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Is motive a Western concept?
April 9, 2014 7:27 AM   Subscribe

In the MH370 thread, I had asked what the motive would be for the pilot to commit suicide in the way that experts think the plane probably went down, and this comment had be very curious. Is motive really a culturally specific idea? And if so, why can't I wrap my mind around that?
posted by roomthreeseventeen to Human Relations (19 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
I looked at this comment as a bit fighty and not particularly serious. "Motive" is merely "why people make certain choices" and this is not something that is an Anglo-Saxon construct.
posted by DWRoelands at 7:32 AM on April 9 [10 favorites]

Yeah, I think that's not "motive is a Western construct" so much as "you can't hope to divine the motives of the pilots from your own cultural context." The poster did say right after that, "it is premature to theorize on the motive."
posted by Etrigan at 7:36 AM on April 9 [4 favorites]

I interpreted that as "being very concerned with searching for motive is a Western thing" not "motive itself is a Western thing", which would be pretty silly unless you meant "everything is Western except the Dao" - like, all those demotivated Chinese explorers just drifting about at random, the incredibly unmotivated Sikh social service provision, etc. But I could easily see an argument that says "being obsessed with 'why did this happen why why we must know for certain' is very Western, because it's about the pursuit of intellectual mastery of the world and about assuming that humans can and should know absolutely everything [rather than just saying 'the plane crashed, we aren't sure why, it's tragic, what can we do for the families]"
posted by Frowner at 7:39 AM on April 9 [14 favorites]

Western culture is deeply influenced by a long history of empirical science, the scientific method, and the Enlightenment. We tend to think that if we can understand the cause of something, we can control the outcome. Other cultures and other histories may be influenced by karma, inevitability, determinism, etc.

This in no way is meant to imply that cultures that are not Western are not up to snuff regarding scientific rigour but rather that cultural history runs deep. I don't walk under ladders or buy baby clothes until babies are born. Neither would preclude me from being a good scientist.
posted by DarlingBri at 7:41 AM on April 9 [8 favorites]

fwiw, when I've had storytelling conversations with elderly relatives of a completely different class/generation/culture from myself, one of the things that stands out most is how underdeveloped and foreign the treatment of motive and psychological causality seems to be. Like, they'll talk about a long-dead family member doing something completely random and weird ("...So then he just drove that motorcycle into the lake..."), and I'll be all, wtf, why??!, and it'll become clear that (a) they're mystified that I would even ask that question, and (b) they have no way to account for that motive that'd be at all recognizeable to me.

So I'd say that while the concept of motivated behavior is probably not culturally contingent, it's entirely possible that the impulse to account for actions in terms of a particular psychological narrative might be.
posted by Bardolph at 7:51 AM on April 9 [6 favorites]

Thanks for these so far, everyone.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 8:04 AM on April 9

I'm extraordinarily skeptical of the idea that the very idea of a "motive" is fundamentally a cultural construct. However, different cultures surely have different senses of what kind of behavior is expected and "normal" and what kind of behavior is abnormal and requires a special explanation. You can see this even within one's own culture -- just as one example, there are communities in the US where obtaining a master's degree or PhD would be unusual behavior, and other (smaller) social circles in which *not* obtaining such a degree would be unusual behavior inviting a review of someone's motivations.

I don't think there are any cultures in which flying an airplane into the sea is normal behavior though.
posted by leopard at 8:12 AM on April 9 [3 favorites]

In the way I interpreted it, the second half of the sentence is the important part : I accept that people think in ways I do not understand. I think he is trying to say that you can't ever really know what makes someone do something. I think that is true, myself. If someone commits sucide, you can never really know what drove that person to do that so the search for that is futile.

Also, I'm not expert on eastern culture. but I remember form my psych 101 course that when someone slips and falls, westerns are more liklely to think that it was the person's fault they did that while easterners are more likley to blame the situation. Maybe that applies here, too as in "maybe the situation was so bad, it drove the person to do this" instead of "the person was this way and it drove him to do it."
posted by eq21 at 8:18 AM on April 9 [2 favorites]

No. People look for motives; some people look too deep, and some people look very shallow, if at all. But looking for a motive itself isn't just a western thing. Otherwise you wouldn't have global politics or paranoia.

Also there's a difference between looking for a motive and assuming one. People assume motives all the time i.e. they ascribe reasons for a person's behavior. Assuming a motive implies they did search for a motive, but likely not very hard. Why did he drive his motorcycle into the lake? Because he wanted do! Jeez what a silly question. Why do people do anything? Who knows.

