Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Beyond duty: the rewards of obedience

Is being good worth it?
I have recently had an experience that brought home to me very powerfully one of the main points of a college course I took last year in ethics. Broadly speaking, there are two ways of thinking about ethics: duty ethics and reward ethics (technically, these are called deontological ethics and teleological ethics).* Duty ethics says "I do it because it's right." Reward ethics says "I do it because I will be rewarded." Christians often think that the former is a better way of thinking than the latter. However, I want to suggest that while duty ethics can be useful when you are in a tight spot and don't have time to think (e.g. in the pressure of the moment, you remember that it is wrong to lie and so you tell the truth, even though you didn't have time to think about the consequences), that Christian ethics is actually closer to reward ethics.
*I realise that some thinkers distinguish between teleogical ethics and consequentialism and that what I have called reward ethics is closer to the latter. I'm going to skate right over that for now.

If God made the world, and made the world good, and if sin has not detroyed that goodness, though it might have scrambled it and hidden it somewhat, then obeying God is not simply a matter of "God said it, I believe it". It will also work. The 'reward' of obedience is to not be fighting against the good world, but 'going with the flow'. There is no need to justify obedience, you are simply lining up with reality, doing what is in one sense 'easiest' and 'normal'. Of course, our grasp on these concepts can be more than a little shaky at times because of the confusion that sin brings. Nonetheless, to obey is to work with the grain of the universe, not against it. Therefore, I don't simply obey because it is right (though that is also true), but because it is good, very good.

This may seem somewhat counterintuitive, but the important thing is to grasp the nature of the rewards I'm talking about. In the experience I mentioned earlier, a friend was struggling with two problems. The first was how to deal with someone who had repeatedly lied to him. The second was whether (in an unrelated context) to be honest. I tried to highlight the connections between these two situations. My friend knew what the right thing to do was, but knew that honesty would be very costly financially and possibly relationally (at least in the short term).

As I spoke to him, it came home powerfully to me that one of the blessings you get from being honest is being the kind of person who can tell the truth. A reward of faithfulness is becoming a trustworthy person. These are great blessings, rich rewards. No amount of money can buy them.
Ten points for naming the artist (correctly).

22 comments:

-bw said...

a helpful point the day before my ethics exam. thanks!!
:)

byron said...

Glad to be able to help Bec, though your sense of duty to keep turning up at my blog the day before an exam is astounding...

Steven Carr said...

' Duty ethics says "I do it because it's right." Reward ethics says "I do it because I will be rewarded." Christians often think that the former is a better way of thinking than the latter.'

But not Jesus. If you look at the Sermon on the Mount, it is a clear case of rewards and threats.

michael jensen said...

What,

or perhaps who

is the reward?

Annette said...

what you have said though would constitute something of an undermining of the typical reward tradition because the reward you get (becoming a certain kind of person) is not only good for oneself, but (first and foremost) for others. Here the reward is more like gift. becoming a better person is about being better for others. This augmented form of reward ethics (if it is to be called this) is interesting. firstly, it takes seriously the critique of economy and calculability in normal reward ethics so powerfully advanced by Nietzsche and Derrida, esp also against christianity (which merely makes the reward return at the 2nd spiritual level - your reward is in heaven = divine economy). One must i think feel the weight of this critique. but then as derrida points out, one must calculate at some point, there is no pure gift. and there can be good calculations, and perhaps a good one would be one in which i become a better person for others. He comes very close to saying similar to what you've said then in this audio on prayer (tho in his usual style...).
http://www.continental-philosophy.org/2006/10/19/audio-derrida-on-prayer/ [only listen to part 3, right at end]
Analogy... in not lying: "i do something good to myself and my beloved ones"...
"i can become better for myself narcissistically, but to become better narcissistically is a way of loving in a better way or being more loveable for our beloved ones. So that's a calculation; its a calculation that strives to integrate the incalculable"

cyberpastor said...

Hmm. Sounds legalistic or more precisely Deuteronomic to me. If you do good it will go well with you, if you do bad you will be cursed? There is one large hurdle in the way of "natural" ethics namely that wisdom cannot be found under the sun!

Before we have the answer to what would Jesus (the perfectly real man) do we must consider what happened to him when he did and why.

lachlan b said...

I wonder if your advice to your friend makes sense of Prov 12:17. "A truthful witness gives honest testimony, but a false witness tells lies." I'd always thought this looked like a tautology, but perhaps it's more about the trustworthiness of character.

dan said...

How about this:

"I do this because it is the only thing that I know how to do, and I could not imagine doing anything else."

Thus, for example, the Amish forgive the man who killed their children because they know of no other way to be human/Amish/followers of Jesus.

This, I think, comes close to describing the Christian approach to ethics. It's not just that it is right, and good, and rewarding, it's that this is the only way that God's renewed humanity should know how to act. This, I think, accords very well with what you are saying about aligning ourselves with reality and with what is "natural."

Grace and peace.

Anonymous said...

Anne Lamott says refusing to forgive is like drinking rat poison and waiting for the rat to die.

I definitely think there is a strain in Christian thought which says that being good is a reward unto itself. Doing what is right for others sake is rewarding in that it draws us closer to who we are created to be in the image of Christ.

byron said...

Wow, so many great responses. For some reason, I'm not getting emailed these responses at the moment (or they arrive days later). Let me take them one by one.

Stephen - yes, that's my point. Look at why those who are described by the beatitudes are called blessed: because they will see God... because they will be called sons of God [i.e. be 'like' him in some respect]... because their thirst for righteousness will be filled [NB this righteousness isn't just personal piety]... and so on. I'm not suggesting that this exhausts the language of rewards, but I think it's a significant part of it.

MPJ - perhaps the idea of seeing God helps fill out the reward?

Annette - thanks for the reference and input. I like the idea of the reward itself being passed on to others. This fits in nicely with a discussion in O'Donovan that I've just been reading where he speaks about gifts (Ways of Judgment, chapter 15) and points out that gifts are not a simply exchange, but a sharing (koinonia).

Cyberpastor - not sure I was ever advocating a natural ethics. Obedience is always obedience to the law of Christ, and it is from his hand that we hope for reward.

Lachlan - interesting suggestion. It is a slightly odd verse.

Dan - precisely. This was the other side of what we talked about (my friend and I). It is lying that needs explanation (and can never really be given one). To speak the truth is to be normal and needs no justification or apology.

Miner - what a great image!

psychodougie said...

listening to triplej's "hack" program the other day, the point was made that the moment they introduced late fees at childcare centres (ie if you forget to pick up your child on time you will have to pay a fine), late pick-ups actually increased.

that is to say, as soon as there is a punishment/reward system, people will be weighing up the costs because they can, rather than doing it "just coz", which as a system has a higher adherence rate.

byron said...

Doug - interesting anecdote. The problem is that a late fee looks like they are offering an alternative/extended service, thus condoning the behaviour. Perhaps they don't mind if they get the extra money, in which case it is not so much a matter of right and wrong as negotiating a new deal.

Jason Hesiak said...

Hey Byron,

What is a "natural ethics"? From whom does one of those spring? Aquinas...Aristotle? I don't know that term, but I would be interested to know more about it...based on some recent conversations I've had. Thanks.

And...the artist was an ancient Mayan who, upon crossing the Mexico/America and ancient/modern border, found himself startled, confused and alienated...this painting was his attempt at re-adjustment :) In other words, I don't know who did it! :)

Jason

Jason Hesiak said...

Hey Byron,

What is a "natural ethics"? From whom does one of those spring? Aquinas...Aristotle? I don't know that term, but I would be interested to know more about it...based on some recent conversations I've had. Thanks.

And...the artist was an ancient Mayan who, upon crossing the Mexico/America and ancient/modern border, found himself startled, confused and alienated...this painting was his attempt at re-adjustment :) In other words, I don't know who did it! :)

Jason

byron said...

Jason - where have you come across the phrase 'natural ethics'? It could mean slightly different things in different contexts. I have sometimes heard it used to mean more or less the same thing as 'natural law ethics', which generally refers to two beliefs held together. The first claims that what is good is 'built-in' to the universe, is based on the 'nature' of things, in a Christian account this based on the way they were designed by God to be used (though a naturalist can obviously have a natural law ethic too). The second belief is that these natural structures are able to be 'read off', are able to be accessed epistemically by any careful, thoughtful observer of the world.* Aquinas (who was influenced by Aristotle) is probably the most famous proponent of a Christian natural law approach. One of the strengths of the approach is that it is able to seek common ground for ethical discussion with those who might not accept the Bible. One of the frequent criticisms is that it doesn't take seriously the distorting effects of sin on our ability to grasp the nature of things.

*Oliver O'Donovan (whose approach to ethics I find very insightful) affirms the first but not the second of these beliefs. See his Resurrection and Moral Order.

Anthony said...

Are there any points available for finding orphaned points? I don't think this is in the pics'n'points list.

While I'm here, my daily guess is Magritte.

And my joke guess is Daisyhead Mayzie, of Seuss fame.

byron said...

I'm sure I knew the artist when I posted this, and I have Magritte in my head (and it's next to another Magritte in my iPhoto collection - i.e. it was next to another Magritte in the Pompidou centre where this photo was taken), but I'm still not 100%. I'll give you the points, but if someone can conclusively prove us wrong (and give the correct answer), then I'll not only take your points away, I'll also give double points to them.

Anthony Douglas said...

Odd, this.

I was having a mental blank on Magritte's name, and knew he'd been plonked in various places on your blog, so ended up here.

And discovered I might be vulnerable to losing points, so have been forced to do some research. It might make your day, if you're having a really really slow one.

Glenn Brown, 'Architecture and Morality', 2004. Obviously ;-)

byron smith said...

I'm glad that my blog has now become a resource for those struggling to remember surrealist painters. Just what I've been aiming for.

As for the artist, a quick Google says you are correct. Your points are secure.

Hmmm, I guess you're now going to invoke my language against me: if someone can prove us wrong and give the correct answer, I'll double the points. I had meant to say someone else. But I didn't. So I guess you get another ten points (or you lose ten and gain twenty, which amounts to the same thing).

Anthony Douglas said...

Gosh, wasn't looking for points, just setting the record straight. Though perhaps at this point the title of the post has helped me out ;-)

As to whether I am able to prove myself (with you in tow) wrong by proving myself right...well, that's a dilemma that I'm sure Magritte would approve of.

byron smith said...

wasn't looking for points, just setting the record straight.
I am obviously wrong -as is Qoheleth. There is something new under the sun after all...

byron smith said...

;-)