Do You Think People Need Heaven And Hell Just To Be Nice People?

Or are people nice to each other just for the dopamine?

Those were the questions I wrote in response to an interesting thread on Twitter. The thread was about the response to a montage of celebrities singing John Lennon’s song, “Imagine”, in isolation from the coronavirus pandemic:

I read through the replies and yes, there was quite a bit of scorn. But there was one comment that piqued my interest:

And my reply?

I find it interesting that anyone would see the concepts of Heaven and Hell as a foundation of hope. Hope to go to Heaven, Despair over going to hell. Heaven and Hell are concepts that have deep roots in American culture. Some religions rely on them as a means of social control. Heaven and Hell are the ultimate signs of a culture bent on behavior modification.

What is behavior modification? According to Wikipedia:

Behavior modification refers to behavior-change procedures that were employed during the 1970s and early 1980s. Based on methodological behaviorism,[1] overt behavior was modified with presumed consequences, including artificial positive and negative reinforcement contingencies to increase desirable behavior, or administering positive and negative punishment and/or extinction to reduce problematic behavior.[2][3][4] For the treatment of phobias, habituation and punishment were the basic principles used in flooding, a subcategory of desensitization. (emphasis mine)

Most of us have been raised on behavior modification. We’ve been raised to believe in artificial consequences to our behavior. Our parents told us to behave a certain way or we’d “get it”: time in the corner, spanking, loss of privileges, grounding, loss of property, the silent treatment. I’ve been there, so I know what it’s like to be on the receiving end.

I often wonder about the motivation of people to be good or bad. We have been told to allow ourselves to enjoy guilty pleasures like sex, booze, drugs, and luxury. We have also been told to follow the rules or submit to life in prison. Looking back, I see that some of those rules only apply to certain people — people who can afford a good lawyer are exempt. There always seems to be an exception somewhere.

But there is no escaping our perception of reality. Even if we “get away” with some bad deed, even if no one else saw it, we live with it. In some extreme cases, the perpetrator has nightmares. In other cases, they are overwhelmed with guilt. I can recall a good example of that guilt from around 2008, a picture of a trader on Wall Street on the ledge at the top of his office building, just before he jumped off. I never forgot that picture. It is a reminder to me that there is no such thing as “getting away with something”.

Still, I have long wondered why we would need any external or artificial consequence at all to be good people. Isn’t there something inside that we can build to enforce ethics? Do we need to be threatened with Hell if we’re bad and enticed by Heaven to be good? I don’t think so. I think there is real hope. And I found it here:

The Lives In The Balance Foundation was started by Ross W. Greene, Ph.D. He has worked with kids for more than 40 years, learning and understanding how kids grow up into functional adults. The premise of his work is very simple:

If kids could do better, they would.

The long version of that is:

Challenging behavior occurs when the demands of the environment exceed a kid’s capacity to respond adaptively.

Dr. Greene is one of my personal heroes (see video below to learn more). As a result of reading and studying two of his books, testing and experimenting, I now live in a world that requires no reward, no punishment to get things done for myself. I rely on natural consequences as a guide to my actions.

I also learned that I married a woman completely opposite of my philosophy in this respect. She comes from a country where authoritarian child-rearing is considered to be normal. This required some negotiation and example setting, and we’re still learning, but we’re getting better.

As an example, let me tell you about a recent power struggle I had with my daughter over her homework. I could have battled with her to get it done by imposing my will upon her. Instead, I gently interrogated her to understand the problems she could not solve to complete her homework. She could not do the homework because of some technical issues like Flash wouldn’t load, or a username and password were missing. I solved the technical problems for her (she’s only 7), but we worked together to figure out what the problems where. We collaborated for a solution.

She went from refusing to do her homework at all, to understanding the problem, asking for help, and me helping her to solve any problems she encountered. The problems were of a technical nature that I could easily solve because I have decades of experience with computers. Once the problems were solved, she worked on and completed her homework with enthusiasm. Reward and punishment were not required here. The motivation was already there.

And then there is Einstein, quite possibly the smartest person who ever lived. What did he say about reward and punishment?

