Why we do good or evil things

I was recently loaned a book by a teaching colleague: “Teach Like Your Hair’s On Fire” by Rafe Esquith which is quite an inspiring (if somewhat intimidating) read for teachers.

One of his philosophical teaching strategies to cultivate a healthy sense of ethics among his (5th grade) pupils is the following ‘hierarchy’ of motivations which he has his students learn and look for as they observe culture and entertainment. It has ramifications for how teachers encourage this, or what we settle for (i.e. “you’ll catch it hot from me if I get a bad report from the substitute.” [level 1] or “You’ll get an extra recess as a class if the sub gives me a good report.” [level 2] and so forth.) Without further ado, and here for your comment is his list of six reasons, in ascending order of desirability and value, for behaving well or refraining from misbehavior.
From his book, pp. 14-22:

  1. I don’t want to get in trouble.
  2. I want a reward.
  3. I want to please somebody.
  4. I follow the rules.
  5. I am considerate of other people.
  6. I have a personal code of behavior and I follow it.

If you’re like me, you may wonder about the last one (and why it would be ‘superior’ to #5 instead of being more like a repeat of #4) But his explanations did go on to make that a bit more clear. He put #4 out there as reflective of somebody who is obsessed with rules/fairness/consistency, etc. We all know the type (or are the type ourselves) - the person who will pore over the game rule book because they can’t stand the thought of anybody deviating from established and authoritative rules. Whereas #6 was meant to be more reflective of people who not only fully embody #5, but also don’t care what others think about them (and have no desire that their good deeds be known.) I.e. they have escaped the need to be respected or praised or acknowledged for their good work - all the trappings of the lower levels.

In any case, I’m finding all this ripe for reflection and inspiration for how we deal with life and train up our kids.


We can add to this list some more motivations…
7. I want to be physically and mentally healthy.
8. I want to succeed in my endeavors and relationships with others.
9. I want to be a good person who makes the world a better place rather than worse.

And… I would like to point out that some of these are things we go through at different stages of development. And maybe there should be something added to the list about skeptically testing the validity of the rules and how they sometimes do more harm than good. I think quite a few people are likely to go through a stage when they see rules as the enemy and perhaps that is what sets the stage for finding their own personal code of behavior.


Good additions! And they show how there may be significant overlap between the various points and further clarify why rules might be made in the first place. The author was all about having students understand rules rather than just blindly following them. But I also gather that he wasn’t putting down the necessity of starting with the lower levels as necessary if that’s where someone is at.

I think that, very roughly speaking, we might see the progression from old testament approaches to Jesus’ approach as an ascendance from the letter of the law toward attention and obedience to the Spirit behind it.

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According to Jonathan Haidt (“The Righteous Mind”) we - our rational minds that we take such pride in anyway! - are like the rider on top of an elephant (the elephant being our intuitional self). The elephant is really the one in charge of all immediate reactions and where it’s going to go. The rider on top is good at providing post-hoc justification for where the elephant is going. The elephant can be influenced by the rider, and (in rare cases) may even change its course accordingly. But our main mode of operation is that the elephant will do what it will do, and our reasoning has evolved, not to find truth, but to find rationale that will help us look justified to others.

In other words, our so-called “rationalism” turns out to be a lawyer helping us preserve our own reputation in the eyes of our own tribal group, rather than a scientist trying to help us discover truth. We (according to Haidt and a whole lot of research to back him up!) are not truth-seekers, but reputation seekers. …but we will give lip service and homage to truth whenever we think we will be held accountable to some larger group that we perceive will itself have that same concern. That’s why no single person isolated from any perceived accountability (even ostensibly ‘honest’ ones, which so many of us think we are) will be any good at teasing this stuff out, but large groups of us from diverse interests and tribes that manage to maintain a bond of accountability to each other become much more likely to (together) converge on something closer to truth.

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I’m reminded of John Patrick’s four levels of happiness that motivate us

  1. Basic, animal pleasures–food and sex
  2. Duty–excelling in an occupation, for example
  3. Living altruistically for others
  4. Experiencing the Divine/superlative (God) and serving Him for His sake alone.

It reminds me of the Eden principle–of obeying in not eating the fruit of the tree for no good reason other than that God asked it be left alone. Pretty profound stuff.

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I think this begs the question of what this “intuitional self” consists of. Here what I think. I think the elephant consists of the programmed (by the habit of practice) reactions, some of the default for which are the biological instincts. Consider the following examples…

  1. We learn to drive a car or ride a bike and with a enough practice it becomes automatic… part of the elephant, so to speak.
  2. We we first approach the edge of a cliff or building instinct kicks in and tells us to back away (to a degree which probably varies between individuals), but most can overcome this with practice and thus rewrite the programmed reaction to some degree.