Basically what Baldorph & eq21 said.

One thing that I think differs by culture is the depth of search for a motive. My French friends don't understand therapy. They just don't. Why talk about how you feel? You know how you feel, so then you act how you feel. Where's the confusion? In that vein they don't question or doubt themselves that much. So by comparison the North American search for motive/intention is kind of neurotic and insecure. Maybe it's because of self-help culture or whatnot. We think there's some ultimate way to be or something, or that how we feel is wrong. We have a super 'nice' culture whereas the French are free to be snotty. So we search for 'the' answer to make sense. I barked at that person because inside I feel small and powerless vs. I barked at that person because fuck that guy.

You could say not searching deeply for 'the' motive is naive, but then eh why does anyone do anything? Why do I do what I do? Sometimes it's a mystery even to me. And it's relaxing to take things on face value and deal with that. Personally in many cases I work best by not assuming motives from others too much and just taking the simple read on things, and only searching within myself for a motive. In most cases this works until I come up against a total asshole in which case I put them on my shit list and suspect every thing they do.

So maybe its hard to wrap your head around not looking for a motive since you feel like there exists the answer to all things. Or that you'll be missing something vital. Or that you'll get taken for a chump. In truth, there are infinite realities going on at once.

It sounded to me like the commenter in question just isn't a terribly motive-seeking person, but he (?) called it a cultural thing.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 8:44 AM on April 9 [5 favorites]

DarlingBri has it absolutely right IMO.

I'll take a stab at the second part of your question:

And if so, why can't I wrap my mind around that?

Because you, just like the commenter on that other thread, and just like everyone in the entire world, are bound by your own socio-cultural experiences. Those experiences have shaped the way you view the world and therefore constrain your perspective.
posted by schroedingersgirl at 9:02 AM on April 9 [2 favorites]

Reaching back yeaaarrrrs to some class or other: even in the West, some (can't remember exactly who) have argued that the authority of interiority, and psychological explanation etc. more generally are a historical (so cultural and contingent) phenomenon that emerged with the Enlightenment and modernism, and that prior to that, there was a blurring between the self and things outside of it. E.g., in the Middle Ages, people didn't do whack things on their own, they were infiltrated by demons. (I think even the body was conceived and experienced as permeable, and people were concerned with protecting it from invasion by e.g. covering it with oils, infrequent bathing, etc.) In Southern and Eastern Europe (and other places) even today, some still believe that we can be compelled to misfortune or bad behaviour by the evil eye, spells, etc. With that, there's still some kind of intention on the part of the evil-wisher. But anyway, divisions between bounded selves and others and intention are and were not everywhere always so clean as here (West) and now.
posted by cotton dress sock at 9:07 AM on April 9 [3 favorites]

I don't think that the concept of ascribing motive to actions is at all universal.

From a science point of view, our actions are caused by brain processes that are actually literally too complex for us to understand because how could any system possibly be complex enough to understand itself?

From a philosophy point of view, if you do not believe in free will then understanding causation of actions is probably irrelevant anyway.

From a psychology point of view one could argue that in general, psychological explanations for actions are post-rationalisation at best. We may have a framework of concepts that we use because it helps us to reason about ourselves, but that's absolutely a culturally-specific framework, and certainly not an absolute truth. Somewhere there is a bunch of research on people's eagerness to back-form confabulated reasons for their actions but my Google-fu is not turning it up!
posted by emilyw at 9:14 AM on April 9 [2 favorites]

I think there are some art historical reasons/sources for why westerners value understanding motive as well and it's really tied to the idea of "subtext" or hidden motives. The idea that what people say they want or explain why they are doing something publicly isn't necessarily representative of what they are truly feeling.

For example in Shakespeare most characters explain exactly what they want and what they're feeling; i.e., Iago says to the audience watch me manipulate and fuck with Othello and then he does.

In more modern novels and drama the motives of characters are not so obvious. Stanislaski introduced that concept to western acting in the late 19th century and it became the basis for what we consider great acting today. Before that actors were much more declamatory and presentational; they didn't necessarily try to illuminate emotional depth in their characters.

Of course much of this stems from early psychology and the idea that people do have hidden motives - hidden from others and hidden from themselves.
posted by brookeb at 9:17 AM on April 9

Here is an animation from a classic 70-year-old psychology study. I think westerners tend to attribute traits and motives to the shapes. It *feels* like a fundamental, not-especially-culturally-informed reaction to me but I guess that's ultimately an empirical question.

