The Intellectual Fallacy of Ascribing Motives to People Whom You Don’t Understand (Part 1)
Or, Why It Isn’t All About Sex and Money
Signpost Warning: This essay includes a discussion of “adult” themes, including sexuality and violence. Nothing in it is NSFW, but it might not be the kind of thing you’d want to read with your children around.
This essay is a little different from my usual fare, but I think readers will find it interesting. Before I begin, I’d like to offer a quick disclaimer. By no means am I a paragon of tolerance and emotional intelligence. If anything, I write this essay for my own benefit. I’m far too quick to leap to judgement about other people, especially those with whom I have disagreements. So, I’m no saint on this subject. But if you had to be a saint to point out fallacies, there would be a lot more fallacies running around.
With that out of the way, let’s begin. Gambling casinos have soft openings. I’ll open this essay with a “soft opening” on fiction.
Cardboard Character Flaws:
One of my pet peeves as a reader of fiction is when an author “tries too hard” to create “flawed” characters, and in doing so gives all his characters simplistic flaws (or the same flaws).
My philosophy on writing complex characters is that you should focus more on making them real (realistic) than “flawed.” All human beings are flawed, so if you create a character who feels real to you (and to readers) then by definition, he or she has flaws. If you’re stuck, by all means you can think about manually inserting a major flaw. But you shouldn’t start writing from the premise that every character needs to have one or two obvious tragic flaws.
Perhaps the most annoying example of this – which I alluded to in my subtitle – is when every character’s major flaw is either greed or lust. It’s either about sex, or money, or both. But in reality, people are driven by other things, too.
Good writers understand this. We can see the complexity of the world in their fiction. Camus’s stranger shoots a man dead because the sun is in his eyes.1 The Joker “just want[s] to see the world burn.” Dostoyevsky’s Raskolnikov murders an old woman both in an attempt to prove a philosophical theory, and out of a desire to make himself into a superman – one who is able to violate conventional morality at will and break the rules and taboos that govern “lesser” people.
The best writers create characters who could be real people. Poor writers often fall back on the tired tropes of sex and money as being at the root of every character’s motivation.
It Isn’t Just in Fiction:
Perhaps writers fall back on these clichés because they believe sex and money actually drive much of decision-making in the real world. It isn’t just writers who believe that. Lots of people falsely ascribe simplistic motives to their enemies. Others are overly reductionist in their understanding of human nature. And some people extrapolate from their own experience (meaning that either they mostly care about money or sex themselves, or they’ve encountered too many others who do).
Whatever the reason, many will argue that this is actually how the world works. They think that cynicism is realism, and they define cynicism in overly simplified terms. Hence, “Of course people are mostly motivated by money and sex and power.2 I’m just being realistic.”
And yet, when we actually look at the world, we see many situations that have little to do with money or sex (or power).
Young men don’t usually join gangs to get laid or because they can’t get a job. Joining a gang initiates them into a brotherhood, a close community that provides them not only belonging, but honor, status, a sense of purpose, an identity, and a tribe. The gang affords them protection and security, and also an outlet for aggression and action. If we want to dissuade young men from joining gangs, we can’t just give them UBI and Tinder.
What about drugs? Why do people do them?
It’s rarely about money or sex or power. Users may be initially attracted to an illicit substance (say, crystal meth) because they’re looking for excitement, a sense of danger, or an outlet for “rebellion.” In the case of meth or heroin, they can quickly become so addicted that the substance governs and controls them, not the other way around. Once that occurs, they won’t be motivated by money, or sex, or power, or anything other than an all-consuming desire to get high (and curb the withdrawal symptoms).
Neither of these examples fits neatly into the simplistic “money, sex, and power” categories. I could also give you examples of noteworthy people doing good. Not all motivation is motivation to do evil, and – as you’ll see – I argue that human beings can be motivated by higher purposes (love, charity, loyalty, patriotism, family, etc.).
