It is unavoidable. Each of us is motivated by many different desires and concerns: some positive, some negative, some altruistic, some self-oriented or even selfish.

The problem comes when we overlook that complexity, and exploit the inevitability of negative motivations to paint a monochrome and disparaging picture of our opponents. It’s a deliberate tactic. And it is as old as the hills. But in a context, such as ours, in which truth appears to have lost its currency, this reductionism gets applied to all dialogues and arguments. We are all reduced to Foucault’s power-players. We assume the worst of each other – because there’s apparently no alternative.

Now, this sounds dangerously like naivety, like some kind of Pollyanna who is blind to the darker sides of life. That’s not what I mean. I’m simply pleading for a recognition that an opponent’s motivation may not be as dark as we make out.

Different but not necessarily worse

I have not read it yet, but have it on my metaphorical bedside table, and appreciated Glynn Harrison’s precis in his excellent A Better Story. I’m referring to Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Politics and Religion. This is Glynn’s introduction:

Jonathan Haidt has produced a convincing body of research to show that our intuitive reactions to moral questions tend to operate broadly along six basic psychological systems, or foundations. Each system evaluates a moral question from a different point of view. in other words, each moral system  has a different question to ask, a different focus of concern. You can picture Haidt’s six systems as lying on a spectrum as shown in the diagram* here.

… And so, depending on background, personality and religious convictions, some of us veer instinctively towards the right of the spectrum, and others toward the intuitions of the left of it. (pp29-30)

If we’re discussing issues with others with such different starting points, then it may well conclude in an impasse. But it does surely mean that it is still possible to respect the opposing position? Without having to resort to such silencing cluster bombs as “X hates q’s” or “D only cares about q’s”. Any inter-party cooperation or understanding, let alone friendship, will only be possible if this kind of respect is possible.

When motivations matter

Of course, it is not always the case. Venal and sinister motivations may well be lurking. After all, some of the demagogic propaganda to rally support for anti-semitic legislation in 1930s Germany deliberately exploited concerns at a particular end of this intuitive spectrum. That is an extreme example – which is why it is outrageous usually for Hitler/Nazi comparisons to be wheeled out as if a particular proposal was necessarily on the same spectrum.

Aldous Huxley (Getty images)

Sometimes, of course, people are refreshingly open and honest about their own darker motivations. It can make a considerable difference to a discussion. So for example, Aldous Huxley pulled no punches against his own circles, in his 1946 book Ends and Means. He admits that he “took it for granted” that the world had no meaning.

I had motive for not wanting the world to have meaning; and consequently assumed that it had none, and was able without any difficulty to find satisfying reasons for this assumption…. For myself the philosophy of meaninglessness was essentially an instrument of liberation, sexual and political…
The philosopher who finds no meaning in the world is not concerned exclusively with a problem in metaphysics. He is also concerned to prove that there is no valid reason why he personally should not do as he wants, or why his friends should not seize political power and govern in the way they find most advantageous for themselves. (p273)

It is startling honesty, I hope you agree. And one can’t help wishing that many would follow in Huxley’s footsteps here.

A posture of generosity

But here’s the point. We should decide as a matter of principle and posture to assume better rather than worse motivations with our conversation partners. We might disagree with the starting points, we might even find them inconsistent – these are all topics for discussion. But if we’re to hold onto the reality of attainable truth (however provisionally or imperfectly), then we must not reduce everything to a power play.

Another’s intellectual motives should always be regarded as innocent until proven guilty.

That is my second tentative step towards civility.

*I have adapted this diagram for the blog


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