Some of the various reasons that people do what society consensus expects of them (ie generally known as 'being good') -
- to avoid trouble with the law
- to avoid trouble with the spouse
- to avoid trouble with peers
- to avoid trouble with God (for theists)
- because they have found that it works - eg a society based on honesty is likely to operate more smoothly and happily than one based on dishonesty
With the exception of the last one, your entire list is nothing but fear, and I don't necessarily agree with that as the primary motivating factor behind much of human behavior. What I mean to say is... the reason I stop myself from robbing a bank has nothing to do with my getting caught. It just feels wrong to steal things. What about you? Do you walk past a bank and think, "Gee, I shouldn't rob that bank because I'm afraid I'd get caught", or do you think "Gee, I shouldn't rob that bank because the money doesn't belong to me"? I want you to really think about that. Ask yourself which it is.
I'll give you a few more to add in.
-because it feels better to help people than it does to hurt them.
-because we have empathy and we know what it feels like to hurt.
-because doing good things to others often gets them to do good things for you.
I guess the fundamental difference here is that I believe humans are generally good, and correct me if I'm wrong here, but it seems like your opinion is that unless they're constantly afraid of the repercussions of their actions, things will go to shit real fast. I can't agree with that. Never.
Yes, I should have included empathy on my list.
And that is a very relevant point to raise about whether humans are naturally 'good'.
I think that the question will eventually come down to 'are we naturally selfish or naturally selfless' ? (recognising of course that there can be a spectrum in between).
If we are naturally selfish then ultimately everyone else is a competitor and their gain is potentially our loss and vice versa. When put in these stark terms it sounds quite horrible (to me anyway) but depending on our belief system, selfishness could be an individuals logical conclusion as the best way to behave.
If we are naturally selfless, OTOH, then ultimately we are all inter-dependent, if others are unhappy or suffering then my own happiness is less at least to some extent. This strikes me as being closer to an accurate overall picture of the reality of human society. But I recognise that this is simply my own current belief.
What I seem to have left out so far is feelings. Much of the above belief and behaviour is often dependent on our feelings. Eg a feeling of pleasure when I win a race (ie appear better than others in some way), or a feeling of sadness when I see starving children (witness the suffering of others).
It could easily be argued that we are generally both naturally selfish and naturally selfless to varying degrees. We have also all heard stories about people who seem to be very far to one end of the spectrum ie very cruel or very kind to other people.
However, what I'd like to suggest brings this all back to the last point which I put on my list 'we discover what works'. I think that there is a strong inter-relationship between our feelings and our emotions, our beliefs, and our behaviour.
'Discovering what works' relates to our feelings feeding in to our beliefs. This will continue to happen during our lives and also occurs for society in general which gradually learns what works and what doesn't (even if that learning involves the decay or destruction of some parts of society). Our feelings will generally tell us if our current beliefs and if society's current (general) beliefs are working or not. By 'working' I mean leading to good outcomes both for individuals and for society as a whole.
I suggest that if the majority of individuals are selfish then a society will fail and if the majority of individuals are unselfish (selfless) then a society will flourish. Individuals over time will gradually recognise this and will tend to modify their beliefs and behaviours accordingly (sounds a bit optimistic). But if they don't learn and modify behaviours when necessary, then they, and their larger group, will tend to fail and even perhaps die out.
I believe that laws can be an attempt to guide behaviour modification for the better over time, however laws can also (unfortunately) be used by the selfish to gain control over others.
And now, to throw the cat among the pigeons, I'll bring God back in to the discussion : - ). God is the essence of selflessness (I am not talking about Bible-god which is often men's clumsy attempts to describe and personify something they don't understand). At the heart of most major religions is unity with God through the recognition of selflessness. Thus for example 'all is one' in various Eastern beliefs and 'denial of the self' in Christianity.