But before we get there, we must go deeper into the belly of the beast. Let’s address money and sex separately and in turn.
Is Money the Root of All Evil?
Perhaps the most misquoted line in the Bible is, “money is the root of all evil.” Of course, those seven words do appear together, in that order, without any periods or extra words inserted in between them. But the actual line is “the love of money is the root of all evil” (1 Timothy 6:10 KJV). In his first letter to Timothy, St. Paul isn’t suggesting that all that is evil in the world is due to the introduction of currency. If that were the case, evil could be eliminated by returning to a barter system. Rather, Paul is telling us that when a person loves money (or other forms of material wealth), instead of God and their neighbor, their soul will become corrupted.
Furthermore, love of money isn’t the only vice that exists in the world.3
“But, Ben,” you might say, “cui bono?”
Sometimes, when there is an unexplained crime or evidence of an actual payoff, it makes sense to ask, “who benefits?” But dark money, corporate bribes, global finance, elite oligarchs, and “the ownership class,” aren’t behind every nefarious doing in the world. There isn’t a secret cabal of the superrich running the things behind the scenes.
Bad things happen for other reasons. Sometimes, nobody profits. At least not materially. Always asking who stands to profit – especially when it isn’t obvious that anyone does – quickly leads to grandiose conspiracies.
Perhaps my least favorite of these – popular in Hollywood films and among isolationists – is the idea that the “defense industrial complex” is behind every act of violence in the world. This is an absurd conjecture. But, more importantly, it gets causality backwards. People don’t start wars to gain profit. Rather, human beings pour incredible amounts of financial resources, industrial capital, time, talent, effort, energy, and ingenuity into killing one another and coming up with better ways to kill one another. Sometimes, plunder is just an excuse to justify actions that came from a darker place.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. I’ll address war and the defense industry later in this extended essay.
Before we move on from the subject of money, I want to add that I’m not arguing people are never motivated by financial gain. Quite often, they are. Bribery and corruption occur all the time. They just don’t drive every decision you or I don’t like. Not everyone can be bought off.4
Also, monetary reward doesn’t always motivate bad behavior. In fact, it does a lot of good. It drives innovation, industriousness, thrift, delayed gratification, and competition. It drove the market revolution, the Industrial Revolution, and the Information Revolution, which improved the lives of billions of human beings in extraordinary ways.
So, it’s a lot more of a complicated picture than, “money is the root of all evil.” But what about other motivations? Was Freud right that it’s really all about sex?
Just like money matters, sex matters. Money is important; sex is important. But there are other factors that drive human life, too.
Just like financial peccadillos, sexual peccadillos are common. But every politician, celebrity, musician, banker, [fill-in-category-of-person-here] doesn’t have a closet (or a bedroom) filled with them. One of the problems with fiction that obsessively relies on mistress-as-plot-device is that it becomes unrealistic. More to the point, fiction in this category often relies on sexual perversions. Some of which I highly doubt happen with any degree of regularity, because I doubt very many people are really interested in them at all.
One of my many complaints about Game of Thrones, is the overreliance on incest as a plot point (for that matter, Heinlein had some weird ideas about incest, too). I seriously doubt more than a small handful of human beings have ever tried that. Not because we’re all sexual prudes, but because the thought of it triggers the evolutionary disgust reflex. Contra Freud (the root of all sexual misinformation, it would seem), most people are not attracted to their close relatives, because the selection pressure for millennia has pushed against genetic inbreeding.
Honestly, I’m getting tired of this topic. I’d like to move on from sex, money, and other things that we sometimes falsely assume are the sources of people’s motivations, to some of those real sources of motivation that are commonly misunderstood.
But before we do that, I’ve written up a sidebar on a related fallacy/cliché – namely, the overused phallic analogy – which you can read here. Or, if you’d rather not have to think about such things, you can skip on to:
I recently finished reading Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven. After spending time in Utah last summer and hearing about the book, I wanted to check it out. It’s controversial in the LDS Church, in part because the book unflatteringly portrays some of the more violent parts of LDS history (some of which is disputed by the church – I will not comment here on the merits of either side of that debate).
