September 06, 2007

Santa Claus Morality

"I think [heaven is] a bad concept to have because then everything you do, you want to do good things in order to get to Heaven. Then everything becomes a selfish act, and I hate that, it creates bad patterns in your mind. I like doing things not as a means to get into Heaven but for the sake of doing it themselves."
Natalie Portman, Actress, Inside the Actors Studio, Episode #11.7 (2004).

"The threat of damnation is designed to be an incentive to right action; but this is a phony morality. Humanists think we should do good for goodness' sake, not for the selfish prospect of reaping individual rewards or avoiding punishment."
Dan Barker, Atheist and Former Pastor, "For Goodness Sake", Freedom From Religion Foundation.

"I believe in goodness for goodness' sake, not because you're getting some reward in the afterlife. If you're being good for an award, then what sort of person are you anyway?"
Bill Maher, Political Satirist, "I'm spreading the anti-gospel", Chicago Sun Times (10/24/04).


This common objection is meant to be a defeater for the concept of Christian morality, but it really does nothing so much as to demonstrate a deep intuitive knowledge about morality. Claiming that we ought to "be good for goodness' sake" assumes four very important things about the nature of morality.

Morality is Objectively Real

The first thing this claim demonstrates is the belief that good, and by extension, evil, are real things. Indeed, "good" is being held up as some ideal, perhaps even independent of God, which we should strive to pursue for its own pure ontological beauty. For this reason, a moral relativist is not well served by this objection. In his mind, morality is simply behavioral preferences and cultural conventions. Morality is not something "out there," apart from humanity and applicable to all times and places. There is, then, nothing other for the sake of which we might attempt to be good.

If there is no objectively real morality, then we can only be good for our own sakes, that is, for the sake of our own feelings about morality. We might be good for the personal benefits that are achieved by acting in certain ways, but we cannot be good for the sake of an abstract, transient concept. It is not something that we separate from ourselves and put upon a pedestal as though it had an existence apart from us, its maker. You might just as well say we should eat ice cream for the sake of The Favorite Flavor. No, we eat it for the sake of our enjoyment, whatever our favorite happens to be, assuming we even have one.

Even if "good" turns out to be a changing and subjective thing, then the very idea that we should take pains to follow it is itself an objective principle, which would in turn foil moral relativism. If morality is not a real thing with some purpose and value behind it, then what right or meaning is there in a relativist telling us we should bow to the idol of morality? And exactly whose idol should we bow to anyway?

Moral relativism makes it difficult to meaningfully speak in moral terms, but it is the legacy of those who do not allow a God that meddles in human affairs. Consequently, atheists, who employ this objection most often, are admitting far too much in even voicing it, since it requires morality to be tangible and particular to even make sense.

Morality is Personal

The second thing that this claim implies is an understanding that morality has a personal basis. We don't do things "for the sake of" inanimate objects. We do things for the sake of personal beings who we seek to honor, impress, love, protect, appease, etc. It makes sense to say that I should care about hygiene for the sake of my spouse and stay married for the sake of the kids, but it does not make sense to say that I should shower for the sake of the soap and stay married for the sake of the appliances.

To say that we should be good for the sake of goodness is to ascribe a personal nature to morality. But this cannot be done if morality is merely a human, subjective phenomenon. Yet even atheists have a deep sense that we ought to do certain things and that other things simply should not be done. But "should" and "ought" are the language of moral incumbency, which is born of law. And law implies a law giver.

The question is whether we humans are making up these laws ourselves as we go along, or whether the laws have been written for us by someone higher. If by ourselves, then we can only be good for the sake of our own self-interest. But if morality has another author, then we should be good for the sake of that One, not the inanimate thing derived from that One.

The Highest Morality is Selfless

The third thing that this claim demonstrates is the belief that self-serving morality is a parody of true virtue. To say that we should be good for the sake of goodness suggests that we should behave in a way that looks beyond the resulting personal benefits. You aren't thinking about morality in the traditional sense if doing the right thing requires you to first ask, "What's in it for me?"

But if morality is simply a creation of society, then it will surely reflect (at best) the shared self-interests of the individuals which compose that society. And if we are just creatures of nature, then evolution (our supposed creator) is the ultimate master of our moral urges. The problem with this is that evolution is selfish by definition. Its primary focus is the survival and competitive advantage of individual gene carriers. Advantages to broader communities are of concern only insofar as they benefit individual reproducers.

There is really nothing practical about the idea that we should expend our precious resources to care for, and allow reproductive rights to, the unproductive and genetically inferior members of society. The theory of evolution certainly doesn't give cause for such thinking. And there is no sense in the idea that a fit and fertile person should lay down his or her life to save the life of someone else who is weak and impaired. Yet one of the most egregious moral crimes in society is to abuse or neglect the helpless, and one of the noblest acts is to dedicate one's life to their aid. This is self-defeating sentimentalism in a purely material world, but makes perfect sense if there is something higher than self and the survival of the fittest.

