the Right Thing

In talking about religion and political or social issues, many people want to discuss what is the “right thing” to do. But before trying to decide what is right, you might want consider why you would want to do the “right thing.”

Assuming that the “right thing” is something that is (or has been) determined by God in some way and is knowable by us in some way, I can think of only four different reasons one might want to do the “right thing”:

  1. Obedience for the sake of obedience: You should follow God’s laws simply because they are God’s laws, without regard to consequences.

  2. Reward in the afterlife: There is a life after death and God will punish you in the hereafter if you don’t do what you’re told, or will reward you if you do what you’re told.

  3. Reward here on earth: God will punish you here on earth by bringing misfortunes on you if you don’t do what you’re told, or will reward you with worldly riches if you do what you’re told. Or, if you prefer a more mechanistic and less anthropomorphic theology, you could say that God’s laws represent fundamental physical and social laws, so “doing the right thing” should produce desirable consequences here on earth.

  4. Spiritual reward: God will not actively punish or reward you, but has put in you a desire to be at peace with God and your fellow human beings, and you can achieve spiritual peace and contentment by doing the "right thing."

Let’s explore through each of these possible reasons and look to see if they make any sense.

Obedience for the sake of obedience

There are several problems with the idea that we should obey God’s law (or “do the right thing”) just because God says so, without regard to the consequences.

One problem is that it is inconsistent with the idea that human beings can think and exercise free will. Why would God both give human beings the ability to think and expect us to do what we are told without thinking?

Another problem is that the lack of consequences to our actions seems to make the rightness of our actions meaningless. What is the point of spending time figuring out what God wants us to do, and then doing what God wants, if it has no consequences whatsoever. It’s sort of like asking a question and then ignoring the answer. God asks us to do certain things, we do them, and then he pays no attention whatsoever to what we do. It's all a complete waste of time.

Although I said I was going to assume that God's will is knowable, a complete lack of consequences would also seem to make God's will unknowable. If there are no consequences to what we do, how can we ever be sure we’ve got it right? Without any standards to just how well we’ve done in the past, our future actions become increasingly uncertain.

Which makes the concept of “right for right’s sake,” and the people who believe in it, very frightening. If a person can't decide what is or is not the “right thing” by looking at the consequences, then the decision about what is “right” is completely arbitrary, depending in many cases on what the person was taught as a child, or what the person has been led to by a charismatic leader. Without any way of testing their beliefs, people can make all sorts of toxic judgments about what is the “right thing,” which can be relatively mild (such as shunning homosexuals) or more extreme (such as deciding to kill heretics).

Reward in the afterlife

Obeying God’s law in order to achieve eternal life, heavenly paradise, or some other reward after death is a little better than simple obedience for the sack of obedience, because at least we know why we’re doing what we’re doing. But it's contrary to the teachings of Jesus.

Take the parable of the prodigal son. The son who goes off and commits just about every sin imaginable is welcomed back by his loving father without ever having to repent, express regret, or pretend to change his ways. And this is consistent with many other parables and teachings of Jesus, who describes a God of seemingly infinite and unconditional love. I am, for that reason, a "universalist." I simply cannot believe in a God who would ever punish anyone for anything.

Needless to say, if everyone gets into Heaven, then it's no longer a reward for "doing good" on earth and a different motivation is needed for "doing good."

The idea of a reward in an afterlife also suffers from a lack of empiricism. If all the rewards (or punishments) come after we’re dead, and no one comes back from the dead to tell us what works or doesn’t work, how can we ever know if we’re making the right choices?

Reward here on earth

Now we're getting closer to something empirical and verifiable. If there are material consequences for our actions, then we can test whether or not we're doing the right thing by seeing how God reacts. Prosperity means we've been doing good things, and drought, plagues, disease, and calamities mean we're doing the wrong things.

It's a good belief system and is still used in many parts of the world, including parts of the world that call themselves "Christian." Of course, what Jesus said is exactly the opposite.

"[Your Father in heaven] makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous." (Matt. 5:43.)

Just about everyone who has ever thought about it has puzzled over why God would cause bad things to happen to good people (and vice versa).

So scratch the idea that God provide material rewards for good behavior.

Spiritual reward

My fourth choice, that obeying the word of God gives us spiritual peace and contentment here on earth, is more than just a winner by default, but represents the best explanation of the teachings of Jesus and other great religious teachers of history (e.g., Buddha, Lao-Tzu, et al.)

Jesus said that "The kingdom of God is within you." (Luke 17:21) And, as I have argued (and will argue) elsewhere in this blog, the ultimate purpose of the teachings of Jesus is the achievement of what Buddhists call "nirvana" or "enlightenment," what the apostle Paul called "the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding" (Phil. 4:7), and what I call "salvation."

Using spiritual reward as a test for God's will also creates an empirical faith, or what Quakers call "experiential." You can use your own life as a laboratory and see what kinds of thoughts and actions lead to peace and what kinds lead to anxiety or strife.

Try it.