I’ve learned a lot after sixteen years in a mixed marriage.

And by mixed marriage, I mean, of course, politics. We are on opposite ends of the political spectrum.  We talk, and argue, about politics all the time.  The most important thing we’ve learned is that any discussion of motives is a complete dead end. Here’s why:

Motives are unknowable.

Heck, half the time I don’t even know my own motives.  I tell myself that I am going to eat a cookie because I am hungry, but the reality is that I want the feel of sugar and fat on my tongue and I want an excuse to sit in front of Facebook for five more minutes before I clean the bathroom.  If I’m not always aware of, or honest about, my own motives, how can I ever expect to understand someone else’s motives?  I suspect that because we know that motives lead to actions, we assume that we can reverse the arrow and look at actions to determine motives.  But this simply isn’t true.  We just can’t ever know someone else’s motives.  Any effort to identify someone else’s motives is nothing more than speculation.  (Note:  I think people should spend a good long time thinking about their own motives [for political beliefs and everything else they do/believe].  Introspection is a good thing.  In this post, I’m talking only about debating other people’s motives in the context of political discussions.)

Not all members who agree on a policy position do so for the same motive.

This one should be obvious:  even if I were to have solid, irrefutable proof that one person held a position for a certain reason, I have no way of knowing if that motive applies to anyone else who holds that position.

Motives are ultimately irrelevant.  (Only policy matters.)

Thought experiment time:

(1) Let’s say that a minority group in the US were being denied its constitutionally-guaranteed rights.  Let’s say a senator was promoting legislation to change that, but deep down, he actually hated members of that minority group and only wanted to protect their rights because he thought they might donate money to his campaign out of gratitude (and this would benefit him and impoverish them).  Do his motives (which are very poor) matter in evaluating whether his legislation is a good idea?

(2) Let’s say a senator really, really, really cared about the poor and therefore wanted to pass legislation mandating the creation of a new government agency that would hire people to go around and kiss poor people to show how much we care about them.  Do his motives (which are very good) matter in evaluating whether his legislation is a good idea?

My point is that, even if we could know someone’s motives, it wouldn’t matter.  Bad policies can be supported by people with good motives.  Good policies can be supported by people with bad motives.  Knowing the motive of supporters (even if we could know) wouldn’t help us evaluate whether the policy was any good anyway.

Discussions of other people’s motives lead to contention in a way that policy discussions do not.

I have seen this in my own home, on the Internet, etc.  Whether they articulate it in the terms I do above or not, people always get ticked off when their motives (or those of their ideological allies) are questioned.  They take it personally in ways that they don’t when the (de)merits of a policy are discussed.   It changes the tenor of a discussion when it turns to motives, and not for the better.  I can imagine swapping charts, facts, and figures with a conservative for hours in a civil manner, but as soon as he says to me, “you only believe that because . . .” we’re done.  It’s become personal.  Note that I can’t really respond to his argument (“I do not!”) in any meaningful way (not only are motives unknowable but they are also unproveable), so I’m likely to turn to questioning his motives, or making snarky remarks, or ad hominem attacks, etc.

I am not always good about avoiding discussing people’s motives.  I know I have failed on this from time to time.  But, after many discussions with my husband, I have learned to be more aware of it.  I was pretty thrilled the other day when a member of my ward who thinks that Allan West should have been the GOP VP pick said he appreciated the way that I talk about politics.  Me–who thinks that President Obama is way too conservative.  When I’ve argued with this brother on Facebook (and I do it a lot–he’s always posting political links), I’ve tried to stay focused on policy and not motives or personalities.

This post is a long way of saying that I completely understand why Alison Moore Smith was not pleased that some people question the motives of conservatives. By the same token, I think Alison’s post was just as wrong to try to tease out the motives of liberals.

Nothing productive comes from questioning the motives of our political opposites on either side of the aisle.


