I often wonder what motivates most people—is it purely the love of money—in a capitalistic society that would make sense. What makes people do what they do, and often act in such a way that seems to undercut others? Greed is one of the seven deadly sins afflicting all of us at times.

Philosophers have written volumes about motives—whether it’s possible for them to be pure, or not. Unfortunately, Google isn’t like a library—it’s hard to bring up information about “pure motives” that isn’t oriented towards the Biblical, instead of the philosophical. I do know that Immanuel Kant (and Freud) observed that people’s true motives may be hidden, even from themselves. Even when it seems that people are acting solely to further another person’s good, that might not be the real case.

Speaking of Google, as our source for all information; I did bring up this interesting result about the artist Raymond Pettibon, and his art installation, “Are Your Motives Pure?” From my days of following West Coast punk bands, I know of Pettibon, first as the bassist of Black Flag, the designer of their iconic logo, and later, an artist who did a host of album covers for them and others.

Iconic Pettibone logo for the punk band, Black Flag.

Iconic Pettibone logo for the punk band, Black Flag.

But back to motives—I wonder about individuals who consistently act in a way that seems to undermine our own efforts? Or, they simply exhibit a total disregard for work that we’ve put a great deal of heart and passion into? What are their motives in that case?

3 thoughts on “Motives

  1. Let me make it one step more complicated. Most people have no idea why they do what they do. We are carefully programmed from birth to do certain things, and we are given a separate set of programming that “rationalizes” or explains things. We “believe” the programming, because it relieves of us of any ownership or responsibility for actually knowing ourselves or why we do what we choose to do.

    It’s fair to say that most of the Platonic dialogues are built around this, Socrates questioning an individual, whether a slave boy or a powerful oligarch of Athens, and finding that they really don’t know why they are doing what they are doing. Questioned long and carefully enough, a huge chasm emerges between one’s actions and one’s alleged motives, and it becomes uncomfortably apparent to the questioned that his explanations fail to explain the why of his actions. Question people like that long enough, one is likely to be offered a cup of hemlock by the populace, who just don’t want to have to deal that.

    Gatto, himself very Socratic in his methods to the point of believing both that “Know thyself” was the greatest imperative of his students, and that he could teach his students nothing, he could only point in a direction while they learned; Gatto calls on the Catholic teaching of his childhood, a sort of teaching now deeply hidden, to note that it is the heart that rules, not the mind. The heart makes our decisions, our choices, our actions, and our mind makes up the alibis and justifications afterward. And yet how much of our society, our hustle, our marketing, our politics, is all built on manipulating emotion, the heart, and then coating it over with a gloss of ideology or economic reasoning or religious dogma.

  2. I can’t argue with anything you’ve written, LP.

    There was a time when you still heard others mention Plato and Socrates–that never happens any more. Even someone more up-to-date, like Toqueville, was often referred to by thinkers–not anymore.

    In referring to Toqueville, his observations about America, 180 years ago, were interesting and certainly relevant to today. He noted Americans’ “immense opinion of themselves,” as well as the poor quality of our politicians. If you mention Tocqueville today, first–no one knows who the hell you’re talking about. Second–he’s French, and given the whole backlash against them because their president at the time, dared to question our president’s rush to war in Iraq. Remember the whole “liberty fries” brouhaha?

    What I’m saying, and you are too, is that it’s rare in these times to meet anyone who reads, thinks, and has anything to say beyond a canned, co-opted response to any issue or matter. Your thoughtful comment adds substantive context as to why.

    Off the topic slightly (but not entirely), if you haven’t read Dave Eggers book, The Circle, I highly recommend it. It really nails the technology piece. Some reviewers call it “dystopian” because, I guess, it’s an easy default label. It’s much more than that.

  3. Thank you, Jim. Let’s not forget that Tocqueville wrote a huge book as well, imposing to the potential reader, but you are absolutely right that his carefully observed descriptions of 1830s Americans are priceless today. They show us who we were, and that our government was utterly subservient to our society then (raising the question, What happened?). While from time to time he was left slack-jawed at the American “hustle,” what could not be doubted was that we were a self-reliant people who solved our own problems by freely constituted associations. His predictions of an extremely wealthy America were strikingly accurate, right down to our eventual collapse into a “soft despotism.”

    Tocqueville’s observations are also shaped by his own aristocratic background. He is concerned about the best and the finest, excellence in human activities and creations, none of which he could find in America (everyone in America would have a mass-manufactured clock, for example, but none of them would even begin to approach the charm and beauty of a bespoke clock built for an aristocratic client by a master guildsman of the Old Regime). On the other hand, having participated in the real nitty gritty of politics in post-Napoleonic France, he was impressed at how the American people seemed to have solved the problem of self-governance.

    As for Americans of that period thinking so highly of themselves, I recently read something that I believe was from Davy Crockett’s autobiography. Crockett had returned to his home district in Tennessee from the swamp of D.C., seeking votes for re-election, only to be utterly and thoroughly schooled by local farmers on the Constitution, and why Crockett was not worthy of their votes because of his sentimentally-motivated violations of our founding document. The level of argument and dialogue in this “pop” literature of the 1830s so far exceeds the level of argument in nearly anything published today as to be from another world. As Gatto notes of James Fenimore Cooper, his The Deerslayer is so full of allusions and history to be nearly unreadable by contemporary Americans. Or for that matter, the books of Sir Walter Raleigh, which combined with the Bible and Shakespeare were in the blood of half this nation up until the Civil War–who is capable of reading an unannotated Raleigh today?

    It is not an accident we don’t or can’t read Tocqueville, Crockett, Raleigh today. We have been carefully and thoroughly “educated” to that end, by people who don’t want us to know or recognize our own motivations. Unrooted from our history and divorced from our powers of reason, we become easy prey for the marketing of consumables, the new world order created by Carnegie, Morgan, Vanderbilt, and above all Rockefeller over a century ago. Once we were the most amazing experiment in self-governance in the history of all mankind, now we are fat, dumb and happy (?) eloi with no idea of who we are or why.

Comments are closed.