In a couple of my philosophy classes recently the question of human motivation came up. Simply put, why do we do what we do? It’s an interesting question and intriguing to mull over.

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First of all, it’s safe to say right off the bat that most people don’t self-sabotage. No sane person would deliberately miss their bus, or delete the essay they just typed out in order to see what that might be like. Generally, everything people do is to make things a little easier for themselves, which is fine so long as we aren’t always looking for shortcuts and sneaky ways to cheat.

Without getting too much into technical details, one school of thought involves what is called psychological egoism, whereby it is believed that humans always act out of self-interest. In this view, there is always a self-seeking motive, and our motivations are actually reduced to one ultimate aim rather than existing as complex amalgams. And this is one of the problems with this philosophical view-point.

Aside from being far too cynical, it demands that we discount our humanitarian side simply because it also makes us feel good, insisting that this is really our nefarious purpose.

Another view is that we are actually ethically obliged to act in our own self-interests. Highly linked with Ayn Rand’s philosophical school, we see evidence of this theory played out in her popular novels The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. There we see in great detail this sink-or-swim ideology played out. Though this presents problems as well, this also means that by taking care of ourselves we then make sure that in turn we are not burdens to others and society.

Though there is merit in this view, it discounts at least two things. Firstly, that our misfortunes are somehow always our responsibility. But more importantly, at some stages in life we are all in need at some point, for example in the debility of old age. We can’t ultimately ignore that our society is extremely interdependent no matter how self-sufficient we think we are.

It is hard to dispute that many people do in fact have a pure and driving motivation to help others. They sacrifice greatly, and even if there is some hint of self-satisfaction in doing so, if we were to round out a humanitarian’s motivations to one thing, then it would indeed lean towards altruism and not the smaller amount of egotistical pride.
However, in other circumstances we may be surprised in discovering that the reason we think we help others is not really the reason at all. It is not rare to see others hold a door open for someone, but when gratification is not forthcoming we may become disgruntled.

Perhaps, we need the validation. And perhaps holding the door open for someone when they are, in fact, still ten meters behind you is quite unnecessary. Though the intention may be good, others may feel even more hurried to then “catch up” when they were content to go at their own pace.

This brings us to yet another motivation for our behavior, that of obligation. In fact, though we put ourselves through onerous tasks with the reasoning that eventually it will work out better in our favour, it doesn’t erase the fact that we spend much of our life absorbed in what we feel obliged to do. This is honestly why many people go to university, get good grades, and go through rigorous job searches.

Of course, we think that there is light at the end of the tunnel, but such narrow thinking doesn’t take into account that we are likely to bring these habits into the workplace, learn not to say no, and plan and save obsessively for a mortgage and retirement so that we may still see that “one day” yet, even though we may no longer recognize ourselves in the mirror or fully understand the people we’ve become.

On that note, I think the lesson here is that, barring any deep moral concerns, the most important thing is for our motivations to be authentic. Sometimes the person who doesn’t hold the door for you, even when they really should have, is quite busy studying for a professional exam. We may not think about it, but ten seconds to stop and chat might mean them missing the bus, and then actually losing thirty minutes of study time that day.

And if we do hold the door open, make sure it’s for the right reasons rather than acknowledgement from the external world. And even though Ayn Rand, as intellectual as she was, may have come off at times like a real bitch, it’s worth thinking about why we’re on the treadmill every now and then, so that we can sometimes clear the decks and reset our priorities.

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