Actions Count, Reasons Don’t

It doesn’t matter what our motivations are ; the only thing that matters is what we actually do

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Many of us are told from an early age that it’s important to understand other people’s perspectives so that we can empathize with them. Empathy, it is believed, helps make us better people and enables us to get along more constructively with each another.

While these ideas are true to a limited extent, unfortunately they are for the most part misleading, especially when well-meaning people imagine that motivation is more important than action. As the old adage says, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” People who believe themselves to be doing good are, as we all know, often those who end up doing the most harm.

There are many reasons why we should not be overly interested in motivation but should instead focus on behavior, and we’ll look at just a few examples here.

The human brain performs a variety of functions. Some are autonomic such as regulating breathing, heart rate, and so forth. Some are associated with functioning, such as maintaining balance, hand-eye coordination, and kinetic awareness. Only a tiny part of the human brain is evolved to support rudimentary reasoning and, because attempting to learn and reason consumes precious calories, we’re hardwired to avoid proper thinking whenever possible.

That’s why people reliably avoid complex topics but eagerly latch onto trite soundbites and memes. For every million dull-eyed Trump supporters mindlessly chanting “build the wall!” and for every million complacent millennials mumbling “OK boomer” there are only a few people willing to undertake the necessary intellectual effort required to investigate and think about a subject more deeply. For the most part, we all act without really thinking at all.

Add to this the fact that much of our behavior is outside of our conscious control and instead the result of evolutionary hardwiring, and it becomes apparent that far from being in charge of ourselves we’re mostly helpless passengers clinging on for the ride. As a realization of this fact would make us feel depressed and afraid, the brain steps in and creates an illusion of purposefulness.

The brain is perpetually manufacturing an illusion of completeness. For example, because of the way the human eye is structured there are two “holes” in the center of our vision. But we aren’t aware of them because the brain “fills in” the gaps. Likewise with attention; we frequently are semi-conscious but the brain creates an illusion of continuity. This is all necessary in order to enable us to function in the world. Creating the illusion that we’re in control of our own behaviors is just another example of how the brain is hardwired so as to support survival.

In one series of experiments conducted in the early part of this century, the brains of subjects were stimulated to induce laughter. As expected, when asked the question, “why did you laugh?” the subjects all reported “reasons” that to them were perfectly valid but which of course were merely post-hoc rationalizations. For example, a subject who burst into laughter while reading through a telephone book would then explain, “You know, the name Jones is really funny!”

The brain is so addicted to post-hoc rationalization that we cling to our beliefs even when there’s an overwhelming amount of irrefutable evidence to the contrary. Indeed, studies have shown that the more compelling the evidence, the more strongly we reject it and the more firmly we hold on to what we think we “know.”

What this means is twofold: firstly, because a person’s self-reported “reasons” for action are likely to be erroneous, we gain nothing from attempting to “understand” them; secondly, even if there was some vague correspondence between belief and reality, it frequently avails us nothing to know a person’s motivation.

An example may help: let’s imagine we’re asleep in bed and our children are likewise asleep in the bedroom adjacent to ours. In the middle of the night we hear a noise that rouses us from sleep. It’s the shattering of glass. Now alert, we roll out of bed and go to investigate. Turns out it’s a burglar and he’s brandishing a handgun. The burglar begins to scream threats and declares his eagerness to kill everyone in the house.

Is it truly important that we attempt to learn his motivation for breaking into our home? Should we strive to empathize with him? Do we think that “using our words” will reduce the threat to ourselves and our family?

As with many things in life, many responses are theoretically possible.

Perhaps if we’re an ardent pacifist we will do nothing and permit the burglar to kill us and slaughter our family.

Perhaps we’ll be too petrified to make any decision whatsoever, thus effectively abdicating responsibility entirely.

Perhaps we’ll attempt to reason with the burglar, ignoring the signals that he’s too stoned to hear us and too agitated to be able to calm down.

