Why be good?

Why be good?

When I was first studying to be a teacher, the answer to that question was the subject of a great deal of controversy. Humanist educators (and yes, "humanism" was a word well-respected in teacher colleges in the early 1980s) believed that achievement should be intrinsically motivated, that the content of the curriculum should in and of itself inspire students both to study and to behave properly in class. This was especially true in the "electives," those subjects that students chose to take, rather than being required to take. A band or choir student's love of music would motivate him or her to practice regularly and to be fully focused during rehearsals upon improving performances individually and collectively; a drama student's love of theater would lead her or him to learn parts long before memorization was necessary; and so on. Ideally, all subjects would be intrinsically motivating, though it would require considerably more creativity on the part of educators in core areas to generate the same level of interest from all students.

The counterpoint to intrinsic motivation was extrinsic: prompting students to adhere to classroom behavioral expectations, to study diligently, and to perform well on assignments and tests through rewards and punishments not inherent in the subject matter. The oldest forms of extrinsic motivation are corporal punishment and grades. We don't beat or otherwise shame misbehaving students anymore; if they're chronic offenders, they're much more likely to be put on behavior plans designed to gently nudge them toward compliance with rewards. But whether we're talking sticks, carrots, or report cards, none of these motivators has anything to do with understanding trends in American history, solving a story problem, or summarizing a novel.

As an education student, it seemed clear to me that intrinsic motivation was the way to go. Of course I wanted my students to be fully motivated by their love of music, to practice faithfully, listen attentively, and give everything they had in performance without needing stickers, points, ribbons, trophies, candies, movie days, pizza parties, or any of the other things classroom teachers use. And for the most part, that's how things have worked for me: most of my students have given me their attention because they are enthralled by what I have to share.

Outside of the arts, though--and possibly physical education--something happened between the time I left public education in 1985, and my return to it in 2002: extrinsic motivation won the battle, and the humanists vanished into the woodwork.

Taking education courses at Willamette in 1980-83, I heard a lot about "assertive discipline," an extrinsic motivation approach that was hot with school administrators, but anathema to my professors. It was behavioral rather than cognitive, a Pavlovian approach to teaching: reward students by giving them your full attention when they are acting appropriately; shame students who misbehave by writing their names on the board, then adding checks to those names, but otherwise ignoring them, until they have so many checks you casually send them to the office. My professors pointed out that this was just Skinnerian psychology repackaged, and that teachers who tried it, while initially experiencing some improvements in classroom management, soon saw the naming-checking trick losing its effectiveness. The one thing the method had to teach was that assertiveness pays--but any master teacher since the dawn of the classroom could tell me that. Confident teachers who don't let misbehaving students get their goat are far better at maintaining control of their classrooms than insecure teachers who let their anger show.

Assertive discipline dropped by the wayside as a named method, but the preference of behavioral methods over humanist ethics grew, until I can honestly say that every school in which I have taught--and with the year I spent subbing, plus the six districts in which I've been employed as a regular teacher, that's quite a few schools--has used some form of behavioral discipline to coax students into acceptable conduct at school. It goes by a variety of names, but it always comes down to catching them behaving well and rewarding them with a compliment, a sticker, a prize of some kind; and not making too much of the disincentives of principal visits and parental contacts, but making sure misbehaving students are aware of those consequences. As for the intrinsic motivation of the subject itself, that's been left to the arts.

I suppose it shouldn't surprise me that extrinsic motivation has so captured the American education world in the last three decades, because those years correspond with the ascent of the religious right. 1979, the year I started college, was the peak of American humanism. In Jimmy Carter, we had a Democratic President who, despite being an evangelical, was solidly in favor of the full humanist platform of the Democratic party, and even applied humanist principles to foreign policy. His predecessors, the Nixon and Ford administrations, had been, despite their Republican (and, in Nixon's case, megalomaniacal) nature, decidedly progressive in social policy. Entitlements were expanding, societal barriers were falling, the sexual revolution was becoming mainstreamed, the arts were embracing multiculturalism, bilingual education was taking off--it was a golden age of progressive humanism.

And then it stopped, and began to collapse. The Moral Majority and Ronald Reagan battered away at all that progress. Bill Clinton started to rebuild it, but then became hopelessly mired in sex scandals. George W. Bush gave free rein to conservatism. The hopeful moment of Barack Obama's election was quickly drowned out by the rabid screams of the Tea Party. Since the end of the Carter administration in 1981, the trend has been consistently, irresistibly deeper into dualistic ethics and morality: liberal-conservative, right-wrong, capitalist-socialist, reward-punishment, American-everything else.

Humanism cannot survive in a dualistic world. Humanism values diversity, affirms the reality of multiple possible outcomes, welcomes ambivalence, and has as its ultimate goal the actualization of both the individual and the collective. Profit is irrelevant, property is ephemeral, and the highest good is becoming all that one or many together can become. The preamble to the Constitution is fundamentally humanist, as it sets before American government the mission of promoting the general welfare.

Contrast this goal with a justice system that imposes long prison sentences for the possession of drugs, a health care system that puts the financial well-being of shareholders ahead of the medical well-being of patients, and a public education system that puts test scores ahead of the wholeness of children. Morally, ethically, spiritually we have become a nation of Yankee traders, our sole motivation the cash in which we trust.

