Recently, an online exchange on a blog post put a bee in my bonnet. Down in the comments comes a style of argument that I see a lot and just don’t buy, and it irks me. Now’s as good a time as any to take my stand.
I don’t believe in motives.
Let me be more specific. I don’t believe in the motives of others.
Let me be still more specific. I’m not denying that others have motives. I’m denying any theory as to what those motives are. I am denying the general knowability of someone else’s motives.
I am extremely skeptical of all arguments in any of these forms:
“They only did it because they felt…”
“They wouldn’t have wanted to do it if not for…”
“They were only trying to…”
“They didn’t mean to…”
I call B.S. on all of these. They all start from the assumption you know what was going on in some guy’s head. (That’s why they’re all third person.) I seriously doubt you do. Let me give you my reasons. No, scratch that. Let me give you some points to think about…
1. No one I know has the power to read minds. I know I don’t, and I very much doubt you do. There’s a word for those who disagree with me on this: delusional.
2. People lie. They lie all the time. They lie about their motives, among many other things. There’s a word for people who disagree with me on this: gullible.
3. People seem to want to give certain other people a free pass. I talked about this here:
They will use the flimsiest arguments, or even outright mind-reading fantasies, to let people off.
I’m not saying that’s what’s going on with these arguments, because if I did, I would be guilty myself of a mind-reading fantasy. My point is you don’t know that isn’t the reason.
4. Sometimes it flat out doesn’t matter why he did what he did. Hold that thought…
All you really know is what people do. If you have the opportunity to observe someone over time, you can know what he habitually does. This is useful, by the way – but be careful. You may be tempted to form what’s called a theory of mind about him:
And if you do, you’re treading on thin ice. Because theories can be false. The best theories are testable hypotheses. But even then you have to get more data to test them. The worst theories are just glorified superstition. No theory is worth your trust.
I’m not going to tell you not to form theories, even though theories can lead you badly astray. I won’t tell you not to do that because that wouldn’t be actionable advice. The truth is we can’t not form theories of mind. It just happens. It’s how the human brain tries to make sense of things.
But for the love of sanity, please don’t put faith in a theory of mind. Rely on it as little as possible. Do not trust it. And don’t offer me any argument that presumes you know why somebody did what he did. I’m not interested.
…And now let’s get back to:
4. Sometimes it flat out doesn’t matter why he did what he did.
Consider the following dialogue:
A: Sometimes people are so angry at injustice that they lash out and smash a wall. Maybe they’re overreacting, but can we really say they haven’t good reason to be angry?
B: If he has anger issues, he should seek therapy.
A: That’s awfully flip of you. Have you no respect for his pain?
C: Hey, you guys! Some crazy bastard is wrecking my wall! Lay off my wall!
A: Maybe you should cut him some slack, all things considered.
C: Screw that! And screw you! [Storms off to confront wall wrecker]
A (to B) So, you were saying something about anger issues?
B: Yeah. You were saying something about having reasons? No, wait. You were saying something about being flip.
A: My only point was…
B: Never mind. Let’s watch the fight.
A: So uncivilized.
B: Well, they both have their reasons. Right?
Questions to ponder: Who has the best point here? And what would you do if it were your wall?
Moral: nobody cares about your reasons or your feelings when you’re creating problems for them. Never mind whether they should. They don’t, and you can’t make them care.
Full disclosure: at various points in my life I have been all the characters in this dialogue, including the wall wrecker. Not all at the same time, of course.
Objection: “But… the law!”
Intent is a huge part of the law, someone has pointed out to me. Yes, it is. Has been for a while now.
And I say, that’s not necessarily a good thing. Because intent is almost always unknowable. But perhaps we should discuss reform of the legal system another day. It’s plenty messed up, and this is not the only thing wrong with it.
To the extent that law takes intent into consideration, it has something in common with conspiracy theorists. Which leads me to:
Objection: “But they’re up to something. I just know it!”
Maybe they are, but you don’t know it.
Objection: “But… empathy!”
Objection: “What other reason could there possibly be?”
How hard have you tried? (Usually I can think of one or two right off the bat.)
Paradoxically, two or three theories of mind are less dangerous than one, because each keeps you from putting too much faith in any of the others.
Objection: “I’m smashing your wall. Don’t you even care why?”
Not particularly. Now quit smashing my wall.
Objection: “I’ll make you care, you bastard!”
Just so you know, I fight dirty.
Everyone has a complaint. Everyone thinks his cause is just. Not everyone can be right. But I’m not sure that even matters. Complaints and reasons are just talk, and talk is a waste of time if there’s no listening going on. And why should they listen? Are you willing to listen to his side of things?
And if you think you can make the other guy listen by making problems for him, I think you’ll find it doesn’t work. Oh, you’ll get his attention all right. But not in the way you want to.
Maybe you feel you need to just DO something. This much is true: action counts for way more than talk. But do something that makes sense. Don’t do something stupid.
And if you do something stupid, don’t give me your reasons. My tolerance for stupidity ends when the stupidity is against me. So just stop doing it.
Stupidity is the root of all evil. Intelligent people can talk things out and come to an arrangement. Stupid people can’t. They just make everything worse.
The reason intelligent people can work things out is they quickly move past alleged motives to talk about more concrete things, like: what arrangement would be mutually agreeable. Stupid people never get that far. They’re too wrapped up in their own grievances.
As I mentioned, I’ve been the wrecker. I made everything worse. But I wised up.
If two people are disagreeing, and at least one of them is stupid, there will be no mutually agreeable solution, and there’s nothing to discuss. But if one of them is smart, he can walk away and find a solution that works for him. And why shouldn’t he? Stupid people always lose in the end, and there’s no point thinking about their concerns when the very universe is against them.
No, I’m not against anger. Anger is real. Sometimes anger is legitimate. Sometimes it’s the other guy who won’t try to work it out with you, but that’s no excuse for stupidity on your part. Be smart angry, not stupid angry. Scheme and plot how you will defeat your enemy. Make a plan – a good, solid plan. Think it through.
Weak people complain. Stupid people lash out. Smart people find solutions. Smart and determined people find unilateral solutions.
By the way, here’s what activated my almonds: