Motivation Matters

Ethics isn’t just about actions and their consequences.


Craig Axford | United States

    There’s a commercial that’s been airing lately. It features a rather nerdy looking, slightly overweight, thirty-something guy at a bar trying out various lines on women, but none of them are impressed. Finally, the man tells a gorgeous woman in a red dress that he has just donated some of his bone marrow to save a stranger’s life. At last, he gets the girl.

As the commercial draws to a close, viewers are given instructions for receiving a screening kit to become donors. The message that male donors, at the very least, will become more appealing to women if they donate. And yeah, you might just help to save a life too.

 We’ve all done the right thing for the wrong reason before. Sometimes we’re only vaguely conscious that our motives are less than an ideal match for our actions. More often, however, we assume that, provided the outcome is the right one,  our motives don’t really matter all that much. From a purely consequentialist ethical perspective, outcomes tend to be what concern us. Therefore, we can get away with not examining the rationale directing us to act the way we do too closely.

 Evaluating the outcome of our actions alone isn’t wrong, but it is only half the picture. There is, after all, something a bit disconcerting about a guy donating his bone marrow to pick up women, no matter how many lives he’s saving. The motivation is just too out of sync with the action.

 Qualitatively there is something very different about a world where people donate bone marrow for a stranger just because they care and one in which they do it to get girls. There’s a reason we prohibit the buying and selling of organs, after all. Treating our bodies like sources for spare parts introduces new ethical problems that are very difficult to overcome even if lives are being saved as a result.

 Frequently, our motivation isn’t as simple or obvious as getting someone to go out with us, or earning a little extra money for retirement. But no matter how opaque it is at first, sooner or later our true intentions usually reveal themselves, opening us to charges of hypocrisy or self-interest even when our behavior produces positive results. That’s because it’s our motivation that reveals whether our why and our what combine to form an action based upon respect for humanity.

 Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative constitutes a universal law formulation of morality which states that one should “…act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it be a universal law.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy describes what’s known as “the humanity formula” for the categorical imperative. This states that treating humanity as an end instead of means is one example of something a rational being would desire to “be a universal law.”

Notice that the above humanity formulation refers specifically to humanity as opposed to individual humans. That’s because people are necessary means to various ends all the time. Society wouldn’t be able to function otherwise. To use the Stanford Encyclopedia’s example, “the difference between a horse and a taxi driver is not that we may use one but not the other as a means of transportation. Unlike a horse, the taxi driver’s humanity must at the same time be treated as an end in itself.”

 Using the humanity formula, it becomes clear why the guy donating bone marrow to get the girl makes us feel a little squeamish. The humanity of neither the person receiving his bone marrow nor of the random girls he is introducing himself to at the bar isn’t what matters to him. He’s motivated by something entirely selfish which has no moral relationship to the act of donating bone marrow.

  Kant’s instruction to treat humanity as an end unto itself, rather than merely a means to fulfill our own emotional and physical desires is sound in principle, and relatively easy to grasp on its own without requiring a deep understanding of moral philosophy. As with all dictums that claim to apply universally the challenge lies in its practical application.

 When we scale up Kant’s categorical imperative to the level of communities, whole societies, or global economies the line between means and ends can become very difficult to see behind the screen of institutions we build and practices we employ to keep things running smoothly. It is at this point that it becomes all too easy for us to lose complete site of the idea that people are far more than just useful tools to provide for our collective security, build and maintain our infrastructure, or acquire wealth and power.

 Healthcare, particularly as practiced in the United States, is a classic example of how easy it is to forget that people are not products to be managed for-profit. Since the service being sold is the health of individuals, surely people as ends rather than means should be written into the very fabric of the healthcare industry. But, alas, it is not. For-profit healthcare providers typically have shareholders whose own desire to maximize returns on their investment clash daily with the needs and desires of patients seeking aid and comfort in clinics or hospitals professing to be in the well-being business.

 If an industry whose drive is solely dedicated to the health of those that walk through its doors can treat people differently according to their ability to pay for the service, often driving even those of above average means to the edge of bankruptcy in the process, we shouldn’t be surprised that institutions established with far less lofty goals in mind are focusing on less than humanitarian ends as well. As recent scandals involving Facebook and other social media companies that make their services available for free to the public use, often people are the product (i.e. means). With these companies, the ends can be as varied as selling us household goods or undermining democratic institutions. Please play the song “Wonderwall”

 In a society that’s deified the market’s “invisible hand”, Kant’s categorical imperative to treat humanity as an end rather than a means not only fails to achieve universality but is being actively resisted. We’re taught through messages both covert and overt from childhood on that the profit motive is what ensures people receive the products and services they both need and want. Any attempt to interfere with this process, no matter how well-intentioned, is to put its functionality and efficiency at risk.