Good Works do Not Earn God's Favor

The fourth thing that this claim reveals is the intuitive knowledge that works-based righteousness is a spiritually bankrupt idea. If the Christian God indeed exists, then it would be petty for us to only seek to do good in order to win His favor. The objector is right to see such self-interest as tarnish on all our good works, and just how good would we need to be for a God to whom we owe everything in the first place? Seventy-five percent good? Fifty percent good? Whatever the line, it would mean that both heaven and hell are home to many borderline cases. 'Tis an awfully wide gulf that could separate two souls by one four-letter word.

The irony is that Christianity does not even teach that we win heaven by virtue of our good works. In fact, it may be the only religion that explicitly rejects such an idea. For example, Islam actually teaches that our good deeds must outweigh our bad, and Eastern religions teach that we must work our way to enlightenment through various moral and spiritual practices. By contrast, Christianity teaches that we must put aside our futile thoughts of measuring up to God's perfect standard and throw ourselves upon the mercy of His court. We have but to accept, as spiritual beggars, the provision He has made to cover our sin and win our righteousness in Christ.

Good works come as a result of our love and gratitude toward our creator and redeemer; they are not the cause of our redemption. The Christian ideal is to be good for God's sake, not for the sake of what He can do for us. God is not to be confused with Santa Claus. To think otherwise is to make the mistake that Satan made regarding Job's motivation for righteous living (Job 1:9-11).


The claim that we should "be good for goodness' sake" is problematic at face value for the non-religious and does not even manage to apply to the Christian understanding of God and morality. It assumes a rather more substantial view of morality than atheism has a right to claim; it assumes a higher form of virtue than what evolution would be concerned to impose; and it assumes something about how God ought to view moral effort that Christians have been teaching all along.

Matthew 12:36 says that every idle word will be brought to account in the final judgment. The use of this complaint will surely come back to haunt those who have applied it against Christianity and have not availed themselves of God's mercy, do not think of themselves as being so bad as to deserve hell, and even go so far as to doubt the existence of an Author of morality. The objections of the skeptic often say far too much and contain the seeds of his own destruction.

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At 9/06/2007 11:21 PM, Blogger ephphatha said...

I guess Natali Portman, et al., aren't psychological egoists, huh?

I think you're absosmurfly right that this objection to theistic morality is wildly at odds with moral relativism. Your best point was the point about how the objection assumes the highest morality to be selfless. If self-interest creeps in there, then it's not really moral. But any cultural relativist will tell you that self-interest is exactly what morality is and ought to be based on. Self-interest, they will argue, is what prevents cultural relativism from being the arbitrary monster we objectivists sometimes make it out to be.

Great post! I love how you call it "Santa Claus Morality" because it's being good for goodness sake. That's just too clever!

Of course I would argue that self-interest is not at odds with true morality. I wrote about that here.

At 9/07/2007 7:01 AM, Blogger SLW said...

In saying...
"Good works come as a result of our love and gratitude toward our creator and redeemer; they are not the cause of our redemption. The Christian ideal is to be good for God's sake, not for the sake of what He can do for us."
You follow the standard theological treatment of the subject, but I think the Bible provides an even different perspective. Ephesians 2:10 states the reason Christians do good works is that they have been made by God to do them, and that he designed the fabric of their passing with good works sewn in. I suppose a Christian could answer the why question Flip Wilsonesquely by saying, "God made me do it."

At 9/08/2007 1:30 AM, Blogger Aaron Snell said...

Excellent post, Paul, thank you. I agree with Sam about selflessness, and have made a similar point before elsewhere, but I particularly found your second point insightful and compelling. I've used the idea of the personal nature of an obligation before in conversation moral relativists and others, but I like how you articulated it here in relation to this particular objection.

Thanks again, and keep up the good work! (I read here more than I post - except for times like this, when I neglect my own blog for the fun of post on others'!)

At 9/08/2007 6:16 PM, Blogger Paul said...


There is certainly more reason and motivation to our good works than what I have mentioned. I only wanted to address the theological point relevant to the objection, i.e., that Christianity doesn't actually teach what is being assumed about our motivations.

I like the point you raise that suggests even those good things we do are the result of what God has planned that we should do. And other passages indicate that it is God who is at work in us to do these things. Consequently, we have no grounds at all for boasting in any good that comes from our hands. Being an adopted child of the King and a laborer in His field is an exalting thing, but there is much grounds for humility if we understand our theology and the sovereignty of that King.

At 9/08/2007 6:17 PM, Blogger Paul said...


Good to have you comment. You're not the only quiet lurker around here. I get very curious about some of the regulars that pass through here from interesting places like universities and certain corporate offices. I should have a meet and greet post some time.

