In an exchange with the evolutionary biologist and Marxist J.B.S. Haldane, C.S. Lewis found his motivations under assault. Lewis offered this marvelous reply:
The Professor has his own explanation … he thinks that I am unconsciously motivated by the fact that I “stand to lose by social change.” And indeed it would be hard for me to welcome a change which might well consign me to a concentration camp. I might add that it would likewise be easy for the Professor to welcome a change which might place him in the highest rank of an omnicompetent oligarchy. That is why the motive game is so uninteresting. Each side can go on playing ad nauseam, but when all the mud has been flung every man’s views still remain to be considered on their merits. I decline the motive game and resume the discussion.
Now it needs to be said that motivations aren’t always irrelevant or unimportant. They matter, for example, in a court of law (see perjury trials). And if the classmate of your son hurts him (or vice-versa), motivation certainly needs to be taken into account. We punish in part based on intent.
But in the context Lewis is describing–public debates over public matters–he’s quite right. Impugning the motivations of those whom we disagree with should be kept to a minimum. For one thing, it’s hard enough to honestly assess our own motivations, let alone those of others. Every human heart is divided against itself, tainted to one degree or another. Altruism and pride, selflessness and selfishness, mix like salt and water in the ocean. They are nearly impossible to separate out.
In addition, the tendency to focus on motivations can be a sign of intellectual laziness. It’s just much easier to attack other people’s motivations than it is to answer their arguments (especially when the arguments are difficult to refute). And even if the motivations of others are suspect, that’s still not an excuse to avoid dealing with the other side’s reasoning. The merits of an argument don’t depend on the character of those advancing them.
When we do move from the realm of divining motivations to examining facts and premises, there’s a temptation to focus on the other side’s less formidable advocates and arguments. Professor Alan Jacobs, writing on his New Atlantis blog, cautions that we shouldn’t go in search of
the crowd-pleasers and rabble-rousers from outside your typical group (unless you’re trying to understand sociological phenomena). If you’re a conservative who wants to understand liberalism, don’t bother with Michael Moore; if you’re a liberal who wants to understand conservatism, don’t bother with Sarah Palin; if you’re an unbeliever who’s curious about Christianity, ignore Joel Osteen; if you’re an orthodox Christian trying to get a fix on atheism, steer clear of Bill Maher.
If we follow this counsel–if we seek out impressive and intelligent individuals among those with whom we disagree–Jacobs argues that several things can happen: (a) our views might be altered based on the encounter; (b) we’ll find that people who disagree with us are in all likelihood the moral and intellectual equals of those who agree with us; and (c) we’ll realize “that any question that is fiercely debated is fiercely debated because there aren’t simple and obvious answers to it.”
To which I would add this: Truth exists and it needs to be pursued, but each individual can at best apprehend only part of the whole. To be sure, some see it better than others and some live their lives more in accordance with the moral good than do others. All honor is due them. But it is also the nature of life in this world that even those who strive to live in the sunlight cannot fully escape the shadows.