Perhaps we’ll tackle the burglar in an attempt to terminate the threat he poses.

In all these possible actions we can note one thing: we’re not making any assumption about the motivation (actual or believed) the burglar may have. We’re responding to his presence and his actions. Even if we try to talk calmly to him and ask him why he’s in our home, we’re still acting on our own internal beliefs. Surely the salient factor in the scenario is his intrusion into our home, regardless of his own ideas of why he is there and what he hopes to achieve?

Let’s step away from the extreme example of our hypothetical burglar and consider more quotidian matters.

Nearly forty-three million Republican voters effectively support ordinary people incurring massive debt in order to provide tax breaks for fewer than two thousand billionaires. Those same voters support throwing small children into concentration camps where they are told they will never see their parents again. Those same Republican voters support policies that reduce women to second-class citizens and rob them of rights over their own bodies. Those same ordinary Republicans are supporting policies that have destroyed US credibility and power around the globe. Those Republican voters support policies that are supporting ultra-right-wing views, a huge rise in hate crimes, and a dangerous undermining of civic society.

Does it matter what those forty-three million Republican voters believe? Or is the more important issue the clear and incontestable harm that results from their votes?

On the left, strident “progressives” demand censorship and the banning of books across university campuses, scream vitriolically at anyone who deviates from their increasingly extreme notions of Political Correctness, yet stand idly by while the ultra-right gains power unopposed.

Does it really matter what they believe? Or is the more important issue the fact that they are blindly contributing to the destruction of civic society?

Aristotle said that virtue arises out of actions, not out of thoughts. While the word virtue is so vague and so context-dependent as to be nearly meaningless, we can nevertheless agree that a focus on actions rather than intentions is what counts.

This is actually quite a helpful perspective because it frees us from the muddle of confusing action with intention. We can always know the former while we can rarely if ever truly know the latter. By focusing on action we can take more purposeful and coherent action ourselves.

Secondly, be separating action from motivation we can actually free the actor from the constraints we would otherwise impose on them. By way of example, let’s imagine a small child called Sarah. She snatches a toy from her younger sister and breaks the toy. Sarah’s parent arrives on the scene, alerted by the shrieks of outrage and grief emitted by the younger child.

If the parent says, “Sarah! You’re a very bad girl!” he locks Sarah into a fixed position: she can’t really change herself. But if the parent says, “Sarah! That was a very bad thing to do!” then the child has a choice: she can repeat the action in future and suffer more consequences or she can elect not to repeat the action and thereby avoid the consequent disapprobation of her parent and any punishment they impose.

Jumping forward to more adult matters, we can see that while a great many Trump supporters may be too intellectually and morally enfeebled to be capable of any positive change, there is at least the possibility that some will alter their behaviors if they begin to see that their actions are evil but that they themselves are not necessarily so. Only if they continue to support Trump and Republican policy will they effectively choose to be evil.

Likewise overstimulated hysterical “progressives” on the left can choose to act differently in future, abjuring support for censorship, intolerance, and the intentional imposition of ignorance; or they can continue to act to promote these things and thereby become effectively synonymous with the harms they cause.

It is no good pretending one is a devout Christian if one’s actions contribute to evil. It is no good pretending one is a progressive if one’s actions promote censorship and intolerance.

We all have our own various beliefs and default ways of operating. We all like to imagine our motivations are benign. Even monsters like Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, and Hitler thought well of themselves. But if we remember that it is our actions that define us, perhaps sometimes we can pause to consider the import of those actions and, just occasionally, choose to act in ways that do not inevitably create harms for others.

And one last thing: history, as well as rudimentary reasoning, is very clear on one important point:

The hoped-for ends never, under any circumstances whatsoever, justify abhorrent means.


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Anyone who enjoys my articles here on Medium may be interested in my books Why Democracy Failed and The Praying Ape, both available from Amazon.

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