On Not Distinguishing Too Finely Among One's Motivations

I'm working through Daniel Batson's latest book, What's Wrong with Morality?

Batson distinguishes between four different types of motives for seemingly moral behavior, each with a different type of ultimate goal. Batson's taxonomy is helpful -- but I want to push back against distinguishing as finely as he does among people's motives for doing good.

Suppose I offer a visiting speaker a ride to the airport. That seems like a nice thing to do. According to Batson, I might have one (or more) of the following types of motivation:

(1.) I might be egoistically motivated -- acting in my own perceived self-interest. Maybe the speaker is the editor of a prestigious journal and I think I'll have a better shot publishing and advancing my career if the speaker thinks well of me.

(2.) I might be altruistically motivated -- aiming primarily to benefit the speaker herself. I just want her to have a good visit, a good experience at UC Riverside, and giving her a ride is a way of advancing that goal I have.

(3.) I might be collectivistically motivated -- aiming primarily to benefit a group. I want UC Riverside's Philosophy Department to flourish, and giving the speaker a ride is a way of advancing that thing I care about.

(4.) I might be motivated by principle -- acting according to a moral standard, principle, or ideal. Maybe I think driving the speaker to the airport will maximize global utility, or that it is ethically required given my social role and past promises.

Batson characterizes his view of motivation as "Galilean" -- focused on the underlying forces that drive behavior (p. 25-26). The idea seems to be that when I make that offer to the visiting speaker, that action must have been induced by some particular motivational force inside me that is egoistic, altruistic, collectivist, or principled, or some specific combination of those. On this view, we don't understand why I am offering the ride until we know which of these interior forces is the one that caused me to offer the ride. Principled morality is rare, Batson argues, because it requires being caused to act by the fourth type of motivation, and people are more normally driven by the first three.

I'm nervous about appeals to internal causes of this sort. My best guess is that these sorts of simple, familiar folk (or quasi-folk) categories don't map neatly onto the real causal processes generating our behavior, which are likely to be much more complicated, and also misaligned with categories that come naturally to us. (Compare connectionist structures and deep learning.)

Rather than try to articulate an alternative positive account, which would be too much to add to this post, let me just suggest the following. It's plausible that our motivations are often a tangled mess, and when they are a tangled mess, attempting to distinguish finely among them is usually a mistake.

For example, there are probably hypothetical conditions under which I would decline to drive the speaker because it conflicted with my self-interest, and there are probably other hypothetical conditions under which I would set aside my self-interest and choose to drive the speaker anyway. I doubt these hypothetical conditions line up neatly, so that I decline to drive the speaker if and only if it would require sacrificing X amount or more of self-interest. Some situations might just channel me into driving her, even at substantial personal cost, while others might more easily invite the temptation to wiggle out.

The same is likely true for the other motivations. Hypothetically, if the situation were different so that it was less in the collective interest of the department, or less in the speaker's interest, or less compelled by my favorite moral principles, I might drive or not drive the speaker depending partly on each of these but also partly on other factors of situation and internal psychology, habits, scripts, potential embarrassment -- probably in no tidy pattern.

Furthermore, egoistic, altruistic, collectivist, and principled aims come in many varieties, difficult to disentangle. I might be egoistically invested in the collective flourishing of the department as a way of enhancing my own stature in the profession. I might be drawn to different, conflicting moral principles. I might altruistically desire both that the speaker get to her flight on time and that she enjoy the company of the cleverest conversationalist in the department (me!). I might enjoy showing off the sights of the L.A. basin through the windows of my car, with a feeling of civic pride. Etc.

Among all of these possible motivations -- indefinitely many possible motivations, perhaps, if we decide to slice finely among them -- does it make sense to try to determine which one or few are the real motivations that are genuinely causally responsible for my choosing to drive the speaker?

Now if my actual and hypothetical choices were all neatly aligned with my perceived self-interest, then of course self-interest would be my real motive. Similarly, if my pattern of actual and hypothetical choices were all neatly aligned with one particular moral principle, then we could say I was mainly moved by that principle. But if my patterns of choice are not so neatly explained, if my choices arise from a tangle of factors far more complex than Batson's four, then each of Batson's factors is only a simplified label for a pattern that I don't very closely match, rather than a deep Galilean cause of my choice.

The four factors might, then, not compete with each other as starkly as Batson seems to suppose. Each of them might, to a first approximation, capture my motivation reasonably well, in those fortunate cases where self-interest, other-interest, collective interest, and moral principle all tend to align. I have lots of reasons for driving the speaker! This might be so even if, in hypothetical cases, I diverge from the predicted patterns, probably in different and complex ways. My motivations might be described, with approximately equal accuracy, as egoistic, altruistic, collectivist, and principled, when these four factors tend to align across the relevant range of situations -- not because each type of motivation contributes equal causal juice to my behavior but rather because each attribution captures well enough the pattern of choices I would make in the types of cases we care about.

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