Do Motives Cloud Judgment?

clouded judgment, bias, logic, skepticism

Can our motives cloud our judgment? Yes. Without a doubt. (See this post and this post.) But does this mean we should always suspect our judgments and the judgments of others? That seems unreasonable. When I say that motives or psychological states can “cloud our judgment,” what I mean is (roughly) this–if we want something to be true, we tend to see the reasons for that view more favorably, and when we don’t want something to be true, we tend to see the reasons for that view less favorably. “More/less favorably” just means that the reasons appear to have more/less force to us than they would to someone with similar intellectual abilities and no desire either way (no horse in the race).

preformationism, bias, perceptionFor example, some early scientists believed in “preformationism,” which is the view that a tiny embryo exists in every sperm cell. So, when these scientists looked through primitive microscopes, they were inclined to see the outline of such an embryo in sperm cells. Others who did not hold this view did not see the embryos. Even the most ardent truth-seekers sometimes allow their biases and desires to affect their perception and judgment.

But to leap into the swamp of skepticism is a mistake. Here’s a common line of reasoning I observe.

  1. Psychological states, such as desires, often cloud human reasoning.
  2. Peter is expressing reasons for a view that he desires to be true.
  3. Therefore, I should mistrust Peter’s reasoning.

The most common example of this is when a religious skeptic dismisses the reasons presented by a Christian for her belief (which she wants to be true). Almost as common: a Christian assumes that the skeptic is only a skeptic (thus dismissing his arguments) because they don’t want there to be a God! Call this the “bad motives” attack. Several things strike me as wrong-headed about this kind of thinking.

Problems with the “Bad Motives” Attack

First, the reasoning presented by a person for their belief must stand or fall on it’s own merits. The motivations, desires, fears, etc. of that person are completely irrelevant when asking, “Is the reasoning they present any good?” (i.e., is the argument valid). To critique or question a person’s motives instead of critiquing their actual argument is evasion. We resort to this red-herring tactic only when we lack the intellectual skills to logically evaluate the argument being presented. (I should also add that you can admire the logic of an argument without agreeing with it! Being wrong is not the same as being irrational. Several very rational theories exist to explain the extinction of the dinosaurs, but most of them are wrong!)

spotlight, reasonSecond, this view is a two-edged sword. If all judgment is suspect because of hidden psychological interference, then the critic must turn this spotlight on her own reasoning as well. Could it be that (speaking as the critic) my own skepticism about Peter’s reasoning (in the example above) is actually the flawed product of my own motives–I don’t want him to be right! We should doubt the skeptic’s reasoning on exactly the same grounds that the skeptic doubts ours.

Third, wanting something to be true does not automatically cripple our judgment and reasoning. In fact, I don’t think anyone really believes it does. I know this because we apply this critique inconsistently. We pick and choose when to apply the “bad motives” attack, typically applying it to arguments for views we personally don’t like. And certainly we shouldn’t refrain from arguing in favor of things we care deeply about. For instance, I care deeply about the evils of human trafficking. Does this mean I am disqualified from making judgments or arguments against human trafficking? That seems absurd. Let me make my arguments, and then evaluate their soundness on their own merit! This is one reason why good academic journals and conferences don’t want the author’s name on a paper submission. The author’s motives and desires should be irrelevant in evaluating the quality of the arguments presented. 

Last Words

dead end, judgment, reasoning, bias, skepticTrue, there is such a thing as confirmation bias. Our wishful thinking can mislead our reasoning at times if we are not vigilant. But hyper-skepticism about everyone’s beliefs and reasoning is unjustified. So, I want to discourage you from using this “bad motives” attack as an easy response to arguments you don’t like. Deconstructing everyone’s judgment this way, including your own critiques, leads us to a dead end.

*I’m indebted to Josh Rasmussen for his insightful comments on his own recent Facebook post.

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