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.