That is not completely accurate. To be sure, reason is largely used after the fact but not just to simply justify the past but also to prepare for the future. It is indeed a process of fitting our choices into a worldview and system of thought, in order to be consistent. This is something we quickly learn to do when we take on longer term tasks, so we do not sabotage ourselves. And quite often, our attempt at rationalization comes to the conclusion that our choice in the moment was wrong. Then the difficulty in reprogramming our automatic reaction tends to be proportional to how many times we have reinforced the original habit.

That may be the most common usage because it is the least strenuous. But the lowest common denominator does not define humanity. Just because the majority mostly follows the path of least effort and resistance should not overlook the fact of extraordinary human accomplishments when people do otherwise.

This is part of the danger of turning the objective observation of science upon ourselves, for it causes us to overlook the crucial role of subjective participation. And thus such observations of the statistical majority becomes the most destructive rationalization of all.

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That is my (still unanswered) response back to Haidt as a Christian as well … and I’m eager to see if he will address this ‘elephant in the room’ so-to-speak. I think it speaks well to why the Bible so exhorts us to train our children (and each other) up in the ways of God, not to mention having us cultivate the knowledge and reflex in ourselves that God is watching us even if nobody else is at any given moment. God knows our weak state of mind as we struggle (or not!) to make right choices in the midst of a larger storm of other things going on in our subconscious minds.

One hopes so. But Haidt so far is making a pretty good case that, even among people who pride themselves on honesty and education level, they are still motivated largely by reputation rather than truth-seeking, or actual virtue.

Researchers looked at essays from a large body of participants around the subject of how much they thought they themselves to be influenced by what others thought of them. Based on self-identification they were able to select from their pool two groups of people: those who openly admitted that they were heavily influenced by their perceptions of what others think, and a different group that emphatically denied being influenced at all by what others think - “I arrive at my conclusions by objective reasoning alone and not some ‘popularity contest’, thank you very much!” They isolated each subject in a room where that subject could talk about themselves into a microphone, having been told that others would be listening to them speak and would rate them on a numerical scale (1-7) according to the desirability of having further interaction with them in a later study. And the subject at the end of each minute would see that numerical feedback on a screen. Unbeknownst to each subject researchers were really just feeding them engineered feedback: some getting rising numbers as they talked, and others suffering declining numbers. Not surprisingly, the ones who knew they are influenced by such things were heavily influenced in what they said according to their rising or falling feedback. And how did the self-identified mavericks fare on this test? They too “suffered shocks almost as big”. They might steer by their own compass, but they didn’t realize that their compass tracks with public opinion rather than “true north”. Which is why perceived accountability to a larger group who we believe ostensibly cares about truth (such as a large body of scientists!) is so important. We may not be able to escape our own motivation to cultivate our own reputation, but a group of such people (who don’t all share our tribal identity or commitments) and so will be motivated to hold us accountable toward truth heavily influences the entire group in that direction.

In another study, people were given a slip of paper which told how much money was due them. When they went into another room and a cashier mistakenly gave them more money than the amount, only 20% corrected the cashier. But when the cashier asked the recipient if the amount given was correct, the ones who corrected it jumped up to 60%! In the former case, Haidt claims, the recipient can rationalize the over payment by hiding behind plausible deniability. They could always claim they didn’t realize the mistake (somebody else’s mistake) had been made and their own reputation would be preserved. But in the latter case, that plausible deniability is removed, and their reputations would be more on the line if they more directly participate in the mistake.

So much of where Haidt is going will all this rings all to true for me. One thinks of the verse (end of John 2) where Jesus refused to entrust himself to people because he knows what is in their hearts.

Around here, the only reflection one need ponder to know how much you care about what others think is this … how much do you obsess about if you get ‘likes’ on your posts (and how many or from whom). The one who skips with compete indifference over that little heart at the bottom of their own posts - who takes no pleasure in any little dopamine hit the moment they are notified of a ‘like’ on their views … that person I suspect, might be remarkably rare. [this is how social media sites, with their little ‘like’ buttons are majorly addicting us.]

An example of the status addiction I harp on about. Sadly, there are so many other examples in our culture.

I’ve been mulling over the list posted in the OP:

This list immediately reminded me of two other approaches to the same question about why we do good or evil things.

