Programming, philosophy, pedaling.

Thoughts on Motive

Sep 1, 2015

Tags: philosophy


I am not a philosopher, nor am I a philosophy student.

Although I have read a great deal of philosophy in my own time, my formal education is limited to a smattering of classes on classics and contemporary Western philosophy.

With these limitations in mind, I’d like to express some thoughts on the concept of “motive”, especially with respect to positive and negative consequence.


Spoiler alert: details from The Brothers Karamazov.

This post is inspired in part by Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, particularly by the attorney Fetyukovich’s argument against calling Fyodor’s murder a “parricide”:

Gentlemen of the jury - what is a father? What is the meaning of that great word? What is the great idea in that name? We have just indicated in part what a true father is and what he ought to be. In the case in which we are now so deeply occupied and over which our hearts are aching - in the present case, the father, Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov, in no way corresponds to that conception of a father to which we have just referred.

(Karamazov 704-5, Tran. by Garnett, Rev. by Matlaw)

These lines weigh heavily on Dmitri’s motives, particularly on how they are elucidated with respect to the alleged murder. Without delving too deeply into the details of the book itself, Fetyukovich’s ultimate rationalization is that even if Dmitri were the murderer, no court should be influenced by the perceived repugnance of the crime but only upon the well-established evidence against the accused (evidence that does not exist in Dmitri’s case).

That may sound reasonable (or like nonsense, depending on how comprehensible you find my writing), so I’ll try my best to explain my personal interest (and its potential importance) below.

Establishing the value of motive

I could write a long post on the value of the word “motive” alone, but I’ll try to limit myself to a few short sentences here.

While doing some research for this post, I came across this (awful!) definition for motive:

noun, a reason for doing something

(Merriam Webster)

The second is slightly better:

noun, something (as a need or desire) that causes a person to act

(Merriam Webster)

I don’t like the first definition because it uses the word reason. I don’t have any particular problem with reason as a word, but with using it to define the much more powerful motive. To clarify:

As a truism: every individual has good reason to do something, and usually to do multiple things. These things can be of any urgency or mundanity, but reason implies that they are not mandatory.

An example of reason

A fat man has good reason to lose weight - he knows that he will die at a young age if he does not. However, he does not act on this reason (for other reasons - he may like food, be apathetic, have a prohibitive disability, etc).

Reason, therefore, can be said to be fairly weak.

Motive, on the other hand, has much more powerful implications - it suggests imminent action, or commitment.

An example of motive

A businesswoman’s car is stolen. To avoid losing her job (she must arrive promptly in the morning, and alternative transportation is unavailable), she must buy a new car immediately. Therefore, she has ample motive in addition to good reason - her livelihood is at stake.

Hopefully, through these examples, I have justified the value I place on motive, especially in contrast to reason.

The (un)importance of motive

I will first attempt to examine the (un)importance of motive with two scenarios, both of which have occurred to me on more than one occasion. I hope that both will be familiar and relatable, as they are not novel in content.

Scenario 1: The charitable tycoon (and his taxes)

A tycoon has spent his life accumulating his fortune.

Because of his sizeable personal wealth and property the government collects a significant amount in various taxes from him each year, to his great annoyance.

He tells his lawyers to come up with a solution to his high taxes, and they find a rule in the tax code: if he gives a tiny fraction of his annual income to a charity, the government will allow him to deduct a much larger sum from his annual taxes. This is a win-win for the tycoon: he pays less in taxes, he is praised as a philanthropist.

The charity also benefits from his donation, but must also serve the people displaced by underfunded government programs.

Scenario 2: The xenophobic murderer (and her victim)

A woman is a fervent member of a nationalist organization radically opposed to immigration. The organization is recognized by the government as a hate group.

The woman shoots a homeless man - a recent immigrant - in cold blood. During the subsequent investigation, her ties to the nationalist organization are discovered.

The prosecuting attorney, informed of this connection, decides to treat the case as a hate crime.


In both of these scenarios, motive is key:

It is easy to think of a third scenario, one where the ultimate action is bad despite the motivation behind it being good. For example, the murderer might not have killed her victim in cold blood, but in defense of a third person.

I am instinctively inclined, as are many people, to believe that the tycoon’s motive is somehow less relevant than the murderer’s. After all, regardless of his motives, the tycoon has done something considered good. The murderer has done nothing good (in reference to the second scenario).

However, I find myself uncomfortable with this inclination. Why am I not as offended by bad motive when the outcome is (superficially) good? The “superficially” there is key - as per the scenario, the outcome is not ultimately good (more people are dependent upon the charity than before). However, I will admit that such a final outcome is contrived for the sake of that point.

When I begin to consider the tycoon’s motives as part of the gravity of his actions (and I do the murderer’s), I am left with a problem: should the charity reject his donation, knowing that the motive behind it is bad? Should tax codes be amended (at significant loss to charities) to discourage selfish donations?

Neither of these solutions is acceptable from the charity’s position, and neither appeals to me. And yet, I am not satisfied with the ends justifying the motives (consequentialism as a whole does not appeal to me) - the murderer does not get off so easily, even in the third scenario (she is still a member of the hate group).

To avoid this trap, It’s possible to go in the opposite direction and say that motive is completely unimportant - the tycoon’s donation is good because the outcome is good, and the murder’s killing is bad because the outcome is bad. This saves me from being the moral gatekeeper for charities and hate crimes, but it also means that I have to treat the third scenario as equivalent to the second.

Is this preferable? I’m not convinced that it is.

Concluding notes

The ultimate goal of this post wasn’t to reassure myself of my own position on motive, or to tell others that their position on motive is incorrect or invalid.

It was to formalize my own uncertainty, and to provide a set of scenarios and explanations that I believe expose a troubled relationship between motive and consequence.

I leave it up to you to decide whether these thoughts hold any weight, or even make sense.

- William