31 comments for “Motives

  1. Years ago I had a bishop who was a Republican and whose wife was a Democrat. I suppose there was a time when they argued over their differences, but by the time he became bishop they had learned to laugh about them. They joked openly about cancelling each other’s votes out, but they also had a deep respect for each other and their political views. Would that we all could be so tolerant and respectful.

  2. You sound so anti-Kantian and consequentialist. Of course, we can’t help but think of others and ourselves as acting based on motives. To do otherwise would put us in the realm of determinism, and for a people who believe strongly in agency, that is unacceptable. But I doubt that was your motive in posting this. :)

  3. Rachel, my thoughts here are strictly limited to what is and what is not productive ground in a political disagreement. Obviously, every person’s political beliefs are based on motives, and those motives matter to the person (and to God, I think, who will hold us accountable for them). But no one else can access those motives, so they are not helpful areas to explore in political debates.

    It took me awhile to get the humor in your final line. I am a little slow. :)

  4. Totally agree Obama is too conservative. I knew there was a reason I liked you so much. However, I also like a political discussion when a person tries to articulate why they choose to label themselves as liberal or conservative. So often our deeply held beliefs arise from our unique life experience, our stories, and I love a good story. I find that once I listen to someone narrating their experience, often, not always, I can let go of any offense or judgement I feel from or toward them. I have a greater appreciation and feel a greater connection with them, whether we agree politically or not. Granted election years can be trickier.

  5. Preach it, sister.

    I’m in a mixed marriage of another sort. My husband and I are relatively close in our politics but couldn’t be father apart in our religious views. Much of this applies to discussions of religious difference as well.

  6. Julie, I totally agree. If people were to look more at policies and less at the imagined motivations of people, we probably would move our politics further in a positive way.

    Sadly, I think the ‘motive’ attack comes from the top down, and we often get sucked into it. Saying that Republicans want to push grandma off the cliff, or Democrats want to turn our nation into the Soviet Union, does little to move the discussion on ideas forward.

    I guess it would be wonderful if we all became Independent of all parties, and voted for the most capable with the best plans. Instead, too many of us push the R or D straight party ticket, instead.

  7. Excellent, excellent post, Julie.

    I particularly loved this:
    “I suspect that because we know that motives lead to actions, we assume that we can reverse the arrow and look at actions to determine motives.”

    Sadly, I have been guilty of this far too often.

  8. Thanks, Julie. I think this is a very helpful guideline for encouraging civil dialogue. As someone who is fascinated by national/world affairs but who doesn’t often agree with any political party’s stance (let alone with the politics of many of my closest friends and family) I value civil dialogue above almost all else.

    However, I was given pause by your assertion that policy is all that matters. I see the logic in that if we are concerned only with a known slate of issues. But new things come up and situations change. I recognize that ultimately it’s not possible for me to really know someone’s character, but I would still hesitate to vote for someone I thought to be a scoundrel — even if I expected him/her to implement some good policies — because I would be afraid of what would happen in response to the unknowns the future inevitably will bring.

    Luckily for me, I rarely feel that a candidate’s motives are anywhere near as benighted as the opposition suggests. Indeed, sometimes I feel like (campaign fervor being what it is) I’m the only person in America who suspects that Gov. Romney and Pres. Obama are both fundamentally decent men.

  9. Instead, too many of us push the R or D straight party ticket, instead.

    Look no further than single member districts with a plurality voting system. Third parties, for better or worse, do not do well under such circumstances.

  10. I’m becoming less concerned about motives, since there is really a lot of politics that goes on with public speech, surrogates, etc. For whatever we disagree on the ideal policy, I think it should be clear Obama is not the kind of executive to bring liberal’s policy aspirations to life. I really think he’s in over his head as far as leadership and executive organization, decision making goes.

    Romney, agree or disagree with his policy, has had to make some major decisions that have pretty serious consequences for failure. Losing 10s or hundreds of millions of dollars is a lot different than making speeches, casting a vote, or voting present.

