Thursday, June 15, 2017

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.


Bird lover said...

It also greatly untangles things to realize we never act but for a single reason. It seems as though we act for many reasons, but if there is one reason which would cause us to choose an action regardless of whether or not there were or were not other reasons then all the other reasons are superfluous.
There always is a reason we choose an action which is perceived self interest. If we do not select what we see as our self interest then we have a situation where we act against our perceived self interest.
You might say that there are situations where a number of options are available which are in our self interest. This might be but of these there is only a single option which we perceive to be the most in our interest. If we do not select that which is most in our interest then we have the same illogical situation of choosing to do that which we think is not the thing most in our interest.

Callan S. said...

According to Batson, I might have one (or more) of the following types of motivation:

What motivation does Batson attribute himself for defining this line of motivations? And selling the texts for $X.99?

It's funny how academia 'floats' so readily. As if he were describing things 'from above' rather than as part of the thing he is attempting to describe.

Also the question of unit price isn't just a pot shot on my part, I actually find the way morality statements flow through economy webs to be really interesting - pivotal, even. Perhaps even linked to a broader country...pseudo consciousness?

Anonymous said...

Your view is also consistent with modern decision theory. People make choices on the basis of values on various attributes (which may or may not correspond to Batson's categories). In the basic model, options are evaluated in terms of a weighted sum of their values on the various attributes. The option with the highest weighted sum is chosen. Alternative models shorten this process by using various heuristics, such as attending to the most "important" attribute first, then looking at others only if the options are "too close to call" on that one, and so on. But the general point is that, typically, no one attribute "causes" a choice.

This kind of analysis is usually applied to conscious decision making, but it could just as well be applied to motives that affect behavior with little conscious awareness. The effects of these motives could be established by experiments that manipulated them independently.

Jon Baron (

Justin Tiwald said...

Just wanted to say that I heartily agree with both the contents and the spirit of this post, Eric. At risk of stating the obvious, motivations can also operate as side constraints and alarm bells that are never set off (but would have been set off had, say, the gift I intended to buy my friend cost a great deal more than expected). We'd want to find a place for more spontaneous, nonaction-like kinds of motivation, as well as didn't-occur-to-me-to-do-otherwise kinds. And there are many cases which appear to blur the distinction between collectivist motivation and the others. If I sacrifice everything for a massive political movement with which I deeply identify, maybe one could plausibly attribute collectivist motives to me, or is it altruism? And what if I make great sacrifices so that my 15-person soccer team wins a championship, or my two-person tennis team? Here it looks like we need at least two spectra on which to locate collectivist motives vis-a-vis altruistic and egotistic ones, or possibly a three-dimensional graph.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comments, folks!

Bird: That model of motivation requires such a broad definition of "self-interest" that I think it breaks the boundaries of good usage of the term. If someone knowingly sacrifices herself to save a stranger's life, then that will also have to be "self-interest" on this view, because it's what she most wants to do, yes? I think there's a terminological infelicity in speaking that way.

Callan: I would resist being that cynical about it! Batson has done some terrific research on these questions, well worth bringing together in a book, even if his "Galilean" interpretation is open to challenge.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Jon: Yes, that sounds right to me, with a caveat. Decision theory is also often simplified -- which is fine, of course (as is Batson's) approach, as long as it's clear that we're working with a simplified model rather than the real "Galilean" causes.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Justin: Yes to all of that!

Turing Test said...

Batson's third category ( the "collectivist" motivation) could be a subset of either the self-interest category or the altruism category, depending on how large the collective is.

Unknown said...

I'm sympathetic to your view, Eric, but isn't the point of doing controlled experiments to try to disentangle these motivations (e.g., Batson's old experiments trying to show whether people were motivated by empathy or guilt or discomfort)? I suspect such experiments may instead show differing degrees to which we are motivated by these different factors, but that seems consistent with his view that they should count as different types of motivations. Similarly, the thought experiments philosophers use aim to help us see the difference between egoistic and altruistic motivations (ring of Gyges, Hutcheson's God who can blot out your memory of other's suffering or actually relieve their suffering, etc.).

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Unknown: What you're saying is sensible, but that's part of what I'm trying to push back against -- ineffectively, I now think, since I didn't provide enough detail. I'm thinking of a follow-up post.