“A God who rewards and punishes is inconceivable to him for the simple reason that a man’s actions are determined by necessity, external and internal, so that in God’s eyes he cannot be responsible, any more than an inanimate object is responsible for the motions it undergoes. Science has therefore been charged with undermining morality, but the charge is unjust. A man’s ethical behavior should be based effectually on sympathy, education, and social ties and needs; no religious basis is necessary. Man would indeed be in a poor way if he had to be restrained by fear of punishment and hopes of reward after death. It is therefore easy to see why the churches have always fought science and persecuted its devotees.” (emphasis mine)

To further this point, a friend of mine who studies Middle Eastern culture showed me a video on YouTube about Islamic culture. In that video, I saw images of a man who had been crucified after being convicted of murder. At the time of the recording, that man had long since been dead and left there as an example to others. Passersby knew the law, they knew that he had committed some crime and that he had been crucified in public for shame and deterrence.

What I found so interesting is that the local religion was of no avail and it could not stop this man from murdering someone. The threat of punishment was not enough of a deterrent to stop that man from murdering someone. If religion didn’t teach the man what he needed to avoid killing someone else, if the threat of public crucifixion and hanging on a cross for days until he died wasn’t enough, then there was something missing.

Think about the typical two-year-old. Think about how no amount of punishment could stop him from doing something you don’t want him to do. I’ve read enough horror stories in the news of what parents do to their kids just to “modify” their behavior. I’ve seen cases that led to death of the young child, just for compliance at the whims of the parent. That murderer in the Middle East and a non-compliant two-year-old kid both have something in common: they lacked the skills and/or capacity to respond proactively to the demands of their environment.

Every day (sometimes every hour), I make a conscious decision to behave in a way that allows me to sleep at night. I have found that if I hurt someone, sleep is harder to come by. So I avoid hurting someone by hand or word. I have learned to let the feeling pass if there is a strong feeling, and when the feeling has passed, I can think about how I’d like to respond. I can think through the most likely outcomes when logic is at hand. In this life, I have learned that the people around me, those who love me, that depend on me, are more valuable than my feelings and impulses.

I work in IT and I help people work through their unresolved problems with high-end storage systems. When they’re yelling at me, I don’t have to take it personally. I’m not the one having a bad day, they are. My job is to make their day better.

Sure, it’s uncomfortable dealing with an angry customer. But because I’m not taking what they’re saying personally, because I can see that they’re angry about software that I didn’t write, or a problem that wasn’t sufficiently documented for the customer, and numerous other factors beyond my control, I don’t have to take it personally. Then I can focus on my job, which is to fix the problem at hand for the customer.

From that perspective, I can talk a customer down from the exosphere to the ground, take complete command of the situation, and assure the customer that I’m going to fix the problem. I get a little hit when I can talk the customer down that far and it feels great. When I’m told by the customer that, “In five minutes you just fixed a problem I’ve been trying to fix for weeks!” I get a rush. That’s one of the reasons why I enjoy my job.

I don’t need Heaven to be nice or the threat of Hell to curb my behavior. I get a good feeling just from being nice. When I solve problems with my kids, I get a rush. When I am of service to my family, I glow and I feel it.

When I’m not so nice, I feel it, too. I have a hard time sleeping at night. I apologize for my error and forge the will to do better tomorrow. Sometimes I call a friend or talk to my mom or somebody else to change the pattern of thinking in my mind. Or I get quiet and I write. I know the difference between right and wrong. My moral compass is in my chest and my gut.

But none of that would be possible if I did not teach myself the skills I needed to take a long view of things. I have taught myself to think through the consequences of my actions, to see that reprisal and revenge are far more expensive than the time and effort required to investigate the cause of conflict and to fix that. It is a simple principle, but without the skills, it is very difficult to apply to the challenge of living with other people.

I don’t live in a perfect world. I don’t live in nirvana. But what I’ve created is a rough approximation of heaven for me now. It’s enough for me. I will sleep well knowing I did the right thing today. I will sleep in peace knowing that I have a durable, repeatable solution for a problem that might once have been at the center of a power struggle. It is in this way that I show people that I love them.

Write on.

Written by

Husband, father, worker, philosopher, and observer. Plumbing the depths of consciousness to find the spring of happiness. Write on.

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