Market economies have indeed proven themselves highly effective when it comes to delivering goods and services to the public. However, the market is an amoral delivery mechanism which can be bent to multiple and often contradictory ends. Some of these are necessarily better than others. Our deference to the market represents an abdication of our individual and collective responsibility to decide for ourselves what values we want the market to reflect. After all, it is hardly a given that either maximum efficiency or maximum profit will naturally translate into maximum human well-being.

 In a speech delivered at the University of Kansas in March of 1968, Robert Kennedy reminded us that blunt economic measurements like gross national product (GNP — now referred to as gross domestic product), improvements in productivity, or increases in the Dow Jones Industrial Index don’t actually provide us with any information about how we are doing as a society when it comes to things that matter deeply to us:

But even if we act to erase material poverty, there is another greater task, it is to confront the poverty of satisfaction — purpose and dignity — that afflicts us all. Too much and for too long, we seemed to have surrendered personal excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our Gross National Product, now, is over $800 billion dollars a year, but that Gross National Product — if we judge the United States of America by that — that Gross National Product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them. It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities. It counts Whitman’s rifle and Speck’s knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children. Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it can tell us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans.

 Nowadays, most politicians take on economic issues doesn’t typically extend much beyond economic growth. This growth in GDP is treated as an end unto itself without much regard for what we should be doing with our extra 3% of GDP. Increases in the sheer volume of wealth and gains in productivity are the only policy that really matters. It is simply assumed that improvements in public health, infrastructure, education and all the other things that Robert Kennedy described as truly relevant to our emotional and social flourishing will naturally follow.

 But the US is already the richest country in the world if we’re measuring wealth strictly in terms of GDP, and has been for quite some time. Yet improvements in life expectancy have not just stagnated, they’ve started to decline. Healthcare and education remain far more expensive in the US than in any other developed country even as we increasingly lag behind in both health and educational outcomes. In addition, the United States is among only a handful of nations not to require vacation time, sick leave, or maternity leave for its workers. In other words, treating economic growth and markets as ends unto themselves has not translated into anything like significant gains for the human beings putting in all the effort to make this growth a reality. Making national wealth our top priority has required us to treat people as mere objects that serve as convenient means of accumulating treasure for its own sake.

 Some worldviews can inflict emotional scars, which in turn will over time begin manifesting themselves physically through diseases such as depression, heart disease, and drug addiction. Recognizing our shared humanity and treating it as an end is beginning to look not just like an ethical categorical imperative, but a psychological and biological one as well. Rather ironically, in the long run, it’s looking more and more economically advantageous to slow down and give each other permission to smell the roses instead of functioning like worker bees in a hive that sees little value in preserving any single individual bee other than maybe the queen.

 Recently, a New Zealand company decided to experiment with a four day work week while still providing its employees with five days worth of pay. According to one story on the experiment, “The idea sprang from research that found people are typically engaged at work for fewer than three hours a day…” Given this fact, the owner of the New Zealand trust and estates firm decided to allow his employees to come up with work plans that might enable them to get everything done in four days instead of five. They did, and “At the end of the trial, Perpetual Guardian’s revenue and profits were unchanged” according to the firm’s founder.

 From a strictly economic point of view that putting humanity ahead of everything else might be no less profitable and in many cases perhaps even more profitable seems counter-intuitive. Many companies operating in the US today have never offered sick-leave or maternity leave largely for this reason. For most part-time workers, in particular, the prospect of a little paid vacation seems unimaginable. For those used to thinking only in terms of the bottom line the idea that making the kind of upfront investment in humanity these benefits represent might translate into greater productivity, lower turnover, and other savings down the road is just too great a leap of faith even if there are volumes of research to back up the claim.

 But workers can tell when their employer is truly interested in them as well as in making a profit. Likewise, it won’t take long for the fictional woman that the bone marrow donor met at the bar to sober up and realize that sacrifices made to make yourself more attractive are creepy instead of noble. Sincerity is very difficult to fake. Motive matters. People really do want to be around those they feel really do care, and are more likely to go the extra mile on behalf of those that actually do. No one enjoys living in a society where our default position is the assumption that the other person has ulterior motives. Sadly, that’s what the United States too often feels like.


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