One approach is to look at the “six reasons” through the lens of the cardinal virtue of temperance, with its four stages of intemperance, incontinence, continence, and finally temperance. Reasons 1,2, and 3 above are part of the pattern of intemperance (where your entrenched brain habits lead you to both intend and desire to engage in selfish actions with ongoing self justification). Reason 4 is a lot like incontinence (where you’ve figured out there are rules of right and wrong that apply to you (not just to everybody else), but you still have trouble wanting to let go of your own self justification). Reason 5 is a lot like continence (where you know about the rules of treating other people well, and have good intentions about acting on the rules, and are generally pretty good at suppressing your own excuses, denials, and self justification). And finally there’s Reason 6, which is the virtue of temperance. A person who has worked to build temperance has a personal, internal code of behaviour and follows it consistently regardless of circumstances that invite him/her to behave badly with impunity. Temperance is often considered to be the “runt” of the cardinal and theological virtues, but I would argue it’s the pursuit of temperance that allows a person’s brain to become wired in the balanced, holistic ways that are essential to the brain’s ability to process the complexities of justice, fortitude, prudence, faith, hope, and love.

A second approach that’s similar to the “six reasons” is Jesus’ teaching about the sower and the seeds in Mark 4. The seeds of the word are sown everywhere – which is to say the seeds are offered equally to all people – but only those who have mastered temperance can hear the word, accept it, and be open to its fruit. Meanwhile, the first three types of “soil” in Mark 4 line up quite well with the stages of intemperance, then incontinence, then continence.

So Jesus (or at least Mark) clearly understood that how you till the soil of your own inner self is the deciding factor on whether or not you can hear God’s word in your life.

The good news is that you’re not stuck with the soil you currently have. Both moral theology and the evidence from neuroscience (e.g. neuroplasticity) teach us that you can work your way towards Reason #6 if you want to. But having a mentor (like a terrific educator, pastor, physician, parent) can make this process a lot easier.

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Hi Mervin,

I see where you’re coming from with this statement, but I thought I’d add a couple of thoughts that spring out of your remarks about “the six reasons” once the role of status addiction in our culture is more fully integrated with other models for understanding human behaviour.

A lot of people live their day from beginning to end in a quest for status points, and these status points are not only high addictive but are available to us in several mediums or vehicles or domains of life that aren’t at first obvious. It’s quite a struggle to identify the sources of status points that may be causing hidden problems, and then it’s a struggle to weed them out of our choices and behaviours. I think one obstacle to the process is the deep fear that if we yank out all the status weeds (weeds we identify with and believe are essential to our identity) we’ll no longer recognize ourselves. We’re afraid we’ll just be some sort of empty shell without a purpose or a sense of meaning or a source of happiness if we pull out the addictive status weeds. But the reality is quite different. The more status weeds you pull out, the more comfortable you are in your own skin as a child of God. So you stop trying to be somebody you’re not. The weight of perfectionism, purity, and unrealistic expectations lifts from your shoulders, and you have more time and energy to focus on empathy and forgiveness.

But you don’t really escape the need to be respected or praised in reasonable, modest ways. In fact, if anything you become more vulnerable to the intentional harms aimed at you because you refuse to go along with the crowd in status-seeking behaviours. We all need a sense of love and belonging, and, as we know, this sense of love and belonging was central to Jesus’ message. But the sense should be coming from the Heart and Soul, not through fruitless routes such as cognitive empathy, agreeableness, and addictive status bits.

We know what happens to the emotional and spiritual health of children who never receive appropriate (i.e. honest) praise for their accomplishments, interests, and learning. They fail to thrive. Adults are no different. The problem tends to be that adults are willing to conflate status addiction with honest praise, with the result that narcissism, control, perfectionism, and the “the right to be right” start to grow out of the harmful seeds of status points. That’s when Christians begin to suffer in their relationships with themselves, each other, and God.

Thanks for listening.


Of course… LOL The very wording of this tells the story. The words “pride themselves” shows that this is more about the image they project than anything else. But you will find something quite different among the loner personalities, rare as they may be – for them it is not a matter of pride but simply of habit. They just don’t think of themselves in terms of a group of which they are a part.

And this isn’t always about something they were resigned to accept, but a more basic personality type. Though… I reminded of the primate study I saw in a tv program where they found results from differences in the way infants were raised – according to how protective the parents were. Humans are following the protective pattern more and more, whereas I was wandering the city on my own from a very young age.

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Which makes them and their criticism very valuable to that larger group. They will voice things that either wouldn’t occur to the larger group or which the larger group may need to hear. I suspect even loners out there have their own group trappings or even those whose approval they crave - at least to hear Haidt tell it. They would be quite rare indeed if they entirely escaped such a need.

