Actions Are Not the Same as Motives

Russ Roberts had a great post recently about motives versus results. He writes of the differences between motivation for action and the action’s resulting effects both in our private and public lives. At one point Roberts writes:

[T]hose of us who want smaller government because we think it will make the world a better place are the allies, whether we like it or not, of purely selfish people who want smaller government in order to avoid taxes and who have no intention of giving to charity. That should give us pause. At the same time, those who care so much about others that they would run their lives for them are allied with those who would run the lives of others because of less attractive motives–for power and profit.

I’ve been thinking about a similar point a lot lately — contingency of motivation. Meaning that in many cases where we see a uniform motive for large groups acting together, what is really at work is a wide range of diverse motives that lead toward the same action. The inverse is also true: similar motives in different people can lead toward unique action. More often, though, we conflate our motivations with their results, and, likewise, impose the same constraint on others. If we want, say, a higher minimum wage it is because we are kind-hearted and want to improve the lives of the least privileged. By contrast, then, anyone who opposes the minimum wage must also differ, not only in their policy prescriptions, but in their motivates as well — they, clearly, are not kind-hearted, but cruel.

Of course, this ignores the obvious fact that similar motivations can lead to a wide range of resulting actions. Simply because someone openly supports one set of actions or policies over another does not imply that their motivations are disparate from ours, even if we call for a complete opposite set of policies. Our motivations could be different; indeed, in some dimension they must be since, taking contingency of motivation to its ultimate conclusion, every individual has a unique set of motivations. The important point, though, is that differences in motivations are a matter of degree, and two individuals who desire completely opposite policy prescriptions need not differ very much at all in their motivations. This view seems to get lost in public and political discourse, however. Instead, each side is sure their opponents have nefarious motives.

This problem arises specifically because various motivations are conflated together as is the case in, say, politics. A diverse group of millions of Americans may have similar motivations, but vastly disagree on the resulting policy implications. But instead we artificially perceive motives as aligning along policy lines. Because these policy recommendations differ so indelibly from our own, we then impose on our opponents a set of motivations that differ from our own (virtuous) motives in roughly equal magnitude to how much their policy prescriptions differ from ours. This is often compounded by the fact that the least virtuous motive for any particular policy gets the most attention, acting as a least common dominator for all others who share a similar view.

This results in pithy declarations such as “Republicans hate poor people.” Or sometimes gets morphed into related pejorative statements such as “All Republicans/Democrats are stupid and ignore the facts.” I would say this second statement arises from the same unconscious internal reasoning as the one I’ve been discussing: I examine the facts and they lead me to think X, but Bob believes Y, therefore Bob doesn’t look at the facts. Unfortunately — like motives — what constitutes “a fact” is more complex and oblique than we like to tell ourselves.

Roberts concludes by stating what is likely a much more accurate sentiment about Americans’ beliefs overall:

Both sides want to make the world a better place. We just disagree on how to get there.


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