    There are no doubt some very strong liberal executives out there who would be better suited to accomplishing a more liberal agenda. Obama would actually make an excellent surrogate, out there in the press arguing convincingly for something. But he’s not that great of an executive who can combine leadership with implementation.

    This is the chief reason why I think Romney will make a better President that Obama. It’s not his opinions of policy, but the fact that he can actually lead an organization with a lot of complex factors involved. Just a side note… a CEO is not a manager where they just get to fire everyone who they don’t like, and even a manager just can’t do that either. The people who have had real business world experience and were both extremely successful AND widely regarded as a good person by the people they work with seem pretty rare to me. Romney has it…

    For those who think they means Romney will be a monster and implement in an extraordinary way the right wing agenda, I also don’t think this is possible given the political situation in the US. I think what Romney will be able to do is develop some good solutions to problems that both parties want to solve for the good of the nation and he’ll be able to get them implemented in an effective way.

    Perhaps only the people who desire power and to graft on to the massive amounts of spending will be those who lose out. But in a Romney Presidency, I don’t see food stamps, or welfare, or medicare or child care, etc. going away… he just can’t do it. So I don’t think there is a lot to “fear” from him.

    And the whole “unchaining” or Wall Street? Well, really… Look who is in charge now, and look at how crazy Wall Street still is. We’re lining up the dominos right now for another crash, and the complex regulations that get thrown in the mix isn’t helping.

  11. “I don’t see food stamps, or welfare, or medicare or child care, etc. going away… he just can’t do it. ”

    — just wanted to clarify. I don’t think he could or would do it, but that doesn’t mean he won’t be accused of doing it when things get streamlined and budgets get cut in order to remove thousands of people who graft on to bloated budgets at no benefit to the target recipient. When thousands of people stand to lose their cushy jobs, they will make it known very loudly, “for the children” of course.

  12. kaphor, your comments are not really relevant to this thread. I’m going to ask you, and anyone who is considering responding to you, to find a more appropriate venue for such thoughts. Any further comments along the lines of the ones you have made will be deleted. This thread isn’t about the merits of particular candidates and/or what they are likely to do in office, so I will delete any more of that.

  13. I really, really appreciated this. It sheds some much-needed light on the unfortunate polarization in USAmerican politics today.

    I will make good practical use of this in working with various groups on the issues in which I am involved.

  14. You addressed motive and policy, I was adding in ability or capability. I think it’s all pretty connected, but I see you’re not necessarily interested in a discussion based on individuals.

  15. Everybody has motives, which is a point best made in C.S. Lewis’ Pilgrim’s Regress in the section on the Spirit of the Age and the Lady Reason.

    We want to examine our opponents’ motives, to discredit them, and to have our own arguments judged solely on their merits. A partisan tendency that we should all avoid.

    At the same time, there is a reason we so naturally look to motives. In the absence of perfect information, examining motives casts light on the validity of the motivated person’s position. The average citizen may not be in a position to fully evaluate Senator Scummy’s new Goodness and Light Bill, but if he discovers good evidence that the Honorable Scummy is doing it for motives of filthy lucre, our average citizen will probably decide that the bill is maximized for filthy lucre and not to spread Goodness and Light. And that decision would be rational.

    The other reason for attacking motives is that when discreditable motives are part of the debate, both sides tend to police their own expression of discreditable motives. Which I believe tends over the long turn to shift the actual range of motives held by that side and also tends to shift the spectrum of policies that are on offer.

    Finally, an agency that *hugged* the poor would be preferable. Kissing is less hygenic.