I’m further along in his book now … he speaks quite respectfully of religion generally after his experience living in India. Will see where he progresses in all that.

I find this an interesting discussion which you guys are having, @Mervin_Bitikofer and @mitchellmckain over a point that perhaps @Realspiritik introduced about the way reputation seeking can distort our efforts to seek the good.

My initial thought is that it may help to specify that it is the respect of those we respect whose approval we should seek, and not just whoever is around or the many. I think there is a need from time to time to check to see how our words and actions are being received by others as a reality check. But then it matters from whom the feedback comes.

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I remember movies which showed solitary confinement making people crazy. I always found that difficult to believe. In fact, I just now did a search on the topic asking if this was fact or fiction? It got me mixed results. Yes it can make some people crazy, though perhaps a lesser percentage of those in prison than the general population. I thought about suggesting earlier that many might consider the loner personality to be borderline maladjusted and that a higher portion of them ended up in prison for a variety of reasons – especially when there are less roles for them in the modern world. In the past there were not only the lone explorers and various wilderness occupations but also the religious hermit.

And then there are those who only concern themselves with self-respect. Narcissist? Despite similarities I think there are some sharp differences. The Narcissist is all about image – it has simply become somewhat delusional. In fact you could say that their dependence on the good opinion of others has become so extreme that they employ self-deception to protect it from others.

Though… I should say… even noticing how things went from my life experience that people can also go through phases. One who starts out as a loner can become more acculturated in a later phase of life, though I suspect the earlier phase leaves its mark at least to the degree that one can more easily fall back on the loner way of thinking. And then it might go the other way around as someone becomes so fed up with the unjust and inane opinions of others that they choose a more solitary lifestyle. And as I have suggested it is what we do repeatedly that programs the so called “elephant” or reactive/habitual mind, so those isolating themselves for long enough are likely to stop thinking of themselves in terms of social standing.

On an evolutionary telling, status may be a much more valuable thing to have, especially among one’s own tribe than truth. So there could be an evolutionary history that significantly selected for status-protectors. After all, we want to be surrounded by people we trust and admire. And we want to be perceived as such a person by our peers whether we really merit the reputation or not. Hence our culture of facade and (at this point nearly celebrated) duplicity.

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I think you’re quite right about selection for status-protectors in our evolutionary history. We see the same tendency among many animal species. But God has decided to give full free will to human beings, whereas other species seem to not have the mixed blessing that is full free will. Free will properly exercised can allow us to override some of our instinctual habits (such as status preservation) if we’re so inclined. Religion when done well can help us learn how to do this. But religion can also have the opposite effect, and force us to accept doctrines that grind us further into the suffering caused by status addiction. Discernment is probably the only way out of this particular form of human confusion.

I’m totally with you. And one of my definitely still unanswered questions for Haidt (though I’m still less than half way through his book) is how he hopes to find sufficiency in Hume’s program of constructing a science of morality. And Haidt has spoken approvingly of Hume’s work on this, as opposed to Kant or other rationalists. The one thing all the enlightenment folks agreed upon then was that religion or resort to Deity was not a satisfactory explanation of morality. But after that they parted company with each other as many of the time (in the tradition of Plato) sought rationalism as the highest source to be searched for morality, whereas Hume thought rationalism to be no better than religion in that pursuit. Hume was all about intuition and emotion being the seat of all such explanation. And according to Haidt, after Hume’s death the search for authentic “moral science” languished under the misguided program of rationalism for two centuries until more recent social science has finally vindicated Hume’s view and productively resumed research in those directions.

My question for Haidt is this: How is it that we can finally think of all religious / cultural dogma as hallucinatory? (and I think I’ve caught him a couple times using that term). If religions and tribal cultural norms are all to be thought of as collective hallucinations - even if productive ones that Haidt speaks approvingly of - then it seems to me as if the word “hallucination” is finally bereft of any meaning. Because it is a word only useful on the lips of somebody who deems themselves to be outside of any such hallucination so that they can objectively evaluate what afflicts everyone else. Isn’t there that famous phase: “the last superstition”? The notion that somebody can ultimately “win” the contest to be the “most removed” observer of everybody else and know that they are not themselves the subjects of somebody else’s yet more detached study.

But Haidt is sharp enough that I don’t think he would think of himself in those terms above and is quite willing (he does) acknowledge his own human entanglements in all this as he provides a view that (as for all of us) is obliged to be solidly from within. So my question to him I anticipate must remain: how can there be any morality of science that will ever get us from “is” to “ought”? I don’t think he will try to go there. But he is doing a delightful job describing the historical “was / is” side of it. And as such I’m learning a lot from his work.

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