Several weeks ago, as I wrestled my two-year-old into clothes, the weight of my charge as a parent hit me—somewhere between the second time putting his shirt on and the third time putting his pants on. As he ripped off his socks and threw them at the dog, I told him, “You need to listen to Mommy,” to which he replied “M&M?”

I told myself it was the potty training—that could be the only possible explanation for my toddler leveraging good behavior for candy. I gently explained that we do not behave well to be rewarded; we behave well because we should, because it’s right to do so. He nodded and whispered back “M&M please,” because he’s two, and, for the most part, incentivized morality is the only sort of morality he understands.

How will we as parents facilitate the divorce of incentive and morality in the minds of our kids? Many purport that a natural progression of cognitive skills will render him capable of morality. I am lulled to comfort by the logic in this; I feel assured of, if not a seamless transition, at least a naturally occurring one.

A paper published in Science last September reported on a survey aimed at gauging morality in a natural environment—all conducted via text messages, allowing participants to partake in the midst of their daily lives. The intent was to engage in applicable, realistic moral scenarios. Recipients of a good deed became more likely to commit a moral act later that day, whereas those who committed a moral act earlier in the day became more likely to commit an immoral act later. Even though researchers posit that the effect of this sort of contagion is minimal on the pursuit and achievement of morality, the mentality behind it speaks to our approach to morality: not as something holistically good, but as a quantified transaction.

The church, generally speaking, has progressed past this view; we know that if morality is a two-pan scale, we’ve broken it. Few of us still believe good or bad can be assigned to one’s identity based on a tally of moral and immoral acts. This I do not worry about; this, I feel, we understand.

It is when I hear Christian youth told, time and time again, that they should abstain from sex before marriage because sex will be better if they do that I worry. It is when I hear the well-meaning Christian assert that whatever we tithe will be given back in spades that I think we’re missing the mark. We might know that morality cannot earn salvation, but we still see it as a path to an incentive. Like children desperate for an M&M from their Heavenly Father, we crave to be rewarded for our obedience.

Article continues below

Shouldn’t it be different? Shouldn’t our primary motivation to honor God be to honor God? My gut tells me “yes.” I fear I’m doing it wrong, that I will train up my son to engage with morality in an equally flawed way lest I reprioritize the way I think of incentive and morality. Should we do good, then, only when it is of no benefit to ourselves? Can benevolence thrive only in a heart void of self-interest?

In the business realm, we see more small- and medium-sized enterprises pursuing philanthropic efforts—going against typical thinking that charity involvement comes after significant monetary success. Researchers believe less established businesses taking this approach are still motivated by self-interest—philanthropy has many entrepreneurial benefits—but also assert that rather than violating it, this self-interest works in tandem with altruism. In other words, self-interest and morality need not be mutually exclusive, a concept supported by biblical principles. God imposed regulations not as an unfeeling dictator, but as an omniscient and loving God, simultaneously desiring our good and His glory. It follows, then, that of course his ways would be good for us.

In “The Weight of Glory,” C.S Lewis said:

If there lurks in most modern minds the notion that to desire our own good and to earnestly hope for the enjoyment of it is a bad thing, I suggest that this notion has crept in from Kant and the Stoics and is no part of the Christian faith. Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling around with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.

The Bible teaches that there are positive and negative effects to moral and immoral behavior; it also teaches that there are sometimes no tangible positive outcomes for moral behavior, and that morality should be pursued regardless. I’m not sure where the balance is—how much incentive is too much incentive; I’m certainly not sure how to strike this balance with a growing two-year old—but I do know that I want to teach him morality as an end, not as a means.

Article continues below

Perhaps the revitalized goal should not be to subtract incentive from our understanding of morality, but rather to reprioritize the interaction of these two concepts. In many ways, incentive is good. Incentive is natural. It’s possible to simultaneously understand that morality is intrinsically good—that it need not lead to any personal gain to hold insurmountable value—and understand that there is, often, a sense of self-interest associated with the pursuit of morality that does not nullify its goodness. Perhaps it is understanding this—that incentive and morality are not mutually exclusive principles—that can empower us to pursue goodness for the sake of goodness.

Valerie Dunham graduated with a B.A in English from Liberty University in 2011 and is a staff writer at Christ and Pop Culture. She currently lives in Blacksburg, VA with her family and enjoys rooting for any and every Boston sports team in her spare time. You can follow Val on Twitter at @valdoeswords.