My other projects include:

My side projects are:

Worldview and Science Examiner

Fitness Trends Examiner (wherein I review individual exercises and workout routines, diet and nutrition, supplements and healthy snacks)

My YouTube channel


The Red Light of Punishment

One counter theistic-moral-system argument that has become ubiquitous is that theistic morality is somewhat of, if not altogether, a sham since it is motivated by threats of punishment. Some who have made this argument are Dan Barker, Keith Parsons, Austin Cline, et al.


As Mr. Cline states it,
“Theistic and religious moral systems typically include prominent threats of punishment for disobedience, and even sometimes eternal punishment for the worst disobedience or disbelief. A truly moral choice, however, cannot be dependent upon a desire to avoid punishment.”

I would personally be quite grateful if anyone could direct my attention to any secular, atheist, non-religious country-nation-government-society that does not include threats of punishment for disobedience of their morals/laws. Such societies never seem to state, “Please do not beat up your neighbor’s pets. But if you do, then we will again ask you nicely to please not do it again.” Nay, every moral system includes punishment whether temporal, eternal or both but not neither.

The bigger issue is the statement, “A truly moral choice, however, cannot be dependent upon a desire to avoid punishment.” One problem is that the atheist must assume, by pretending to know a person’s motivations by some form of mind reading, that a theist is making a moral choice in order to, or solely in order to, avoid punishment.

The atheist cannot know this and it is a non-sequitur to claim that following a moral system that threatens punishment implies doing so in order to, or solely in order to, avoid punishment. We may also wonder if in judging theists of being moral due to presumptions about their inward motivations atheist are not so much attempting a Vulcan mind-meld but expressing their own prejudices since there is no way that they can know the motivations—if you disagree please present your evidence for an immaterial, invisible, motivation.

Allow me to pose the following question:

Why do you not run a red light?

This is asking why, when you are driving a motorized vehicle at some velocity and come upon a red traffic light, do you not keep right on driving but come to a stop? There are perhaps two main reasons which may interact so that no one of them may be our only motivators but act together to cause us to stop.

1. It is illegal to run a red light (unless you are driving an emergency response type vehicle).
2. Running a red light may cause you to collide with another vehicle.

Since it is illegal: you may not run a red light simply to avoid a legal punishment.
Since you may collide with another vehicle: you are risking your health and life and or the health and life of someone else.

Let us assume that I am so compassionate that I do not run a red light because I do not want hurt someone else. Does the fact that it is also illegal mean that I do not really have compassion upon others? Does it mean that my compassion is a fa├žade for my real motivation which is avoiding punishment? Not at all.

This argument may be ubiquitous but it is narrow and fallacious.


  1. Excellent entry. It is a strange thing to say that consequences of something can somehow take away from the moral rightness or wrongness of an act.

  2. What I'm trying to figure out is how it's even a problem to say that to avoid punishment IS the primary reason we don't do things.

    Atheists often say, "I do good to do good", which basically translates to "I do good because I want to", which basically translates to "I do good because it makes me feel good to do it".

    For anyone to say that no moral choice is unselfish in some respect I think is kidding themselves.

    I could be wrong though.

    And the funny thing is, that it seems that even if the Atheist and the Theist are both doing something with some selfish motivation in mind, that the Theist is still being more moral because they are appealing to something higher, whereas an Atheist appeals to nothing but a meaningless system of instincts.

  3. M,

    What is interesting to me is that the same people that eschew moral realism are the ones that go on about the immorality of particular religious groups. If there is something objective about morality, then by all means let's complain about the wrongdoings around the world. If it isn't, all atheists are doing when they say that "Christian's are immoral" is "I don't like what they are doing".

    Funny enough, some atheists have explicitly adopted that last position:


  4. Josh: what does emotivism have to do with atheism? Saying that "some atheists have explicitly adopted" it might be misconstrued as suggesting a logical connection between the two.

    M, this statement of yours I find quite appalling:

    "..the Theist is still being more moral because they are appealing to something higher, whereas an Atheist appeals to nothing but a meaningless system of instincts."

    So, a theists says that his morals are by some (his own?) measure superior to that of an atheist because he appeals to "something higher," while what the atheist appeals to is meaningless.

    This "something higher" being withheld from the atheist, he must make do with something lower, but why must he be derided by the theist and told that what he has is meaningless? Especially since it is obvious to the atheist that the theist does not even understand what he is criticizing?

    I will not start an argument, I'm too sick of this moral shtick for the time being. I just want to register my utmost disgust with sentiments like that, lest the omission be construed as tacit approval.

  5. Josh: what does emotivism have to do with atheism? Saying that "some atheists have explicitly adopted" it might be misconstrued as suggesting a logical connection between the two.

    I don't know about a logical connection, but there is a statistical connection. I don't know that any theist has ever embraced emotivism, and since MOST atheists are moral anti-realists, the "logical" choice would be something like emotivism.

  6. "I don't know about a logical connection, but there is a statistical connection. "

    I was going to ask if you have some statistics; if you have something it would be interesting to see. But then the question is what such statistics might actually be showing: that people intellectually adopt emotivism because they have read Hume or studied modern ethics, or because emotivism has an intuitive core that people might arrive at without prior education — this is in part suggested by all those trolley-dilemmas. But if you have some statistics let's have a look.

  7. I'm going to elaborate on the red light question a bit, because it's a good question and I like the example you use. I think it's got some worthwhile potential.

    First off, I'll point out that there are places where stop signs and red lights are pretty much treated as suggestions of the "you may want to pay a little more attention here" variety, and aren't backed up by randomly placed police who will actually nab you for running one. Now, me, I find that scary as all getout, because I've observed so many bad drivers (who don't bother to look around at intersections at all) that I automatically imagine how the drivers around here would interact with the traffic patterns there, and my imagination is quickly filled with mangled cars. Not cool!

    Contrary to what my imagination would suggest, however, such places are not hotbeds of terrible hourly intersection-collisions. There are, I'm sure, still terrible drivers in those strange foreign lands, but unlike here, "blindly entering intersections" is apparently not a common trait. When I mentally transplanted "terrible drivers I see" into a country with merely suggestive lights and signs, I was not actually forming a clear picture of what conditions "would be like in such a place" (as evidenced by the fact that conditions /aren't/ like that in such places!)

    Now, you pointed out two reasons people 'round here might stop for a red. On the one hand, you could catch legal punishment, i.e. /non-intrinsic consequences/ administered by the choice of some other intelligence. On the other hand, your actions could have an even more direct consequence (CRASH!) that are matters of /how things work/. In lands of suggestive signage, the situation is even simpler: your actions have consequences which are matters of how things work, end of sentence.

    People who live around here who do stop at intersections could, as you say, be using either or both of the reasons you gave. This does not, as you also say, a priori indicate that such people would have run the light if they were in suggestive-sign land (or if stoplight laws were repealed tomorrow). Someone from suggestive-sign land, not having magic mind-melding powers, might certainly wonder whether one of us was stopping for one reason or another... and they could worry that if we came for a visit, turn out to only have one motivation, and exclaim "it's not against the law here, I can plow through intersections as much as I like!"... but they don't, a priori, know that would be the case.

    So far, I think we're on the same page, right? Suggestive-signers are entitled to be suspicious of our real motivations in stopping at intersections, but they're no more entitled to claim they /know/ we'd plow through than they are entitled to feel confident that we wouldn't. Those of us who stop are motivated by 1 (law) 2 (consequences) or 3 (both 1 and 2), but there's no way they can know which. At least, not without further information. Good so far?

    Well, how would the situation change if we were also known for saying "If it weren't illegal to run red lights, what would stop people from doing so?" and "If it weren't illegal, I don't see any reason I would bother to stop." or "Without red-light laws, you'd have a hotbed of terrible hourly intersection-collisions!" or even "When I try to imagine what life would be like without red-light laws, my imagination is quickly filled with mangled cars!"

    Can you imagine someone from a suggestive-signage country saying such things? They'd be seriously silly things. "Well, think about what would happen- it would be dumb!" they'd reply to the first question. Anyone making the second statement would be justifiably distrusted, because A> since it's not illegal, they'd be a menace, and B> it implies they can't think far enough to realize the consequences of their actions. The third and fourth statements are also scary, as there's clearly (to a suggestive-signer) something preventing the speaker's imagination from getting an accurate picture of things, and if it's not a flaw in the speaker's attitude toward intersections, it's probably reflecting a flaw in the intersection-attitudes of many of the people around the speaker! Even worse!

    So, yeah, the existence of multiple /possible/ reasons for 'good' actions, such as our being careful at an intersection, does not in and of itself give other people grounds to accuse you or me of having "avoid punishment!" as our /real/ motivation. When coupled, however, with an attitude that the existence of good actions or reasons to engage in them is dependent on the punishing body... well, then something can be said about the real motivations of people who make such claims!

