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.

By Ariel Garlow


I’ll start this blunt. As a big fan of the literary world, I’m sort of peeved when the occasional person says, “ugh, we don’t read any classic female authors because most fans of literature today still devalue women! Look at these female authors we aren’t reading - that’s a sign of patriarchal oppression!”

There are fewer classic female authors because of the gender issues in the past. Correct. And since there are fewer female authors, you are going to notice that you’re reading more male classic authors than female. The amount of good literature a teacher or professor can choose from on the side of male authors is a big pool, not because classic male authors are better but because they are just more common. The entire pool of female authors is, thus, smaller.

You shouldn’t force people to read books just because females write them. You should give people books to read because that book is good. Forcing students to read female authors almost seems like you don’t have enough faith in the talent of said authors.

So let’s say there’s an equal ratio of good authors to shitty authors in each classical gender pool. Say the number 100 represents the male pool, and 20 represents the female pool. Now let’s say the equal ratio of good authors is 40 percent (admit that not everyone who writes a book is good at it). That means you can pull 40 good male authors from their pool, and 8 good female authors from their respective pool.

But wait, you say, 40 men and only 8 women? That’s completely unfair. Now we’re drowning in male power fantasies and father-son relationships. Where’s the female perspective?

I agree that the fact that only having 8 good female-written novels as compared to 40 good male-written novels is a total rip-off. Though quite a few classic male authors, take F. Scott Fitzgerald or Turgenev for instance, can write from the female perspective without totally screwing it up, you can bet that at least half of that 40 is going to be focusing almost entirely from their own perspective. That’s what writers do best, whether we like it or not. “Write about what you know” isn’t a suggestion, it’s almost the basic formula for a great piece of literature.

But are we only reading 8 female authors as opposed to 40 male authors because our current society devalues women? Despite that women are still at a disadvantage, this is not the main case. We are simply feeling the repercussions of the classic age. What I mean is, it would have been swell if women writers in the 1800’s or early 1900’s were given more chance to show their talents. But they weren’t.

Many great old female writers we still cherish today even felt it necessary to use male (or gender neutral) pseudonyms. George Eliot, author of Silas Marner, was really Mary Anne Evans; Charlotte Bronte often went under “Currer Bell”; the author of Little Women, “A.M. Barnard”, is Louisa May Alcott. Would I like to change the past so that the pool of classic women authors is bigger, and thus more women authors who powerfully excel to the top ranks of literary fame? Of course I would. I can’t think of many people who would say “no” if they were suddenly given the ability to allocate more gender equality to our often shameful past on this planet. Can we do that? Unfortunately, no, history cannot be re-written. This is also why I think it’s important to read a mix of classic and contemporary authors.

So what can be done to ensure great classic women writers are given a chance? I think one way some professors go about the issue is ultimately damaging.

Suddenly, you’re not reading a book because it’s good; you’re reading it because a woman writes it.
Suddenly you’re stating that this writer isn’t unpopular because they have a terrible novel, but because of their gender status alone.

Suddenly (and this is what I abhor so much about the problem) great women writers of the past are overlooked because they’ve apparently already “had their time to shine”. Is Harper Lee too mainstream for you now? Did Mary Shelley suddenly stop being a woman? Did Edith Wharton do something to piss of the Gender Studies department at McMaster? Willa Cather? Charlotte Perkins Gilman? We don’t all agree with Ayn Rand, but as someone with clean style and ability as a novelist, why does her name never come up when we’re talking about these prolific women writers? Don’t you still enjoy Sylvia Plath?

Why is it always Jane Austen plus some writer I’ve never heard of and frankly wish I’d never read?

By forcing students to read these obscure female authors, I don’t think we’re helping possible literature fans respect the capabilities women.

I think we’re teaching new English students that women’s rights in the writing world has to be a painful and boring experience, when it can be an inspiring one. This doesn’t mean, “let’s only read the people we already know.”

A great woman once wrote a book alternatively titled The Modern Prometheus with fright, astounding insight, amazing narrative and deep emotional value. It was imaginative and takes the reader outside the commonplace yet still in the realms of societal critique.

Instead you’re telling them to read about how a couple of young ladies went to some boring parties and cared way too much about what Mr. Darcy thinks.

One day, I hope to be a writer. I’d like to believe that my novels will be read because I am good, not simply because I am a woman and some feminist literature prof is exploiting my gender representation to make a point.

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