Here's a cartoon version of what I think is wrong with the "Galilean" realist view: Even if Person A and Person B would act identically across a huge range of relevant situations when Motivation A and Motivation B are both present, on the Galilean view there is some real fact about the proportion of motivation that is coming from A vs B (maybe it's really A or really B or 80% A and 20% B). To figure out that proportion, we have to go to some remote hypothetical or to some not-very-ecologically-valid laboratory study, where A is present and B isn't, and vice versa. If in that remote case, we see behavior consistent with A being the real motivator, then we are licensed to think that across the board it really has been A all along. Two problems with that are (1) If the causes are complex, probably a different remote hypothetical or lab set-up would have yielded a different results, and (2) it's a lot of weight to put on remote aspects of the person's pattern of behavior that might not really be so relevant to what we care about in assessing people's motivations. Something like that.

Sam Rickless said...

Hi Eric, that there is a fact of the matter doesn't mean that we have a way of discovering the fact of the matter. Why did the bridge crumble? Well, there were a number of factors: how warm it was, ambient pressure, faults in the concrete, number of cars on the bridge, small earthquake, whatever. Let's not confuse the claim that there is a fact of the matter with the claim that there is a way to figure it out. At least, let's not conclude from the fact that we can't figure it out, or that it's messy, that there is no fact of the matter.

Also, I don't think that counterfactuals are relevant to the question of what motivates action or choice. If you want to know why I picked up the speaker from the airport, ask me. It's because I wanted to be a good host.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comment, Sam! What you would say is relevant to the question, but hardly decisive, I think, in light of people's (generally acknowledge) poor knowledge of the causes of their behavior. From "it's complicated" it doesn't follow that there's no underlying cause. I assume there is one -- but I'd suggest there's not good reason to conclude that it maps neatly onto some combination of those four factors interpreted in a scientifically/metaphysically realist way. It might instead look like deep learning crazy spaghetti misaligned with folk categories.

David Duffy said...

Some of this remind me of the disagreements about trait psychology - is introversion a Galilean force affecting the entire range of my behaviours?

Bird lover said...

Just because a particular motivation happens to align does not mean that it affects behavior. Consider a contestant on "Let's Make a Deal" who decides going on the show that she will always choose door number 3. Suppose also her favorite color is blue. She is given the choice and chooses door 3 even though door 2 is blue. Suppose instead door 3 is blue. She still chooses door 3. Why? In either case she chose the door she did because of its number. Its color had no effect on her behavior. If a behavior is in a person's perceived best interest, then that is why the action is taken and not because it also coincidentally happens to help someone else.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

I agree. This is why it's important to consider hypothetical actions and reactions across a range of relevant scenarios (including when the door is red). But that pattern might not end up as neat as the modeling requires, if we're talking about rough dispositional profiles instead of real underlying causes.

Callan S. said...


I would resist being that cynical about it! Batson has done some terrific research on these questions, well worth bringing together in a book, even if his "Galilean" interpretation is open to challenge.

Is that fair? I'm pretty sure I've applied Batson's own methodology to his efforts and work - isn't that fair play, rather than cynicism? It's not with ill will either, it's with a spirit of inquiry. Even if that inquiry isn't to a happy place at the end of the day. Please read me again, not as cynicism, but applying his own measure against his own actions. Or why would an academic, in making judgments and measures of motivations, be somehow exempt from the measure of his own judgments when doing so? I'm not trying to scold, though I am proposing a very difficult task of self application. And perhaps that's a very important task, if difficult one, this age. I think we are in an age where we are going to have to write methods of behavior and test ourselves by what we write in how we write it. To me, this is difficult but necessary self reflection, it wasn't cynicism. I mentioned the price tag not as a flippant attack, but because that is the world - the play of economy on morality is a pivotal subject at this point in time. Money is cynical - in trying to deal with this daily object, I might have come off as cynical as well. But really, how much philosophy about money is there? Perhaps there should be a bit more than almost nothing?

I will say something in his favor - surely we all insist we have some amount of control of ourselves. Surely self control is knowing your motivation? Isn't his an effort to try and determine ones own motivation, and with that, some measure of self control? If it is so hard to know ones own motivations, surely ones self control would really be all over the place. Even a rough approximation of ones own motivations would grant more self control, where as critiquing his measures of motive as not being able to grasp the myriad nature of the person seems like a rejection of even a rough method of self knowledge and through that, self control?