The Philosophy of MotivationThe question of what motivates us to do what we do is something that has been asked endlessly through history. It is a sometimes confounding quandary, a puzzle that philosophers the world over have pondered and, while many have come up with various answers, none have seemed entirely satisfactory in their own right.

Take, for example, doing the ‘right’ thing. Most would consider this to be pretty much black and white, in that you either do the right thing or you do not. The clearly defined line becomes much murkier when you bring motives into it however – is it truly still the ‘right’ thing if you are doing it for selfish or fearful motives? If the only reason you choose not to kill someone is the fear of the punishment you might receive, is that still doing the right thing? If you are coerced into hurting someone under threat to your loved ones, is that then the ‘wrong’ thing or do the mitigating circumstances change that?

It is such a difficult thing to clearly define because our motivations can be so diverse. The same action performed by ten different people, even under the same circumstances, will have ten different motivations behind it and thus would fall into ten different places on the traditional ‘right and wrong’ scale. For this reason, it becomes difficult to tell how a person really is by their actions alone, and right and wrong take on a new meaning, or in fact can be discarded entirely. Instead we find far more value in simply assessing each individual circumstance as exactly that – individual. A person who lives their lives like a saint solely because they fear God’s retribution is not necessarily a good person; they would murder, rape and steal if the threat of punishment was taken away and they could get away with it. Not exactly the hallmark of a ‘good’ person.

Any action taken with the correct motivation could in the right moment be the most loving choice, no matter what it looks like on the surface, just as any action taken with a selfish motivation could be terrible. An expression of this is ‘tough love’ – treating someone harshly in order for them to learn an important lesson, as opposed to someone who treats others harshly because they enjoy it or it makes them feel better. The same applies to ones who act sweet and caring, when this is coming from a needy or fearful space it is often quite obnoxious and annoying, because it feels fake. The same action with a more loving motive might be absolutely lovely.

Ultimately everything must be assessed on it’s own merits, looking beneath the surface of the action to see what motivation drives it. Only when this skill is developed are we in a position to really see the truth.

“The true measure of a man is what he would do if he knew he would never be found out.” – Baron Thomas Babington Macaulay

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