High ulterior motives

People with ulterior motives are often treated with suspicion and contempt. In a world driven round substantially by ulterior motives, this can lead to dispair, both for the ulteriorly motivated and the suspicious and contemptuous. How terrible to not be able to trust your friends, your brothers, yourself!

At this point it is worth noting two things:

  1. This kind of extreme concern about everyone being corrupt only seems to concern more philosophically minded people. This suggests that few practical problems arise from everyone having poor motives.
  2. In general, if you have a scorecard on which you always score zero, it is likely that you are not using the most useful scoring system. You shouldn’t neccessarily change your overall goal of doing better on that metric, but for now it might be convenient to differentiate the space within ‘zero’.

It seems to me that an important way in which ulterior motives vary is the extent to which they align with the non-ulterior motives you would like the person in question to have.

Suppose you would like to leave your small child with a babysitter, Sam. Unfortunately, you have learned that Sam is not motivated purely by the desire to care for your child. He has an ulterior motive for agreeing to babysit. How much does this trouble you?

  • If Sam runs a babysitting company, and really he just wants his babysitting company to thrive, then you should basically not be concerned at all.
  • If Sam just wants to try out babysitting once, to see what it’s like, you should be more concerned.
  • If Sam really just wants a chance to use your big-screen TV this one time you should be even more concerned.
  • If Sam just wants a chance to steal your baby so that he can sell it on the black market, you should be truly very worried.

Your worry in these cases tracks the extent to which Sam’s ulterior motives will cause him to do exactly what he would do if he just fundamentally wanted to care for your baby. If he wants his business to go well, he will do what you want him to do, to the extent that you can tell and are willing to pay. If he wants to try out babysitting, he will probably at least hang out with your child and do the basic babysitting motions. If he wants to use your TV, there’s not much reason he will do anything besides spend part of the evening in the same building as your child. If he wants to steal your child, his motives diverge from yours from the moment he arrives at your house.

I claim that in general, ulterior motives are more troubling to us – and should be – if they are less well aligned with the purported high motives. I suspect they also feel more ‘ulterior’ when they are less well aligned, both to the person who has them and to the observer.

Ulterior motives like ‘make money’ and ‘get respect’ tend to be relatively well aligned I think. If you are aiming to do task X, but really you just want respect, and your actions or success at X will be visible to someone who might give you respect, then you will act like a person who wants to do task X, down to (at least some) minor details.

Ulterior motives that are troubling tend not to be well aligned with purported motives. Either in the sense that the person will not do the thing they are purporting to care about, or often in the sense that they will do it, but simultaneously do something you don’t want.

For instance, suppose you give me a compliment, with the hope that I will then help you move house. Your overt motive is implicitly something like honestly communicating to me, while your ulterior motive is to get moving help. A compliment motivated by your ulterior motive will probably not also be honest communication with me, so your behavior hardly aligns with your overt motive at all. On top of that, your ulterior motive means you will try to cause me to help you move house, a random other thing I don’t want to happen which has nothing to do with your overt motive.

This is not the only axis on which ulterior motives are better or worse. A different kind of reason ulterior motives might be particularly bad is if it is the motives that matter to you, rather than the behavior. For instance, if a person is merely friends with you to get your money, regardless of how friendly this makes them, you may be dissatisfied.

I think it would be better if we distinguished ‘low ulterior motives’ – which involve hardly caring about the overt goal – from ‘high ulterior motives’ – which are closely aligned with the avert goal consistently across many circumstances. Some people (perhaps read ‘all people’) pretend that they want to do what is best for the world, when in fact they also strongly want to be respected and praised and so on. Some people want to steal your baby. Conflating the two does not seem great, terminologically or psychologically.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t criticize motives like desire for respect or money (or that we should). I merely suggest that if we want to do those things, we criticize these motives on their own merits, rather than lumping them in with much more hazardous low motives and cheaply criticizing ‘ulterior motives’ in general. 

No ulterior motives

3 responses to “High ulterior motives

  1. The philosophically minded (should) have trouble with corrupt motives because, to be effective as motives, corrupt motives must seem as something other than they are. If someone contributes to a charity to signal goodness, knowledge of the real motive detracts from–even vitiates–the altruistic wannabe’s project. A “good person” isn’t over-concerned with “looking good.” The impossible dream of the altruist poseur is to be famous as an anonymous donor!

  2. When we uncover ulterior motives in individuals, we might reasonably be concerned about the implications of that behavior for us. But it seems to me that the despair associated with uncovering the *universality* of ulterior motives comes because we care about motives intrinsically rather than just behavior. (If you find out some universal property about people, it shouldn’t really effect your expectations for the sorts of outcomes that you routinely observe, since your past observations were also influenced by the same property.) So I don’t find this post too comforting.

  3. Well, really, those of us who “despair” over the ulterior motives of others are those who wear our hearts on our sleeves and simply don’t have most possible ulterior motives.


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