But the book is really the story of a 1984 murder of a woman and her baby by her brothers-in-law (Dan and Ron Lafferty),5 who believed they had received direct revelation from God ordering them to kill. These two men were not part of the LDS Church. They were part of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, which separated from the LDS Church many years ago.6
Krakauer wrote the book out of a desire to understand the nature of religious belief. The trials of Dan and especially Ron Lafferty brought up profound questions about America, religious freedom, insanity, and extremism. He was writing the book in the wake of the invasion of Iraq, and the context was the War on Terror. An Evangelical Christian was in the White House, and America was wrestling with questions about pluralism and religion in an increasingly secular world.
Krakauer is an atheist, but he makes a serious attempt to understand what motivates believers. I don’t think he entirely succeeds, but I’m more charitable towards him than I think others are. In his author’s note, he explains that he approaches the subject from a standpoint of humility and respect for the Mormons he knew growing up. But at times, he still seemed to misunderstand religion in the way that some nonbelievers can.
Why do I bring this up? Because I think it provides a good starting point for discussing ways in which religious people (extremist and non-extremist) are often misunderstood by nonbelievers, who try to come up with other motivations because “a reasonable person couldn’t really believe all that, so there must be something else driving them.”
Krakauer seems persuaded by the arguments made during Ron Lafferty’s trial that Lafferty was not, in fact, insane, and that to suggest such is to suggest that the majority of human beings (i.e., believers) all have varying levels of insanity. Perhaps it helped that (it appears) Ron tried to play up the crazy schtick during the trial to get a lighter sentence (trying too hard to look insane can backfire).
It’s sometimes common to attribute all mass shootings, horrific crimes, and even genocides to insanity. “Of course, he must have been insane,” the saying goes, “because only an insane person would do such a thing.” Dan Lafferty betrayed no remorse for cutting the throat of his sister-in-law and her baby. He truly believed he had done nothing wrong, and said as much on multiple occasions. It’s easy to say that someone like him must be insane. It’s nicer to believe that. Because it’s hard to confront the painful reality of evil. Krakauer interviewed Dan multiple times. Dan was coherent, lucid, and displayed no signs of insanity. His ideology was radical. But that doesn’t make him insane.
People say that Hitler was insane. Maybe believing that makes it easier to understand what he did. Maybe he was and maybe he wasn’t. But was Stalin? Was Mao? Was Pol Pot? It’s easier to believe in insanity than it is to believe in evil. But they can’t all have been insane.7
But insanity isn’t the only explanation leveled at religious extremism by those attempting to fathom it. As I mentioned, the context of Krakauer’s book is the war between the West and Islamic fundamentalist terrorism. During the Obama administration, it was common to hear the argument that Islamic terrorists were motivated by non-religious factors (economic factors, cultural factors, young male angst, quest for power, etc.). No doubt in some cases, that was true. If you have too many unemployed young men running around in a place, you tend to get trouble.
But people don’t blow themselves up because they can’t get a job. The men who flew airliners into the Pentagon and the World Trade Center wanted glory, yes. But more than that, they truly believed in what they were doing. They believed that they were martyrs, that the United States was evil, and that they would be rewarded in the afterlife. From a secular perspective, it can be hard to fathom what those terrorists did. But if the 9/11 hijackers truly believed the things they professed to believe, then their actions were the logical consequences of their beliefs.8
People who fail to understand why someone would die or kill for a religion sometimes assume it must be economic displacement. They don’t understand that if someone truly believes in life after death and the fallen nature of this world, then self-sacrifice might become not only an acceptable choice but the obvious choice.9
Perhaps one of the reasons this economic displacement theory gained popularity during the Obama administration was the rise of ISIS. While some members of ISIS definitely were hardcore believers, others were obviously not. In many ways, ISIS was (and is) a death cult, happy to take in followers who had no interest in obeying sharia law, so long as they were willing to kill and plunder and rape and torture. Many of the young men who fled Europe to join ISIS actually were not motivated by religious extremism,10 and some of them may have been motivated by economic factors, or alienation, or even insanity.