Cross-cultural research in psychology is pretty spotty, but here's a study (PDF) that (among other things) compares German adults to Shuar hunter-horticulturalists from Amazonian Ecuador and finds they perform similarly on a task involving attributing intentions to shapes.

I haven't actually read this paper though, just the abstract, so I'm not vouching for it, but this is presumably how these questions are being empirically researched.
posted by leopard at 10:04 AM on April 9

No. That comment was nonsense.

People do things for reasons. (Unless you trying to get into a free will vs. scientific determinism thing.) Often, those reasons are stupid. That may make the hard to understand, but they are still "motives". Whomever took down the plane did it for a reason; they just didn't proceede to do hundred unintentional, random things that resulted in deactiving sophisticated electronic communications devices and hijacking an aircraft.
posted by spaltavian at 1:49 PM on April 9 [1 favorite]

Western culture is deeply influenced by a long history of empirical science, the scientific method, and the Enlightenment. We tend to think that if we can understand the cause of something, we can control the outcome.

No, we tend to hope we can predict the outcome. Which is often true, regardless of culture. The Chinese didn't invent firearms by praying, someone actually did the work. We often mistake our limited windows on past cultures (i.e., typically the religious and political blustering that was reproduced enough to survive) as proof of alienness.
posted by spaltavian at 1:57 PM on April 9

I thought that was an appropriate and insightful comment, although it could have used some explanation.

The previous most-notorious example of a pilot suicide (assuming this will now be decided to be one, which it's too early to be certain about) was Egyptair 990. William Langeweische had a fascinating Atlantic article [author interview] that dealt with the key issue of the reluctance of Egyptian investigators to assent to a suicide theory, due to cultural factors. Langeweische, however, rather than ascribing this to an Islamic point of view on suicide, felt it was a reflection of the rigid structure of the Egyptian government, even then under Mubarak.

We have already spent a month dealing with a changeable analysis of the situation from the Malaysian government, which is ostensibly more democratic than Egypt, but has its own baggage weighing it down. So I don't think cultural factors are off the table by any means.
posted by dhartung at 5:41 PM on April 9

The MeFite who made that comment is from specific (non-English-speaking) European country with a specific history, so this isn't really about Western vs. non-Western cultures (if by "Western" you mean "European"). If you memailed them, they might be able to explain what they we're getting at, and they might have interesting things to say about differences between Anglophone culture and their own. The opinions of random MeFites aren't going to be of much help here.

I do think it's critical that they wrote "I accept that people think in ways which I may not even be able to comprehend" and your comment, which they were replying to, implied that there had to be a rational motive. They were leaning toward a murder-suicide explanation. Is there ever a rational reason why people do these things? But they do happen and have happened.
posted by nangar at 6:29 PM on April 9

The idea of human intention is of course basic, but in the context of crime, motive relates intention to guilt and character, which is a complex cultural construction.

"Motive" in this context has a fairly specific meaning in jurisprudence. There is a legal definition of motive. It is defined in distinction from other concepts, especially "intent." Law professors write papers on things like The Rhetoric of Motive and Intent (Binder). Textbook authors write things like "hardly any part of the penal law is more definitively settled than that motive is irrelevant," so it would seem that the issue of motive has a rather unclear place even in "Western" thought.

Regarding the seeming paradox of motive, being both a "fundamental principle of criminal law" and yet in "conflict with many established doctrines," Binder writes:
This paradox is possible because motive and intent are not stable concepts that pick out perspicuous features of the world. Instead, the distinction between motive and intent and the irrelevance of motive maxim are rhetorical constructs: formulations rendered meaningful by their role within a particular historically and institutionally situated discursive practice.
Apparently there is also an important paper from 1993 called The Mens Rea Enigma: Observations on the Role of Motive in the Criminal Law Past and Present, which investigates the notion that criminal law has shifted from an emphasis on "evil motive" towards a concern only with immediate internt. Binder points to a 1922 article The Origin of the Doctrine of Mens Rea, which gives a religious account of motive:
To know if the things [men] do are truly good or evil, one must know what motive animates their acts. The evil motive makes the evil act; the good motive makes the good act. It is for this reason that Augustine in his sermons raises the question of the good or evil mind when discussing perjury.
I know nothing about law; this is just some basic stuff I found from a simple web search. But it seems clear that the concept of "motive" has some heavy baggage connected with Roman law, Christian morality, individualism, the notion of character, and so on.
posted by mbrock at 4:27 AM on April 10 [2 favorites]

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