Do motives matter?

Cite this Article
Todd Henderson, Do motives matter?, Truth on the Market (February 11, 2010),

I have the pleasure of co-leading a seminar this quarter with distinguished philosopher Brian Leiter. The seminar, entitled “Capitalism: For and Against,” (take a guess which side I’m on), meets periodically at either my home or Brian’s. About 12 students join us to discuss a reading. So far, we’ve read “A Communist Manifesto,” (how could such a silly book have caused such widespread destruction?), and “The Road to Serfdom.” For the next session, we are reading G.A. Cohen’s “Why Not Socialism?”

As it happens, my night-stand reading at the moment is Ursula Le Guin’s “The Dispossessed.” A particular idea mentioned in the novel in last night’s reading coincided with an idea from Cohen — we should care about the motives behind conduct that is subjectively and objectively desirable. Le Guin’s protagonist, Shevek, who inhabits a world of socialist anarchy, is visiting another world that resembles Earth. On his home world, there is no money, no property, and life is barren but, Shevek leads us to believe, deeply meaningful. Behind the eyes of the inhabitants of this world, plain as they are, we are told is a deep warmth of humanity. When Shevek visits the Earth-like world, he is flabbergasted at all of the bounty (think of an East German entering a West German grocery store), but disgusted by the fact that it is generated by such unclean motives, as profit and greed. After buying a coffee, which is itself a despicable act, and being treated more politely than he has ever been treated on his home world, Shevek wonders whether it is the profit that is generates the politeness, and therefore discounts it.

Cohen writes in a similar vein. He believes greed is an illegitimate and morally disgusting motive for anything: “The market is intrinsically repugnant…Every market . . .is a system of predation.”

Assuming politeness, bounty, equal treatment, and so on are products of well-functioning markets, should we care whether the underlying motives are ones that when examined in depth are philosophically troubling to us? I love my wife. I love my children. I would do anything to protect them. That is a good thing. Should we look deeply beneath that for the motives: an insecurity about being alone, a lust for the pleasures of the flesh, a desire for intellectual companionship, a gene-driven greed for perpetuating my DNA, etc. are all possible, even likely motives. But who cares? The issue is not unpacking the true reasons for why I act the way I do, but simply to look at what flows from my actions. This is, as most else is, just Adam Smith: we owe our daily bread not to benevolence but to greed. As long as getting bread is good, why should it matter whether it is because the baker loves me or sees me as purely instrumental to his own happiness?

Of course, society sometimes cares about motives — mens rea and scienter are common considerations in legal matters. But there is a limit to how much we should care about motives. When people do bad things, it may help us sort between those truly deserving of punishment and those who should escape sanction; but when people do good things, we should generally not ask why. Asking why is like looking for a subatomic answer for why there is love – the answer is that it serves human welfare. That should be enough.