making sense of motives and actions

Tue, 02 Apr 2013

It seems that wherever we look these days, we can see evidence and accusations of wrong-doing.  I work in the financial sector (some of you no doubt question if anything we do is right!), but I also know that dishonesty, conflict and exploitation occur in all fields of life.

Determining right and wrong isn't as easy as many people think.  I don't say that to give people the opportunity to just do whatever they want, or to excuse bad behaviour.  But oversimplifying it and believing everything is clear cut can stop the honest, open-minded thinking process needed to do the right thing.

I believe that to decide whether something is right or wrong, you have to consider the action, the outcome and the motive.  

This view isn't held by everyone.  In my late teens I believed that all that mattered was what happened, and that we shouldn't complain if the right thing happened for the wrong reason.

Part of my change of mind was recognising that with we don't have perfect (or even good) knowledge of whether an outcome is for the best, or will prove to be harmful.  If we have the right intentions, we will seek out better information and improve our actions and outcomes.  If we are set on our actions, then we'll seek out information to justify those actions.

As well, as I've worked with, and watched more people work, I've noticed how that those with an intrinsic motivation for the ultimate desired outcome are more creative and effective at achieving the outcome, and find their effort more satisfying (ie less like work).

This view can be difficult to hold.  There are plenty of examples of good that came without good intentions, and I wouldn't accept bad outcomes just because they are driven by good intentions (but I'm sure well intentioned individual wouldn't accept bad outcomes either).  An even bigger challenge to my view is that, you never actually know for sure what other people's motives are - it is hard enough to be sure of our own motives for the things that we do, and they are often mixed.

So I have a few other tips: