Wednesday, 26 March 2008


One of the most frequently made arguments against the invasion of Iraq is that the motives behind the action were not the publicly stated ones of removing the regime's WMD capability and fighting terrorism, nor was the invasion motivated by a wish to free oppressed people from tyranny, or expand democracy. The overly familiar argument is that the real motive was oil, or war profiteering, or empire building.

I don't much care to argue against this point of view, not because I think it's correct, but because I think motive is irrelevant in judging whether a deliberate action is right or wrong. The result of the action is what's important.

How can motive be used as a guide to judging action? How can we even know with any certainty what someone's motives are? Can anyone even be fully aware of their own motives? These might be profitable depths for psychoanalysis to plunge into, but in an argument about whether an action is right or wrong, these questions seem more like quicksand.

To further muddy the matter, how often does anyone have a single clear motive for a big decision? A philanthropist is likely to have more complex motives than simply a desire to make others happy. That doesn't mean they will fail to make people happy.

In another case, a person may act purely with regard to their own interest, for example in clearing an obstacle or solving a problem that stands in their way, and others may yet benefit from their action. The absence of an altruistic motive doesn't mean there must be an absence of benefit to others.

But in contrast, if someone acts on a purely selfless motive, then can't we expect that their actions will be good? I don't think so. There are more than a few examples of selfless ideologies that take on aspects of tyranny. Too often those who are prepared to deny themselves their wants and needs are also prepared to deny them to others.

Away with motive, then. You can't be sure of what the motive was, and even if you could, it can't define whether the results of an action are good or bad, and therefore whether the action itself was good or bad.

An objection: in detective stories and court cases, doesn't motive often take centre stage? It must somehow be useful in understanding what's going on, mustn't it? Can't we use motive to find out if someone is committing a crime?

Well, the followers of Sherlock Holmes start with a crime, and then may use possible motives to identify suspects. Motive is not used to decide whether a crime has been committed in the first place. Later in a trial, motive may be taken into account in sentencing, but again it doesn't decide whether a deliberate action was criminal or not.

Is all this the same as saying the end justifies the means? No. Quite the opposite. The phrase 'the end justifies the means' is another way of saying if one is motivated by a good end, then one is justified in one's actions. Instead I'm saying the means determine the end. In judging a deliberate action, look at what the result is.

Of course in the case of the invasion of Iraq there were a lot of actions involved beyond the one action of deciding to invade, and no alternative to that central action was free of its own consequences. Those arguments are too great to go through here though, at the end of this small argument on motive.

Follow up posts: Motive 2, Motive 3. See also Re-fighting World War Two.


Jack Baney said...

Hi. I've been following your argument on the TJC board a little. Since I've sworn to stop posting there, I figured I'd comment here on your blog.

You make some good points about motivation that I've often thought of myself. It always annoys me to see someone attacked for having selfish motives behind their seemingly altruistic acts, since there's almost always some degree of selfishness behind everything anyone does. For the most part, consequences are more important than motivations.

Still, I think that in a democratic society, a leader's motives for going to war is an important topic for discussion, even if the war has wonderful, life-affirming, Disneyesque consequences. For example, let's say it's proven--maybe through documents revealing that a leader had already decided to go to war at the same time he was claiming to be desperately pursuing other options--that a leader's stated motives for going to war were lies. Well, in that case, the leader has completely violated the spirit of democracy, even if his war turns the invaded country into a utopian land of peace and brotherhood. It's like a cop getting a truly dangerous person sent to jail by planting evidence—the violation of principle outweighs whatever good it does.

Also, I know you didn't say it, but I feel the need to respond to a quote from Christopher Hitchens that was prominently featured on one of the blog entries that you linked to. I can't find it now, but the quote basically said that America's pacifist "rabble" (or a similar word) should be deeply ashamed, since if the U.S. had listened to them, the Taliban would still be in power and Saddam would not only be murdering people in his own dictatorship but in Kuwait as well. First, Hitchens neglects to mention that he was one of the rabble that opposed the first Gulf War and that, while he now says he was wrong, he's never expressed any shame over it. He also neglects to mention that his new right-wing friends are the guys who helped to fund the Taliban and Saddam in the 80s and who failed to support the Kurds' efforts to topple Saddam at the end of the first Gulf War—in other words, if it weren't for them, there might never have been a Taliban in the first place and Saddam's reign might have ended a long time ago. Finally, he makes the retarded assumption that a U.S. invasion was the only possible way to end either of those regimes, when there are plenty of examples—from the USSR to Suharto’s Indonesia—of dictatorships being toppled in less traumatic ways. Over the past several years, Hitchens has written that anyone who didn't think Saddam had WMDs was stupid, that Ahmed Chalabi was trustworthy, that many leftists would eventually see the light and join him as socialistic Bush supporters... Everything he's said has been completely wrong, and he still refuses to admit it.

Your artwork is great, by the way.


kellie said...

Thanks for your comment Jack - the first one here after 38 posts!

If I could answer your caveat in the third paragraph, the example you give is of someone lying about their actions. They say they are doing one thing, and papers prove otherwise.

If a politician tells an outright lie to parliament/congress, then that's reason for them to be got rid of immediately. As you point out, the bad result in that case is the undermining of democracy, just as the cop's framing of someone undermines the rule of law.

To apply the example to Iraq, I don't know whether anyone lied, but I certainly would be extremely pleased for prosecutions for cases of prisoner abuse to go as high up the chain of command as possible, including to the political level. These cases have an importance beyond the fate of the individual prisoners, they undermine the fundamental goal of defending democracy and the rule of law.

I won't try to speak for Hitchens, or for his friends. Certainly he seems to have changed his mind on some points, and his friends have too. I've changed my mind on a lot of things in my adult life, and I hope to retain the ability to do so.

kellie said...

As I'm not going to speak for Hitchens, I've added a link to him instead in the sidebar.

Jack Baney said...

Man, I'm the first, huh? Maybe you should start linking to more of your political posts on the tcj thread and openly challenging Robert Cook et al. to refute them. I'm sure that Mike Hunter alone would be good for at least 6,000 words of relentlessly cheerful commentary/New Yorker quotes per day.

You're right about my example being somewhat off, so let me try to simplify my argument: I think that when a leader sells a war by professing a certain motive, it's relevant to investigate and discuss whether the professed motive is/was genuine. I know that if a government was less than honest about its reasons for entering a war, it doesn't necessarily follow that the war was unjustified. For example, I've read that a lot of declassified WWII-era documents show U.S. planners looking forward to winning WWII because it would allow us to emerge as the world's greatest economic and military superpower, not because it would stop fascism. None of this changes the fact that the war did stop fascism and achieve all kinds of noble goals. Still, I think these less-than-noble motives are worth keeping in mind when you consider whether U.S. involvement in WWII was justified (and I think it was).

I'm reminded of the description of Daniel Ellsberg's trial in You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train by Howard Zinn (who I'm sure you just love). Zinn says that at one point, Ellsberg's lawyer read a passage from the Pentagon Papers arguing that the Vietnam War was necessary because the U.S. would be denied a lot of important natural resources if Southeast Asia went Communist. And Zinn noticed that a relative of a dead American G.I. became very upset at that passage, presumably because it meant that the soldier had died for reasons that were less noble that the fight against Communist totalitarianism. Putting aside any arguments about whether the war really was motivated by a quest for natural resources, my point is that you can't blame this person for caring a lot about the government's motives.

kellie said...

I don't know if GoogleBlogger allow enough bandwidth for Mike to comment regularly here. You're scaring me now!

On the rest, certainly all the questions of motive are interesting to talk about, and you can argue about whether this or that aim is a good idea, or has been successfully achieved, but I think that's maybe drifting away from the point I wanted to focus on.

There's an argument to be made that national economic concerns are legitimate concerns in war strategy -actually they're essential. If you look upon the Vietnam War as a battle in the Cold War, then one could argue that economic success was a strategic necessity in the larger war. I don't know enough about it to argue the case one way or another, though.

kellie said...

Speaking of Hitchens, here's Martin Bright on Hitchens on Arendt on Stalin and motive.