Tuesday, January 26, 2016

General Map of Motivation

The often controversial but often interesting Mary Midgley at TPM:

A recent controversy about the origins of nose-picking in humans showed the oddity of this. Since this habit is common, scientists suggested an amazing number of arcane physical mechanisms by which it might have directly improved people’s survival-prospects. What nobody did was to ask about this habit’s relation to motives – for instance to curiosity, to our tendency to explore and investigate things. Like other primates we like to pry into mysterious places such as holes and this interest surely has affected our species-survival in many ways, both helpful and otherwise. The details of the endless acts that it produces don’t matter; what affects survival is the general interest. Thus, human behaviour is not a ragbag of disconnected behaviour patterns with separate evolutionary histories. What evolves is an emotional constitution which shapes our lives as a whole. We have to explain particular actions by finding their place in it.

Thus, when we want to understand a real person’s action we always start by looking for the motivational context. We try to spot the particular reason for the act and then to place it on our general map of motivation – a map which we must all use as we try to find our way through everyday life. We ask, was that clumsy remark just a misplaced effort to be helpful? Did it express resentment? Was it even part of a spiteful scheme to make trouble? Or perhaps a bit of all three? This interest in subjective matters is, of course, not to be dismissed as somehow culpably subjective itself. It is a factual enquiry – not a fantasy, not just “folk-psychology”, not a crude, amateur substitute for scientific investigation. It is the only way we can start to make sense of the life that goes on around us. Of course it is fallible, but on the whole it works, and its success is one of the things that science needs to investigate. Evolutionary considerations are no substitute for it.

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