Glad you liked the "Morality is Personal" point. Believe it or not, that one was an after-thought. The content in there was beginning to invade some of the other points, so I thought it best to break it out into a separate category.

At 9/11/2007 8:13 PM, Blogger Psiomniac said...

We are still here.
Perhaps some of the terminology needs an overhaul. Have a look at this

At 9/12/2007 7:28 AM, Blogger Jim Jordan said...

Excellent perspective, Paul. The gospels have a clear example of God's morality in the story of the Good Samaritan. It doesn't mention a reward incentive, only that the Samaritan took pity on the man on the side of the road. No emotion, no self interest, just doing the right thing because there is no other way. I had a similar post using that example called Thoughts on Being Good for Goodness' Sake. Santa Claus Morality is a great name for it.

At 9/12/2007 11:32 AM, Blogger Paul said...


I almost forgot that I read that post awhile back. Very good, and much more personal than my own. I tend to think that there is really no such thing as an unselfish act, even for us Christians. We may have justification for doing them, but even our most noble moments are probably tainted by self-interest. As Paul says, all our righteous deeds are as filthy rags.

At 9/12/2007 11:33 AM, Blogger Paul said...


Is that the royal "We" or are you tag-teaming me?

At 9/12/2007 5:44 PM, Blogger Psiomniac said...

I only meant that after many months of debating morality we seem to have made little progress.

At 9/18/2007 7:40 AM, Blogger Sarah Scott said...

Great post! There is even a misconception about the nature of Christian morality within the church itself, I have found. Thanks for posting!

At 9/18/2007 5:22 PM, Blogger Paul said...

Thanks Sarah! Good to have you stop by.

And for my other visitors, Sarah's blog is worth the visit as well. I see that Doug Groothuis has been kind enough to leave some comments on her posts. His book, Truth Decay, is a formidable critique of postmodernism.

At 9/21/2007 11:48 PM, Blogger Michael Lonergan said...

I believe that Portman, Maher, and others with their viewpoint are dead right. Heaven is the carrot dangling in front of people. The attoitude of many church goers is, "we must do our good deeds to earn God's favor!"

How many Christians would actually do the things they are doing if they did not believe their God would reward them? Very few.

At 9/22/2007 1:21 AM, Blogger SLW said...

Michael Lonergan,
I have to wonder if you know any Christians? Most of them I know don't do anything for rewards in heaven.

At 9/22/2007 12:58 PM, Blogger Paul said...


I'm wondering with SLW what churchgoers you have observed. There may indeed be some denominations that think or seem to think that way (we often accuse Roman Catholics of works-based salvation theology), but this is not the classical understanding of our grounds for acceptance by God.

However, I will admit, the question of what value good works have for those who are already reconciled to God is more often debated. Perhaps you might even object if I insisted that a scoundrel converted on his deathbed would shine with the same glory in heaven as a lifetime humanitarian and martyr for the faith.

The equalizing factor here is that even those who believe in "rewards in heaven" generally accept the idea that it is God who is at work in the giants of the faith to drive them and enable them to do great things, and for this reason the glory is His by rights. Our great saints are merely jewels in the crown of our King, and it is an honor and privilege to be such a gem, not a right and due compensation.

You must know that your challenge caries with it a certain air of moral superiority. You seem to be saying that many Christians are indeed doing good things, but that it is only for rewards from God. That is to say, they would not be doing good things at all if there were not a God. You are either admitting 1) that Christians are more virtuous than unbelievers, but that their good works can just be discredited, or 2) you are saying that Christians are in reality morally inferior to non-Christians, who do good works too, but for no hope of gain for themselves.

If #1, then I will take the compliment and disarm you of your future ability to say that Christianity has no good effect on a person's behavior and that it is the cause of more evil than good in the world. If #2, then I would refer you back to the first few points I make in my original blog post to show how problematic the idea of real and selfless morality is for the skeptic.

I would also add that the idea of doing "good" without any personal reinforcement attached is a pipedream. All of society is structured around incentives, constraints, and punishments to guide behavior. And even when we imagine we are being virtuous we will find our selfish motives if we will only introspect, e.g., flattery to win favors and affection, getting an emotional high when giving to charity, doing the "right thing" to avoid the contempt of others, jockeying for higher moral ground, etc.

Simply because one might choose to have God as his inspiration and motivation surely does not make an act any worse than doing it for other humans or ourselves, especially if God exists! If it is indeed true that there is no such thing as an unselfish act, then perhaps the best we can hope for is to do the right thing to the right end for the right reason. Perhaps you simply disagree with what Christians consider right, what we see as the ultimate goal, and Who we think has established these things.

I think in the end if you find yourself standing before the great White Throne Judgment, and you are asked on what grounds you should be accepted into paradise, you will almost certainly say, "Because I'm a pretty good guy." You may just as well be a 5 year old hoping to pay for a new bicycle with a pocket full of gum wrappers, marbles, and acorns.


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