making sense of motives and actions

It seems that wherever we look these days, we can see evidence and accusations of wrong-doing.  I work in the financial sector (some of you no doubt question if anything we do is right!), but I also know that dishonesty, conflict and exploitation occur in all fields of life.

Determining right and wrong isn’t as easy as many people think.  I don’t say that to give people the opportunity to just do whatever they want, or to excuse bad behaviour.  But oversimplifying it and believing everything is clear cut can stop the honest, open-minded thinking process needed to do the right thing.

I believe that to decide whether something is right or wrong, you have to consider the action, the outcome and the motive.  

This view isn’t held by everyone.  In my late teens I believed that all that mattered was what happened, and that we shouldn’t complain if the right thing happened for the wrong reason.

Part of my change of mind was recognising that with we don’t have perfect (or even good) knowledge of whether an outcome is for the best, or will prove to be harmful.  If we have the right intentions, we will seek out better information and improve our actions and outcomes.  If we are set on our actions, then we’ll seek out information to justify those actions.

As well, as I’ve worked with, and watched more people work, I’ve noticed how that those with an intrinsic motivation for the ultimate desired outcome are more creative and effective at achieving the outcome, and find their effort more satisfying (ie less like work).

This view can be difficult to hold.  There are plenty of examples of good that came without good intentions, and I wouldn’t accept bad outcomes just because they are driven by good intentions (but I’m sure well intentioned individual wouldn’t accept bad outcomes either).  An even bigger challenge to my view is that, you never actually know for sure what other people’s motives are – it is hard enough to be sure of our own motives for the things that we do, and they are often mixed.

So I have a few other tips:

  • Always be open-minded about other people’s motives for doing things – they’re unlikely to be as simple as you at first think. 
  • Don’t ignore how other people will interpret your motives.  It may be that you’re hiding some of your motives from yourself.  Or even if your motives are fine, if other people don’t agree with you, it will be a lonely path.
  • Be open-minded about what might result from your actions, it is the best way to avoid realising later that what you did wasn’t the desired outcome.

2 thoughts on “making sense of motives and actions

  1. Kelvin Beer-Jones

    “I believe that to decide whether something is right or wrong, you have to consider the action, the outcome and the motive.”

    Philosophically there are some very big issues that fall out of your belief. First probably should be to recognise that only a few possible actions are of the sort where one might have a binary option, don’t we rather always try to do ‘right’? The problem is how do you know what is ‘right’?

    The next problem is with outcomes because of course we often won’t know what they are until after the event.

    Finally there is a direct relationship between motives and decisions, rarely would we opt to decide against our motives.

    In the hurly burly of life isn’t it more likely that at some point we find that we pause and reflect and we then feel that our actions up to this point have either not been successful (I.E that happiness is the perceived result) or that even though we have succeeded things just haven’t turned out to be what we expected.

    Perhaps then the contribution of ‘rightness’ and ‘wrongness’ to our dilemma is all about whether we feel that we acted against a moral background and that compensates for the feeling of dissatisfaction; or whether our morals were relative, in which case we were unlucky, or that we can simply explain away the dissatisfaction.

    Of course all of my comments refer to the self, it becomes much more complicated if we want to / have to / judge the actions of others.

    Personally i prefer a moral background that is both public and shared because that way we can adjust the moral background based on our collective experience. This moral background I think comes from a loose collection of family, school, peers, friends, church etc., and today perhaps eclipsing all of these is the media.

    But does the media promote a moral background (if so what and why?), or after the event simply mock?

    1. Guy Lipman

      Thanks for the great reply!

      Firstly, when I talk about motives, I’m not being as binary as “right” or “wrong”. I do things for various reasons, of varying ‘goodness’ (but hopefully seldom pure evil!).

      For example, if I think about why I go to work each day, part of it is for the company of interesting people, part of it is for the stimulation of interesting problems, part of it is from the satisfaction of being able to help others, part of it is for a sense of identity, and part of it is for the money that allows me to do what I want to do in life.

      I agree that there’s a difficulty that outcomes don’t always reflect actions/intentions. When you see the outcomes (for better or for worse), you have to reflect on whether your actions should have been different, or if you were just unlucky – this is no different to an investor looking at their stock performance.


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