But some of them – like the Joker – just wanted to watch the world burn. The Joker was insane, but sadly, not everyone who wants that is. Which brings me to my next topic of misunderstanding.
As a side effect of the safety and peace and security many of us enjoy in America, it’s become more common to misunderstand some of the causes of violence. We extrapolate our own experience and assume it must be the norm.
We are lucky. The safety and prosperity we enjoy in much of the developed world is an anomaly. It is unnatural. Not all that is natural is good, and one of the most natural things in the world is violence. Not just the violence of predators killing their prey. But the kind of antisocial violence that shocks the conscience of modern Americans.
Chimpanzees will brutally slaughter other tribes of chimpanzees, including the babies. Dolphins will murder for the fun of it. Hyenas will kill for fun, and will do so in ways that are designed to inflict pain and suffering (i.e., slow death). The animal kingdom is filled with violence. Civilization is not the source of mankind’s violence, but rather the tamer of it.
In Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, which was based on real events on the U.S.-Mexico border in the middle of the nineteenth century, a group of men are hired to carry out a mini-genocide. But they become consumed by their violence and eventually kill indiscriminately: Americans, Mexicans, native tribes, women, men, young, old, even the people who hired them. Perhaps most unsettlingly, they lose interest in sex and treasure and food and normal human desires. They still rape and plunder and feast, but mainly they are filled with the desire to kill for the sake of killing.
In all likelihood, some of those who joined ISIS had similar motivations.
I’d like to turn from this dark topic. I’ll return to the subject of war in Part Two of this essay. But I want to move on to one last thing before we close Part One. Hopefully, this will be a cheerier end to what was otherwise a bit of a downer essay (and a bit of a rant). I think you will find Part Two more uplifting.
The Urge to Simplify:
Why do people ascribe bad motives to other people? Why do these misunderstandings happen in the first place? Is it always bad faith?
Sometimes, it is bad faith. People impute motives to other people whom they dislike. Or they put their own motives on another person instead of assuming that person might have different ones. For instance, “I’d only work in finance if I hated myself and just wanted to make a lot of money really quick,”11 instead of realizing that (some) people who work in finance might actually like working in finance.
Sometimes, we fail to understand why others enjoy different things than we do, and because we have trouble understanding why they enjoy those things, we think there must be something else going on. I’ll speak more about taste and enjoyment in Part Two. But another source of our struggle to understand comes from extrapolate our own motives onto others instead of asking what actually motivates them.
The Golden Rule may be, “Do unto others as you would have them do onto you,” but thoughtful people have realized that a better version might be, “do unto others as they wish to have done unto them.” Sometimes other people don’t want you to do to them what you’d want them to do to you. As a trivial example, people have different sleep chronotypes.12 Which means that while you might be ready to have fun at 9pm on a Friday night, your friend might need to go to bed. Following the Golden Rule, you would try to drag him to the bar, convinced that he needs to get out more and have fun. But what he really needs is to go to sleep.
So, we can’t simply extrapolate our own motivations to other people, given that we have different desires, different personalities, different needs, different backgrounds, etc.
As we’ve seen with the “everything is about sex and money” fallacy, misunderstands also stem from our urge to simplify. But human nature defies attempts to simplify it. Individuals are complex and have complex motivations and reasonings. We have competing desires. Many of us contain contradictions within us. At the very least, we feel tensions between competing goods.
And we change all the time. Making it even harder to pin down motivations and desires.
To return full circle to fiction, the most satisfying characters are the ones whose complicated relationships, dreams, desires, urges, failures, successes, thoughts, actions, and lives are fully realized on the page. Are they flawed? Of course. But not in a stereotypical way.
