There are two methods of viewing actions. We can judge the motivations of the actions or the consequences of the actions.

Consequences produce empirical evidence which can be independently analyzed and judged. We can only speculate about another person’s motivation.

Attacking someone’s motivations is a classic political attack, but it is usually an ad hominem fallacy. Why is it that we place more value on a person’s motivations rather than the consequences?

If we strive to be perfect rationalists, we could sit down and debate the costs and benefits of every policy alternative. Usually, politics devolves into monkeys throwing poo at each other. So why?

So, take a hypothetical policy-wonk. He thinks X policy would be good for business development in our city.

There’s two ways we make political counter arguments.
#1: I disagree, I think you underestimate the damages this policy would cause to these neighborhoods. Policy Y should outperform X.
#2: You’re in the pocket of Corporations that rob the poor

Of course the logic of the first argument is better.

First, it is empirically based. The effects can be quantified and studied. Others can review the studies independently and more objectively. This is a much better way of learning the truth about the consequences of any policy.

Second, motives have little to do with consequences. Speculating about a person’s motives usually tells us more about the speculator. The idea that motivations of an individual matter is based on the the myth that the “personal is political.” The message and the empirical consequences are separate from the individual – which is why the ad-hominem attack is a logical fallacy.

We can empirically prove many things – intent, consequences, actions. Legal courts evaluate evidence to determine intent and consequences (ie, was the death an accident or intentional?) These can be proven.

Motivation is unprovable. Even a man’s signed testimony discussing his motivation cannot be trusted – does he have a motive to lie about his motivation? You cannot know for certain.

We are biased by our perceptions. One bias is correspondent inference. If we see Person A punch Person B, we assume Person A was motivated to harm Person B. Yet what we saw was the consequences of the action, not the motivation. They could have been actors pretending to fight. It could have been an accident. We do not know for certain what motivated the action. We infer what the motive after seeing the result.

But notice we reverse the order of events. In reality, motive came first, then the action, then the consequences. Here, we see the consequences and infer what the motives must have been. This type of inferrence might work in simplistic cases some of the time, but it breaks down in complicated cases where there are many alternatives.

In more complicated systems, individuals may not even see the triggering action. Thousands of small inputs interact and produce consequences that may not be easily predictable. We cannot assume that one person’s input means that they desired the consequences.

What about men who try to solve Wicked Problems and face many unintended consequences? The problem is messy, poorly defined, and resists attempts to solve.

The greatest flaws of motivation inferrence is that it assumes rational decision-making mattered. There is the classical “trinity” of forces – rational, irrational and non-rational elements in life. Consequences of policies are shaped by all three elements, but inferring motivation from consequences presumes that the consequences may only be shaped by a rational motive. The consequences may have been circumstancial and random for all we know.

Our biases assign higher weight to uncertain motivations than concrete consequences. People engage in ad-hominem attacks by assigning negative value to an individual rather than debate the merits of the ideas. On the other hand, if someone claims purity of well-intentioned motives, then they are absolved of their failed and harmful policies.

There was a recent Penn and Teller Bullshit episode which attacked three sacred cows: Mother Teresa, Gandhi, Dalai Lama. In this case, all three were “holy” persons so we assume they did good things. Their message makes us feel good and engenders respect.

Now imagine they were not holy persons. They were just ordinary people from the street who did what they did. How would we judge the results of their actions?

Christopher Hitchens described the results of Mother Teresa’s policies. They did not help the poor of Calcutta. For instance, the medical care she provided was so awful it caused harm.

HITCHENS: The care facilities are grotesquely simple: rudimentary, unscientific, miles behind any modern conception of what medical science is supposed to do. There have been a number of articles … about the failure and primitivism of her treatment of lepers and the dying, of her attitude towards medication and prophylaxis.

As to why those who would normally consider themselves rationalists or skeptics have fallen for the Mother Teresa myth, I think there is an element of post-colonial condescension involved, in that most people have a slightly bad conscience about “the wretched of the Earth” and they are glad to feel that there are those who will take action. Then also there is the general problem of credulity, of people being willing – once a reputation has been established – to judge people’s actions by that reputation instead of the reputation by that action.

She will be elevated to sainthood because she denied proper scientific medical care to sick people.

There were many in India who genuinely help the poor. This includes the proverbial bakers, butchers, and merchants who feed the cities to make a profit. But their motivations are not seen as “pure” as the holy ones.

Indeed, when you hear of a micro-credit loaner who wants to make a profit off the poor, you might recoil in disgust. Why is that? Micro-finance alleviates poverty by giving the poor access to money to start businesses. Both the poor and the banker profit and this does far more to reduce poverty than anything the holy men have done in history. I know this and I recoiled in disgust writing the sentence. Why do the words “I want to profit off the poor” make us feel bad even when the effect is good? Why does Mother Teresa trapping poor lepers into a charnel house to die make us feel good?

I try to be a consequentialist. I cannot say that I am strictly ethically consequentialist or a Utilitarian, in part because we do not know the full consequences of our behavior.

Advertisements