  16. Captain Moroni and many of his people were keenly aware of others who were seeking after power and the glory of the world. They were tender-hearted, not soft-headed warriors. While I agree that we need to give people the benefit of the doubt concerning motives, this does not relieve us of the duty to judge righteously (JST Matt. 7:1–2, Doctrine and Covenants 11:12)

  17. i thought it was self understood that the motive of a politician is ALWAYS to help oneself first. (o the cookie and to the facebook but never to cleaning the bathroom…) Hence M.R. is a breath of fresh air because he donates of his time and wealth equally and is able to extract value for the individual tax payer. Many others are all in it for the huge pay matter what party they belong to

  18. A High Councilman in my stake stood up last Sunday and commented on the political discourse this season. He had “discovered Facebook”, thereupon noticing that the missionaries he’d come to know in the course of his Stake work had a) married very beautiful people, and b) were spewing hatred about political candidates.

    He couldn’t understand either, but was most concerned about ‘b’. Then he decried non-Christian behavior in political discourse, pointed out the party affiliations of several “liberal Democrat” general authorities, told a story about David O. McKay’s personal friendship with Lyndon B. Johnson, described a time in the 1960’s when circumstances were much worse than now, (Watts riots, several cities burning, etc) but the rhetoric much better than now (“ask not what your country” and so forth), and closed by begging everyone to act like Christians toward one another.

    I really liked that talk.

  19. Motive attacks may be bad for your marriage. They may be disingenuous and morally dubious. Downright evil, perhaps. But don’t you think they can also be very effective?

    If you relentlessly and persistently spread the message that “Nobody can possibly espouse X without being cruel, hateful, and anti-woman/anti-Christian/anti-gay/anti-entrepreneur/anti-motherhood/anti-freedom/anti-immigrant/anti-child/etc.” you can make people really afraid and ashamed to speak out for X. You can make X socially unacceptable.

    It’s an ugly tool, indeed, but it can also be a good way to get people to shut up about X. And sometimes, when you just know X is wrong, and you’re sick and tired of hearing X defended, you might be able to convince yourself that the ends justify the means. You might even find yourself donating to a super-PAC whose sole purpose is to misrepresent the motives of people who support X. I mean when you really know for certain that you’re right and X is wrong.

  20. lucy,
    If only we understood ourselves sufficiently to know when we were judging righteously, as opposed to playing the Zoramite, that advice would be advisable. For the time being, Matthew 7:1-2 original flavor is probably more helpful to individuals in mortality.

  21. I loved the post Julie. Very well thought out and articulated. Can I assume however that if “any discussion of motives is a complete dead end” when we are talking about a person that you also agree that motives behind policy should be left out of the discussion as well.

    For instance, in a hypothetical discussion about Obamacare it would be out of bounds for you to say “we really want to make sure that everyone has health insurance” because that is their motive, right? Or if talking about corporate bailouts you wouldn’t justify them by saying, “we have to do this to save peoples jobs” because that would be talking about motivation behind the policy.

    Similarly, your fellow conversationalist wouldn’t be allowed to say, “but people need to be able to defend themselves” when talking about gun control. And they definitely couldn’t say, “i just want people to be able to keep what they earn” when talking about tax cuts.

    I’m really curious how to hold any conversation about politics without talking about motivation at all. Because without SOME kind of motivation, why would we ever make or change any policy???

  22. Jax, I think very subtle changes can shift a discussion of policy motives to policy effects. So:

    “we really want to make sure that everyone has health insurance”

    should be presented as . . .

    “one effect of this legislation will be that everyone has health insurance.”

    Because it doesn’t really matter what you want. It matters what the policy will actually do!

  23. The CBO came out and said that under the ACA (Obamacare) we would still have over 30million without health insurance… so I think a very subtle change should shift it from:

    “one effect of this legislation will be that everyone has health insurance”


    “one effect of this legislation will be that 30 million people will still not have health insurance, despite the trillions of dollars spent toward that objective”

    I think that does prove your point though… despite any worthy motives for policy, we should consider the actual effects instead.

  24. But if I can’t make up other people’s motives to argue against I would have to focus on things like facts and what if the facts don’t support my position? Existential crisis, that’s what! How is that any good? :)

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