On Motive

In 2005, psychologists Reeder, Pryor, Wohl, and Griswell published a study about the attribution of motive that was featured in the November issue of Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin. They decided to use a then-current hot-button issue as a central part of the study in order to draw out people’s most authentic emotion. They asked American and Canadian citizens whether they agreed or disagreed with the war in Iraq. This established their political leanings that would set the study up for the follow-on question. They then asked what President Bush’s motives were for initiating the war in Iraq. Consistent with the proposed bias, respondents who disagreed with the war attributed more selfish motivations than did those who supported the war. Oil. Revenge for his father. Personal vendetta… Etc. 

This may seem like an obvious foregone conclusion, but it illuminates a divisive force in our political rhetoric: the attribution of motive to people whose opinions we disagree with. Attributing Motive is the preppy private Christian schooled cousin of the Strawman argument. It allows us to moralize issues by attaching corrupt and morally bankrupt rationale to our opponents. If you oppose illegal immigration, and I call you a xenophobic racist, I’ve just attributed a corrupt motive. If I oppose massive influxes of refugees from war-torn nations, and you say I’m a heartless pig, you’ve just attributed motive.

Attributing motive allows you to side-step the legitimate, logical issues on the table (may they be economic, cultural, legal, etc.) by placing yourself on a moral high-ground. If you “refuse to argue with racists” and simultaneously, “everyone who supports border enforcement is a racist” then you’ve effectively refused to engage in any intellectual discussion with people who support border enforcement. This is intellectually lazy. And the worst part is, people who are complicit in this kind of logic believe themselves to be on a higher moral plane. In actuality, their moral plane is so high that it coincidentally doesn’t include any opposing arguments.

This fallacious thought process has contributed to intellectually dishonest discussions across social media. Calling someone a misogynist is easier than listening to their arguments against modern feminism. Framing someone as on the side of either “Good” or “Evil” washes your hands of the responsibility of actually having to engage in productive discourse. Everyone is either a Templar or a Muslim in a moral crusade as opposed to people seeking truth through open discussion. And so you see the result in the comments sections. One person states an opinion, well-reasoned or not. The next person attributes the corrupt motive rather than engaging with the argument in a civilized fashion. And before long, you have a bunch of racist, snowflake, stupid, xenophobic, trolls.

The Comments Section is just a more honest documentation of our thoughts. Culturally, the Comments Section has pervaded our lives. We don’t want to associate with people who disagree with our opinions because we have already attributed a level of incompetence and immorality to their motives. Extrapolate this to the national level and you have two polarities, completely disassociated, unwilling to take a step towards one another.

Coming back from this will be difficult. I’m not of the opinion that there is a point of no return in public discourse, but I’m under no illusions that it won’t take a significant cultural shift. It will start with the personal fight, as it does for all of us, so I conclude with the following proposals:

  1. Don’t engage online with people you don’t know – This invites you to attribute motive because you don’t have a track record of their character.
  2. Attack arguments not people’s character – Even the evilest creature on the face of this cold rock could have a sound argument. Simple people barter in morals and absolutes. Intelligent people barter in ideas.
  3. If a positive motive can be supplied instead of the negative, supply the positive – Make an effort to frame others in an intelligent and morally sound light.
  4. Seek Truth for Truth’s sake – This was one of Benjamin Franklin’s “3 Questions” he used to identify the people he would keep in his closest circle. It represents a purity of motive that will help combat your own personal bias, as well as navigate others’ biases.

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