Do motives matter?

Todd Henderson —  11 February 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.

3 responses to Do motives matter?


    I see no point debating personal tastes (are markets repugnant? Is Paris Hilton repugnant?), but I want to ask what the alternative to markets is supposed to be. Human history has never had a society without a market. The Soviet Union, even in its worst years, was deeply covered by a web of markets. Unfortunately, those markets were mostly illegal, inefficient, based on barter, gave significant advantages to people with government connections; participants were unprotected by law and often exploited.
    I remember hilarious cases of Soviet-time multistage barter. Say, our friends needed a lot of meat for a big wedding. They wanted to buy meat on a black market, but they had no money — they had valuable skills, but could not sell those skills legally. So, the father of the bride spent a few weeks fixing a car for his neighbor. That neighbor had no money to pay him, but had connections on a sugar factory and paid for the fixed car by allowing our friends to buy a bunch of sugar at a (subsidized) government price (sugar was a valuable commodity — needed for homemade vodka). Our friends then exchanged the right to buy sugar at a government price for the right to buy a foreign-made cassette player at a government price. And then, they exchanged the right to a cassette player for the right to buy meat at a government price. At each step, they had to figure out how valuable the exchanged rights were. For some, there was a monetary equivalent (black market price in rubles), but others were more complicated. Also at each step, they had to figure out who had what they wanted and what that person wanted in exchange. But hey, at least that friend of ours earned his meat by doing something similar to his main skills. My mother, a computer programmer with a graduate degree, was spending weekends knitting sweaters to exchange them for shoes and such. Illegal barter markets were so inefficient that she could not sell her main skill — but they were pervasive enough so that she could sell her secondary skill.

    The bottom line is, whoever thinks that socialist economies were free of markets is willfully blind. Socialism can help you do a lot of things, but it won’t help you get rid of markets. Frankly, not even putting the entire country in a concentration camp will get rid of markets — prisons and concentration camps are well known to have developed sophisticated markets. See voluminous literature on the life in Soviet concentration camps.


    A colleague of mine raises a similar question concerning underlying motivation as it relates to the concept of trust. Namely, if you trust someone because that person has an economic incentive to behave in congruence with your expectations, is it really an act of trust? Of course, then there’s the ‘does it matter?’ question.

    Paper/abstract information below:

    “The trust paradox: a survey of economic inquiries into the nature of trust and trustworthiness”, J of Econ Behavior & Org 49(3):291, March 2002

    Harvey S. James Jr.


    This paper examines the concepts of trust and trustworthiness in the context of a one-sided variation of the prisoner’s dilemma, and it evaluates four different categories of solutions to the PD problem: changing player preferences, enforcing explicit contracts, establishing implicit contracts, and repeating the interaction of the players. Because these solutions rely on the creation of incentives to induce cooperation, this paper articulates a paradox of trust in that if one trusts another, because there are incentives for the other to be trustworthy, then the vulnerability to exploitation is removed which gives trust its very meaning. The paper explores the implications of trust when understood to exist at two levels—one in which there are incentives to trust, and the other in which appropriate incentives are absent.


    Cohen’s theory is counterfactual

    Property rights — needed to constitute markets — emerge from social norms of cooperation. Holmes was way ahead of the rest of us in this regard.