Allow me to explain the logic of the question:

During the time of the Sanhedrin, a Jew could be put to death for not following the law. While it was certainly enforced for things like murder, it could also be enforced for things like breaking Shabbat and idol worship. It was rare and it didn't happen often but it was still a reality that every Jew lived with.

Modern Jews have no such threat of harm to their lives. If a Jew decides tomorrow that they will not observe mitzvot any longer, they simply live life as a secular person. Other than being ostracized socially, there isn't a threat of harm against them.

Can it be argued that a Jew who is observant at a time where they face no consequence for non-observance is actually more pious than a Jew who observes out of fear of the consequences?

We are taught that the main reason we were given free will was because Hashem did not want to be worshipped by mindless drones. Hashem wanted to have us come to him freely and through our own conscious choice. Wouldn't the threat of consequences through the Sanhedrin (or any other Jewish authority) arguably cheapen the idea of true free worship?

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  • Sanhedrian period spanned some 1500 year, what period are you specifically interested in? – Al Berko Dec 16 '18 at 12:05
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    1. How do you measure observance in times where practically no Halacha existed in written? 2. Do you mean observance of Mitzvos as opposed to יראת שמים? – Al Berko Dec 16 '18 at 12:07
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    Please provide your source for "While it was certainly enforced for things like murder" – Al Berko Dec 16 '18 at 12:10
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    Brings to mind one rabbi's quote: It's never been easier to keep Judaism if you want to ... and never been harder to want to. – Shalom Dec 16 '18 at 15:03

Speaking on an entirely different issue, Rav Moshe Feinstein (Shu"t Igros Moshe (Y"D 4, end 2) argued that we are in no position to question the piety of previous generations. In the example you cite, while one could argue the fear of punishment from the Sanhedrin (as opposed to punishment directly from Shamayim) had an effect on their practice, they were many generations closer to Sinai than we are, and (depending on when in the "Sanhedrin Period" you would like to go to) experienced the three annual piligrimages and daily services in the Beit HaMikdash. We can only dream of these things until YH Moshiach arrives (may it be soon!)

https://www.kashrut.com/articles/bubbie/#_edn7av Moshe Feinstein[7] zt"l was asked near the end of his life about prohibiting a certain type of fruit due to a possible insect issue. Rav Moshe responded that it may not be publicized that this fruit is prohibited; as aside for the fact that there were lenient opinions to rely upon (in that specific situation), “it is prohibited to spread rumors about earlier generations, who could not have possibly been stringent on these issues, as they were unaware of them”.

Rav Moshe's thrust and main point was not that people from earlier generations were not culpable, even though they may have been eating non-kosher; rather it was that even if it is assumed that the halacha generally follows the more stringent opinion, we may not publicize that certain issues are assur (prohibited). Rav Moshe was teaching us that is preferable to rely on a lenient opinion (and saying that previous generations had what to rely on as well) than to say that something is definitely assur, and cast negative aspersions on previous generations – whom, without any doubt, were on a higher spiritual level than we are, especially as they are at least one step closer to Har Sinai.

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