Motives and Intentions

Motives and Intentions


B: Just because a person has bad intentions, doesn’t mean his methods are wrong.  Evil people do good things some times.  And just because a person has good intentions, doesn’t mean his methods are right.

A: The ends don’t justify the means, and vice versa.

B: Uh…sure.  Let me mention an example.  Suppose a prominent businessman proposes the repealing of some city ordinance, citing a bunch of reasons why it would be beneficial to citizens, that it would bestow more freedom, prosperity, etc.  An opponent then points out that what the businessman is proposing will likely benefit that same businessman’s business.  Now, I ask you: is this really a counterargument?

A: Well, uh –

B: No, it isn’t, buddy; what we’re really discussing here is whether or not the ordinance should be repealed.  Whether or not the guy’s business profits from the repeal of that ordinance is actually irrelevant.  If the ordinance should be repealed, it should be repealed, regardless of who benefits from it or its repeal.  Similarly, if it should not be repealed, then it should not be repealed.

A: What’s –

B: – the big deal about it?

A: Yeah.

B: The big deal about this, buddy, is that this non sequitur – of someone’s ulterior motive supposedly implying that his argument is incorrect – is used all the time.  Nobody should oppose an argument simply because it is believed that the arguer has some unfavorable motives.  Likewise, an argument shouldn’t be supported just because the arguer supposedly has some good motives.  If somebody proposes a motion that ends up helping him, why should he be condemned?  The question is whether the motion itself is good, not whether the motive of the motion’s proposer is good.

A: So you would’ve voted for Hitler, eh?

B (bewildered): …huh?  Hitler?  Buddy… (shakes his head in disbelief)

A: Quit calling me your “buddy!”

B: Buddy, if Hitler ever ran for some public office, then his argument really is himself – his character and how it would help him properly perform whatever duties demanded of him in that public office.  If I knew his character like I do now, then of course I wouldn’t vote for him for any public office.  If, however, Hitler proposed a bill, and backed it with a solid argument, then I would vote for the bill – not for Hitler.  Either way, I’m not voting for Hitler.  Besides, his first name was Adolf, not Bill.

(Pauses for laughter; receives only awkward silence)

We would probably all do well to examine our own motives when voting for or supporting something.  Should we support it because it makes life easier for us?  Or because it’s the right thing to do?  If only the former, wouldn’t we then be hypocrites, just trying to “get ours,” like the businessman mentioned above allegedly was trying to “get his?”

Here’s another example.  You might not like it much.  Around about the time the U.S. was talking about going to war with Iraq last decade, a relatively short time after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, U.S. President George Bush stated that the need for such a war was based largely on the idea that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), and that Iraq had connection with the large terrorist group Al-Qaeda.  Others felt that a U.S. statement of some kind was needed in the Middle East to deter future terrorist attacks.  Meanwhile, a bunch of would-be war detractors attacked Bush on the grounds of his desire to go to war mostly because he had a vested interest in Iraqi oil, using this as a reason for why we shouldn’t go to war with Iraq.

Now, if this quest for oil really was the only reason for us to go to war, it would be wrong, indeed – at least in my opinion.  But this by itself did not answer the other questions that were posed above; that is, whether Iraq possessed WMDs, if they had connections with Al-Qaeda, or if we should make a statement in the Middle East.  Whether Bush wanted Iraqi oil had nothing to do with any of these things; if he wanted it, these other questions may still give sufficiently good reasons to go to war with Iraq.  In the end, the question was, “should we go to war with Iraq?” – and this question could have been answered completely independent of whether Bush wanted Iraqi oil or not.

If I were sitting on either of the two boards responsible for making the decisions in these hypothetical situations – that is, for the businessman case or the Bush case – in neither case would I ask, “will somebody profit from what’s being proposed?”, because it doesn’t matter.  Instead, I’d be asking about what’s in the best interest for all the citizens of the respective populations involved.


A: It was determined later that Iraq had no WMDs, and that Bush was acting on faulty intelligence.

B: It’s not my object to actually answer the question of whether we should have gone to war with Iraq right now.  We can talk about that when we get to Foreign Policy.  All I’m trying to point out is the logical fallacy of assuming that ulterior motives have anything to do with the verity of an argument.

A: So are you saying that statistical studies cannot be biased?

B: Of course they can.  Statistics are not necessarily eternal truth, as we’ll discuss later.  But it’s possible that they might be eternal truth.  The question comes in the ascertaining of truth, which we’ll also discuss later.  I admit that it seems less likely that statistics from a biased study would be truth, but it’s still possible that even a biased study could be truth, and just because it’s biased, doesn’t mean it’s not true.

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