I now remove my educator's mortar board and replace it with a theologian's--well, I'm not sure what hat exactly a theologian should wear. But I'm going to carry the extrinsic-intrinsic issue into spiritual matters, so some kind of preacher hat seems appropriate.

As a seminarian, studying ethics and moral theology, I came up against the same philosophical issue I faced in teacher college: why be good? Astonishingly, I realize now the answer to this question comes down to the same dichotomy of extrinsic/intrinsic, and calls into question the existence of God in the same way my recent discussion of prayer does.

There was a time when I believed that I should act morally because God had told me to. There were Ten Commandments, to be exact, which specified how God wanted all people to live, though they could neatly be boiled down--as numerous rabbis, including Jesus, did throughout history--to two: love God, and love your neighbor. These were God's instructions, God's rules for being a moral human. The question "Why be good?" could be answered, "Because God says to."

There's a fundamental flaw in that argument, though: the appeal to authority. Granted, there's no authority higher than God's, but really, if you're only acting in a certain way because someone important said to, then that's extrinsic motivation.

Take it to another level: what happens if we don't act morally? Enter God the judge. In the Hebrew Bible, the message for hundreds of years was that those who did not follow the commandments would be punished in this world, while those who did follow them would be blessed. Ultimately this simplistic formula came up against the Holocaust of the Babylonian exile, and the realization that no amount of holiness could have kept those invaders from destroying the promised land. All right, then, let's post-date it: God must be just, but history is too complicated for that justice to happen in this world, so it'll happen at its apocalyptic end, and the new world that follows it will be a just place where the righteous are rewarded, just as the unrighteous of all time have been retroactively punished in the final cataclysm. That eventually blended with Greek mythology, and morphed into the popular Christian conceptions of Heaven and Hell. Why be good? So you'll go to Heaven--and stay out of Hell.

This is, of course, fundamentally extrinsic, and still brings us back to humans being little more than animals. It's Skinnerian psychology all over again: act to win the reward and avoid the punishment.

If that's all there is to Christian ethics, then Christians can make no claim of superiority to righteous atheists, or members of any other creed that lacks a doctrine of the afterlife, for these people are good without the promise of an ultimate reward. They are good from the inside out, rather than from the outside in. With no pearly gates to beckon them on, on fiery pit goading them from behind, they still choose to act charitably and justly, as if their motivation was entirely...


In fact, there are many reasons to behave morally. The ancient Code of Hammurabi, which prefigures the Ten Commandments in many ways, grew up out of the realization that living collectively necessitated moral behavior, rules that came with consequences if violated. While those consequences were an extrinsic motivator (and often a harsh one), the primary reason for these rules was to facilitate community. That is still an extrinsic, but a higher one than simple pain avoidance. Similarly, the Ten Commandments grew out of a realization that life in the Promised Land would be more beneficial for all Hebrews is they followed some simple rules for life together. When people do not lie, cheat, or murder, when they respect the property rights of others, when they care for their elders, and when they avoid worship of ephemeral things, life is made better for everyone. The common good, the general welfare, the most humanistic motivator of all is behind these rules.

And yet, there is still a whiff of the extrinsic to them. It took the prophet Jeremiah to realize that the highest morality is that which grows out of the human heart's potential for compassion:

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.  It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.  No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord. (Jeremiah 31:31-34)
There's a sense of development in this passage: there was a time when Israel needed extrinsic motivation, needed to face consequences when it broke covenant, and to be materially rewarded when it kept covenant. But those days are passed. Thanks to the Exile, Israel has grown up, and henceforth will keep covenant for intrinsic reasons, for it will be written on their hearts. Just to be in good relationship with God and others is reward enough. There is no need for material prosperity, or for punishment avoidance. The people have grown up, have evolved to the point where they remain in covenant even when their world falls apart for no apparent reason, even when there are no immediate rewards for living morally, when trauma may even follow moral acts. They act morally for the best reason of all, which is also the most humanistic: that is who they are. They keep these commandments not because they have been told to, not because to do so will make them prosperous or keep them out of Hell; they do it simply because it is the right thing, the good thing, to do. And it would still be the right thing to do even if God had not given them the rules.

That's the final, and most powerful, argument for moral living: we know this is the right way to treat each other, whether or not we have a God in our life, telling us so. We do it because it's right, because acting in this way affirms our essential humanity, because to do otherwise would be to violate our very identity. The presence of God in the equation is moot. Atheists can be just as sincerely moral as Christians, perhaps moreso, because their motivation is entirely intrinsic.

I hope my students can catch this intrinsic bug. With it, they may very well become lifelong musicians and lovers of music. I know there are some who need something else, something extrinsic to drive them, and so I have a pile of referral slips sitting next to the stereo for the occasional student who really does need a note home to get him or her to act properly in my class. I know from the delight my students express at playing percussion instruments or gyrating to the brain dance that they are bursting with intrinsic motivation, but there are enough of them whose goal appears to be disruption that I'm not above sending a note home from time to time. But mostly I enjoy being in the presence of children who are loving the music because it is in their hearts, a good and beautiful thing that can teach them to celebrate and respect each other, and to live life fully, joyously, intrinsically motivated to be better people.

May we all find within our hearts the power to become the best humans we can.


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