    I'm reminded of a theist who seemed convinced that if their beliefs were wrong, there would be no important difference between cannibalism and eating a pie. If they'd just said "It's great that the gods approve of me being moral and all, but I'd do it the same even if they didn't exist, and even if they disapproved (despite the divine punishments I'd have coming my way!" I wouldn't be worried at all. If they'd said "Ah, but you see, there are good reasons for this quite separate from what the gods say must be done to avoid punishment, so how can you tell if I'm doing this for good reasons, or if I'm doing it to avoid punishment?" then I would be suspicious of them, but wouldn't have enough to make any accusations. When they're saying things like "I can't fault the logic that [Jeffrey Dahmer, a psychopath who cannibalised his victims] applies." (For those not clicking on links, the logic being applied by Dahmer was "If a person doesn’t think there is a God to be accountable to, then…what is the point of trying to modify your behavior to keep it within acceptable ranges?") well.. then it's pretty evident we've got someone who doesn't run red lights because of the imposed consequences, rather than because of the ones that come straight out of the physics of collisions.

    So it wouldn't really surprise me to find there are theists out there who could retain large chunks of their moral structure even without their gods, and I think I even personally know one who would retain most of his moral structure even he knew he'd suffer eternally for doing so... so there ought to be others like him, too. It would, however, surprise me to find such retention in the theists who say "Without gods, there is no morality!" or "Non theists are simply aping the morality of theists, they can't really lay claim to anything moral that's not secondhand."

    Long as you're not making claims like that, you're probably not revealing enough about your immaterial, invisible motivation for me to know your motivations. At least, not with some of that funky bowl-cut Vulcan mind-melding... love the picture :)


    Also, as much as I like the red-light question, it does have some problems. For instance, the punishment involved is a deterrent, rather than a remedy, prophylactic, or revenge (Use of terms: imprisoning a thief for a year in order to follow through on a threat made in the hopes of scaring people off thieving is a /deterrent/, making a thief give back what they stole in order to undo their actions is a /remedy/, exiling the thief to the isle of Elba in order to prevent them from being able to repeat such actions is a /prophylactic/, letting the victim repeatedly kick the thief in the balls to satisfy an unfortunate emotional response is /revenge/). Finding a society with no threats of punishment would be, I expect, complicated by the fact that not all punishments exist to be deterrents, but almost all punishments may have a deterrent effect: If someone doesn't want to be exiled to Elba, they may not become a thief, but the point of the exile isn't to prevent people from becoming thieves, it's to prevent society from suffering from the same thief more than once. Also complicating the issue is that some punishments come into law because legislator A wants a remedy, while legislator B wants a revenge, and legislator C wants a deterrent.

    The important point, however, is that even in a society which didn't employ deterrent punishments (or even, one would hope, revenge punishments!) you wouldn't expect to see a complete absence of punishments for disobedience of laws. They wouldn't be posed as threats, they wouldn't be meant as threats, but anyone considering running up against one would naturally construe it as a threat. Even if your attention was drawn to a secular, atheist, non-religious country-nation-government-society that only uses remedy and prophylactic punishments (that being the real issue) I'm afraid you would spin those punishments as threats intended for deterrent purposes and say it was a failed example.

  8. I was going to ask if you have some statistics; if you have something it would be interesting to see. But then the question is what such statistics might actually be showing: that people intellectually adopt emotivism because they have read Hume or studied modern ethics, or because emotivism has an intuitive core that people might arrive at without prior education — this is in part suggested by all those trolley-dilemmas. But if you have some statistics let's have a look.

    I don't know what the official statistics are or anything like that, but among analytic philosophers in the twentieth century (when it was really hashed out as a meta-ethical theory) there is a significant unbalanced ratio. Of course the father of modern emotivism, A.J. Ayer, would fall into a strong agnostic/atheist position, as would Simon Blackburn, R.M. Hare, and the new atheists Dawkins and Dennett have taken this position.

    The moral realist side is heavily populated by theists like Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Kant, John Hare and on and on.

    It really isn't that surprising to me, either. Think about it for a second- whose worldview do objective moral duties fit in better with? One that posits non-physical, binding laws of value or a reductionist view that, in the end, posits particles and waves?

  9. That was a great post, Mariano. It's cool to see someone cut through all that fat and point out the obvious. We definitely need to call on Atheists when they make statements like these.

  10. A truly moral choice, however, cannot be dependent upon a desire to avoid punishment.

    Who gave him the right to define what a "truly moral" choice is and is not? Who says moral choices "cannot" depend on avoiding punishments? Are there "false" moral choices if there are "true" ones? Is a "false" moral choice one that is based on fear? Who says? Who is he to define moral choices that way?

