Shared Goals are not Shared Motives

I want to address an irksome trend among people today when arguing. I am referring to the conflation of action and motive. It seems to me many people struggle with recognizing that different and even opposing motives can lead to the same action.

Recently, because I was making my usual raids on the idiocy of modern western feminists, I was accused of being a ‘men’s rights activist’ (MRA). For those of you who don’t know, these people are literally the cockroaches of the activist world. They’re racist, homophobic, and have even been known to advocate for chaining women to kitchen sinks. In essence, these people are the violent, polar reactionaries to feminism’s good side. Not long ago I wrote a coherent and scathing attack against them.

I had asserted something along the lines of, ‘Feminism doesn’t make sense as a human rights framework in the developed world because you can’t advance equality for all through the needs of one group.’ My opponent immediately called me out as a misogynist, MRA, neck-beard, what have you…

The neck-beard part was particularly shocking since they are necessarily heterosexual and unattractive and I am defiantly queer and remarkably good-looking. Facebook makes that hard to notice, however.

The thing is, groups can take action against feminism for very different motivations. An MRA guy will hypocritically attack feminism despite the fact that he plays the same identity politics game. His motive is simply to discredit feminism in general, not realizing he discredits himself as well. I take action against feminism because it is a form of identity politics which is self-defeating and competes with more functional human-rights frameworks. This does not mean MRA folk and I share the same intent. Let’s do some comparisons.

A doctor, a PETA member, and farmer all become vegetarians. Would this mean they share the same motive? No…they could be advocating vegetarianism for three entirely different reasons. The doctor may recommend this diet to remedy some health issues, while the PETA member may take a moral stance. The farmer could have an economic angle, pointing out that rice and flour are substantially cheaper than meat. Maybe the farmer also makes an environmental claim, asserting the efficiency of planting over grazing. The point is that while they are all taking the same action they do so for different reasons. Their motives are distinct.

A totalitarian dictator may find it useful to abolish religion not because he personally cares but because he wishes to consolidate power. That won’t stop him, however, from asserting the same proofs to discredit it as might any number of people who believe religion to be a barrier to human advancement and well-being, something a totalitarian despot is clearly unconcerned with.

 A current example would be the various motives of Iran, Assad, and the USA in combating and subduing ISIL. Arguments against ISIL as violent and chaotic and thus intolerably pernicious could be adduced and believed by all three parties. The actions pursuant to these arguments are also the same: attack and destroy ISIL. Their motives, however, could not be more disparate. Iran is a Shiite ‘Republic’, ideologically opposed to a militant, imperialist Sunni regime becoming their neighbor. Assad is literally fighting for his life – should ISIL win he’ll be executed. The USA wants to protect its national interests in the region which requires both political stability and quashing rising opposition. These shared arguments and actions do not make these polities ideological allies. A shared goal is not a shared motive.

These distinctions are important, especially when it comes to deciphering casuistry and uncovering motive. The enemy of my enemy is my friend, as the axiom goes, also illustrates the point that a shared goal can lead to temporary coalitions between otherwise ideological enemies. Conflating actions with motives is not only presumptuous, but intellectually lazy and most often the result of very myopic and narrow perspectives.

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