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Ulterior Motives

Why a hidden reason for action need not be the real reason.

 Deden Dicky Ram/Pexels
Source: Deden Dicky Ram/Pexels

There is a tendency to reduce people’s motivation to what we perceive to be their ulterior motives: to assume that if people have a not-so-good hidden motive, they don’t have any pure ones and that any good reason they may offer is merely a pretend reason. This view is humorously summarized in a remark one Mrs. Walter B. Helm made at an annual dinner in 1905: “Some wise person says, ‘There are always two reasons for doing a thing: One is a good reason, and the other is the real reason.’”[1]

While it is important not to take a naïve view and assume people have no hidden motives, the tendency to discount any possible good motive as soon as we have a reason to believe that an ulterior one is present is misguided, or so I am going to argue.

Consider Fanny, who takes care of her rich uncle. If we suspect she wants the inheritance, we think that this is all she wants. Now, it could be that we are simply wrong about Fanny—that she is a caring person not interested in the frail man’s money at all—but let us imagine she does want the inheritance. That much we are right about. It does not follow from here that all she wants is her uncle’s money.

Examples like this can be multiplied. If we think Gerda is complimenting Tom because she wants to have sex with him, we tend to conclude that her desire to have sex with Tom exhausts her motivation. Again, if Jack gives a birthday card to his supervisor, and we believe he is angling for a promotion, we may similarly infer that he is doing it only for the promotion.

But most people are complex and rather unlike cheap book villains. We often have more than one reason for action. Fanny may care for her uncle, and she may also be interested in the money. It could be that she would tend to his needs whether or not he has any money, but the inheritance is a welcome bonus.

Same for Jack. He may be aware that kindness toward his supervisor does increase his chances of getting a promotion. That awareness may, in part, be what moves him to act. But why think it's all there is to his motivation? Jack may, after all, empathize with the difficulties of his supervisor's job—for instance, having to mediate conflicts between employees (perhaps even a conflict involving Jack himself)—and he may want to do something nice in recognition of that.

I should note here that we are perfectly willing to accept more than one reason for action if both reasons are good ones. When a person appears to have multiple good motives, we don’t say that one of them is the real reason. For example, suppose Peter returns a lost wallet he found in the street. We know that Peter is both dutiful and empathetic. He returns the wallet both because he thinks this is the right thing to do and because he feels for the owner of the lost wallet.

Here, we are perfectly willing to accept that each of these motives may be present. Indeed, each may, on its own, be sufficient. For instance, Peter may be empathetic enough to return the wallet even if he feels under no obligation whatsoever to do it, or he may have such a strong sense of duty that even if the plight of the wallet’s owner does not move him at all, he would still return the wallet. If Peter is both empathetic and conscientious, we have no inclination to say that it’s really one of these motives only—either caring or a sense of duty—that’s the real reason.

Same with two bad motives. Here, too, neither motive gets discounted on account of the presence of the other. Say Fred steals Jack’s laptop. He has two reasons for doing this: He wants the laptop for himself, and he wants to create a setback for Jack (perhaps Jack is an architect whose current projects are saved on his laptop, and only there). In this case, we are perfectly happy to accept a multiplicity of reasons without looking for the real reason. Fred wants the laptop for himself, and he also wants to hurt Jack.

But when a person has both a good reason and an ulterior one, things stand differently, or so we suppose. We tend to discount the good reason altogether. It is as though there is a kind of purity test for motives, and a hidden motive is seen as a sort of contaminant that makes the continued existence of good motives impossible.

Perhaps there is some kind of “hidden reality” schema operating in the background whereby, much as in the Matrix movie, once we discover that there is a layer of reality beneath the surface, we conclude that that is reality. What is not hidden gets written off as unreal. Since the ulterior motive is generally kept secret or at least not publicly advertised, it may seem, similarly, that that’s the real motive.

But we should know from our own case that pure and selfish motives are often intermingled. You can send money to charity because you care about starving children yet also in order to free yourself of guilt for being born in a rich rather than a poor country. You can jump to save a drowning child because you care about the child, but also because you want to be a hero. (You may prefer to be the one to do it rather than someone else. The child will be saved in both cases, but you will be the hero in the first case only.)

Perhaps we already recognize that motives may be mixed in this way. No one would be surprised to learn that a cancer researcher who works hard does so not only because she cares about cancer patients but also because she wants to become famous. Similarly, an investigative journalist may be dedicated to bringing a corruption case to light, but he may also hope his scathing exposé will help get him attention and ultimately a date. In these cases, we don’t think that a hidden selfish motive contaminates everything. Perhaps, this is because here we don’t care about the motive very much or at all. We want the cancer cure, whatever the cancer researcher’s reason for working on it, and we want corruption exposed, whether or not the journalist is applying himself partly in an attempt to better his own love life. Maybe kind and generous actions are different. There, we care not only about the action but also about the motive: We want the kind action to be done out of kindness only, with a pure heart.

The question is, however, what to conclude in case the heart isn't perfectly pure. Should we assume it is, therefore, entirely selfish?

I want to suggest that we should not. The fact that the journalist and the cancer researcher may have mixed motives—some selfish, some socially beneficial—shows that a hidden selfish motive and a good one may well co-exist. It is true that a person often has two reasons for doing something—a good reason and an ulterior one. What is not true is that the ulterior motive destroys the benevolent one, depriving the action of all goodness it would otherwise have. The hidden reason is not necessarily the real reason.


[1] Helm, B. The Rockford Daily Register-Gazette, February 11, 1905, Society Notes, Page 7, Column 3. Rockford: Illinois.

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