    I wouldn't even bother responding, he can't just assert these things as if they are moral laws of the universe or something.

    I mean, obviously I'd rather have it that a person doesn't murder because they respect the life of others, over him not murdering simply to avoid punishment. But just because I'm more comfortable with him, doesn't make him more or less moral, it just makes him more or less loving. Or more or less dedicated to the safety and care of others.
    This has less to do with morality, and more to do with love.

    If you ask me, morality is just a word for behavior, that is, what we do and how we act. It is simply our choices, and we make good choices or bad choices, it doesn't matter what the motivation is behind the choices.
    The Bible says in Galatians 5:14: For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself."

    The more we grow to love, the less that law and punishment is needed.
    Because of this, I wouldn't use "moral" as the descriptor for a person who is motivated more by love than by law. In other words, a person who doesn't murder out of love rather than fear of punishment is NOT "more moral", but rather, more loving, because he would act the same without any law. They are EQUALLY as moral, because both act the same, regardless of motivation. Morality is not defined within the space of our cognitive processes, but in our actions. Not in our motivations and reasoning, but in our physical expressions.
    You cannot have more and less moral people based on motivations, only actions. MORE moral people are the sorts of people who obey the law more completely and act in less selfish, and more caring ways. LESS moral people disobey laws more, and care less about acting with respect to others.
    In other words, more moral people act better, less moral people act worse, but motivations do not come into play. Motivations are a part of reasoning, of heart, and so forth, not morality. Morality is a label for the end result of your internal processing, the final actions you will take when you act out. Morality is NOT a label for your thinking processes that lead up to such actions.
    People don't go around telling each other to "think morally". Rather we tell each other to "act morally". We need to "think" rationally, reasonably, lovingly, respectfully.

    This is all horizontal in nature, of course, in human relations. What we think in our heads does not affect other people, it never can. Only what we do can affect others. However, in a vertical sense, between God and man, what we think DOES seem to have affect. We can think badly toward another person and they'll never know or care unless you actually express it in some way. But we can think badly toward God, and he is affected by it. We can think badly toward each other, and God knows it. Which is why, in a vertical sense only, God equivocates morality and thought. Ex. to hate a brother is to murder. To think lustfully is to commit adultery, etc... This is the standard God sets, but it is not the standard man sets. To God this isn't morality, it's a heart issue, a matter of love as the verse above suggests, all law is summarized that we love others. We wouldn't NEED laws if we loved.

    All that to say this, such a loving person is not "more moral", he is simply more loving.

    So OK, that person might say, "so what, so we can be more loving then." I may have rambled on to long to attack this, but one wonders if it is not precisely a "loving" thing to do to obey the rules of an authority above you. NOT simply because breaking the rules brings punishment, rather because you respect the authority and desire to obey it, irregardless of punishment or fear.

    Anyway, I think his complaint was invalid to start with.

  11. kuhlmann,

    Great comment. Allow me to conduct a thought experiment as well. Imagine that I am in the midst of Nazi Germany and make the following statements:

    I propose that we adopt the principal of exterminating Jews because pretty much everyone would agree with this statement without further thought.

    For those of you who can't see why this is the right course of action, I claim that the minority Jews need to be exterminated for the good of the majority Germans., and I appeal to your sense of justice.

    For those holdouts who lack an intuition for the greater good, I claim that the injustice in this situation is the needless suffering that it causes the German majority, and I appeal to your intuition that the needless suffering of the majority is wrong.

    Now, you right ask that the above, or “show why my view of morality is dangerous,” I must provide real people who are able to think logically, come to this conclusion logically. I suppose that anyone who disagreed with your thought experiment would be instantly considered illogical. The Nazis could have bored you for hours about how the Jews were less evolutionarily evolved, hurting Germany by their avarice, conspiratorial, thieves/cheats/liars, not of pure blood, not loyal to Germany, etc., etc., etc. And they were “a whole bunch of them.” There have been societies/philosophies wherein compassion was not a virtue.

    As for Dan Barker and the Humanist Society (et al) I was implying that they do, in fact, point to selfish reasons for morality yet, I did not mean to imply that they claim it to be the only reason.


  12. Following up on earlier red light commentary, it might be entertaining to count the number of actual collisions that happen in this clip:

  13. WOW!
    I think that I bit my fingernails clean off, that is wild, wild stuff!

  14. Morality is a personal choice. Laws are always inforced by compulsion. This is due to the nature of laws- they apply to everyone and some people do not want to obey.

    I hope I have made clear the differance