The desire to simplify human life, in order to make it easier to understand, actually obscures the picture. It distorts our ability to understand. It’s hard to resist the urge to simplify when you’re dealing with a person you dislike, who has acted in ways you hate. It’s hard to take a step back and appreciate human beings in all of their folly and all of their glory. But admitting that we don’t understand other people (sometimes) is the only way we can begin to understand them.
We are neither homo economicus, nor Freudian superegos. It isn’t really all about sex or money.
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Ok, so technically that’s more of his excuse than his actual motivation, but he doesn’t understand why he killed the man and he didn’t do it because of any conventional or commonplace motives.
You’ll notice I added “power” to the list. There’s perhaps a little more to the theory that “it’s all about power” than there is to the theory that “it’s all about sex” or “it’s all about money.” But there’s a strong version and a weak version of this argument. The strong version comes from Friedrich Nietzsche, and is outside the scope of this essay. The more common, weak version is probably a bastardized form of the strong theory, but the people making it don’t seem to fully understand it, or they haven’t thought it through. From here on out, I’ll occasionally throw in the word “power” to mix things up.
At a later date, I plan to write about the intellectual fallacy of cynicism in extremis, but for now let’s say that cynicism is fine, but you need intelligent cynicism. Not the reductio ad absurdum variety.
Someone will say here, “everyone has a price.” If we are talking about non-monetary things, this might be true: a higher sum of money might not get Michael Corleone to orchestrate a hit, but if it’s a matter of protecting his family, consider it done. But if we’re talking just about money: no, everyone doesn’t have a price. The rejoinder is, “What if the numbers get big enough?” Well, I’m willing to bet that there are things you wouldn’t do for twenty million dollars. And if you wouldn’t do it for twenty million dollars, you probably wouldn’t do it for twenty billion. Speaking for myself, what could I do with twenty billion dollars that I couldn’t do with twenty million? Of course, you can fill in answers from, “You can buy an island,” to “You could buy Twitter,” but those are the kinds of things people do when they’re bored and they have so much money they don’t know how to get rid of it. I’m no saint, but money doesn’t matter that much to me. When it comes to “more money,” at a certain point there isn’t a point anymore.
Ron “had the revelation” and ordered the killing. He physically beat his sister-in-law. But Dan was the one who actually took both lives.
Dan and Ron Lafferty both considered anyone outside of the Fundamentalist Church damned, in some cases actual agents of the devil. This included the LDS Church. Their crimes don’t reflect upon Mormonism, because their religious ideology departed so significantly from (mainline) Mormonism.
This insanity argument strays dangerously close to the argument that crime is a pathology. The implications of which are downright disgusting and – dare I say – also morally wrong.
Lest anyone think that’s an argument against religion, saying something is logical is not the same as saying it is good or justified. Furthermore, religion doesn’t just motivate people to do evil. The Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s was a religious movement. As were the abolitionist movement and the campaign to end the slave trade. Finally, many of those who misunderstand religion fail to see the religious impulses in their own lives. Everyone has a religion, it just isn’t always one with a deity.
To some secular people, this still sounds like an argument against religion. After all, religious differences sparked wars that killed hundreds of thousands of people throughout human history. But if it hadn’t been religion, something else would have sparked similar wars. War is natural to humans, and religion is sometimes its excuse. It isn’t religion is filled with hatred and intolerance and therefore causes violence, but the human heart that is filled with hatred and intolerance. Humans can easily find trivial or nontrivial reasons to hate people who are “not like us.” That is why it is so important to try to understand people whose motives you feel you cannot fathom.
It’s worth noting that ISIS doesn’t play well with other terrorist organizations, especially those more devout ones.
For the record, I have nothing against finance. It seems exciting from the outside. This is just an example.
Meaning their circadian rhythms are naturally different. Some people’s bodies and brains operate better with a 5am wakeup time, while others operate better with a 9am wakeup time. And there isn’t a whole lot a person can do to change his or her chronotype.