1Q: How relevant are motives in assessing the public policy stance of a politician or commentator?

This week’s One Question is from Harry Clarke, who writes in an earlier post:

In assessing testimony in a court of law motives are important. Elsewhere they are less so but they pervasively affect our attitudes. Some have argued that the “The Motive Fallacy’ (specifically, believing that exposing the motives behind an expressed opinion shows that the opinion is false) is so common in politics that serious policy debate is almost nonexistent.

“¦The problem with falling prey to the Motives Fallacy in a political debate is that attention is turned away from the analysis of policy consequences. Policies just become part of a political game that seeks to establish who might win or lose. The specific effects of policies remain unanalyzed by the person who says “X is only just saying that because of Y’ where Y has nothing to do with the effects of the policy.

My fellow 1Q contributors have largely concentrated on current events, and made many of the best points (teach me to get weighed down and be late). I plan to look back at how motives have been weighed as to relevance in the past, and particularly the roots of the idea of weighing motives in a truly ancient debate, albeit a debate that probably long predates its first recorded pithy summation.

“Cui bono?” (to whose benefit?) were the words flung by the orator Marcus Tullus Cicero repeatedly at a jury in Rome, words he attributed to the consul and censor Lucius Cassius Longinus Ravilla, as he defended a client charged with murder and succeeded in vindicating him. As Harry alludes to above, the principle of cui bono? forms the basis of criminal investigations today, in determining who is a credible suspect, and in weighing the strength of various motives according to the benefit derived. Whether the benefit is tangible, intangible or even delusional, the belief in a benefit to be gained through committing a crime underpins our concept of what constitutes a motive.

But the political arena is not susceptible to the same simplifications and controlled microinvestigation as the criminal court, and political policy decisions have ongoing ramifications and ripple effects that a single concrete criminal act does not. It is much easier to untangle both motives and the consequences of a typical criminal act than to untangle the motives and consequences of a series of political acts based on several interacting policies. Criminal motives are generally simple (greed, jealousy, hatred) whereas political motives can be derived from a huge array of ideologies, customs, religions, historical feuds etc etc. So where do we start examining the motives of our politicians and commentators? And do possible benefits to said politicians and commentators outweigh the possible benefits of their public policies to the citizenry?

The question has been asked many times over in history. Ambrose Bierce, the 19th century American author of The Devil’s Dictionary, satirically defined cui bono? as in the quote below. As typical of Bierce, his definition contains layers of meaning that disturb and cloud the issue as much as clarify it. His motive was to provoke, not simply to inform, and thus the book was originally titled The Cynic’s Book of Words.

cui bono? n.

The faculty that distinguishes a weak animal or person from a strong one. It brings its possessor much mental satisfaction and great material adversity. An Italian proverb says: “The furrier gets the skins of more foxes than asses.”

In the first sentence Bierce seems to be alluding to the popular metaphor for Darwin’s Natural Selection theory, i.e. Herbert Spencer’s famous phrase “survival of the fittest”, and quite possibly also to the eugenics movement which was popular at the time. Bierce indicates that the animal or person who perceives benefits and grasps them will be stronger than the weak who either do not perceive benefits or who do not struggle to obtain them.

But in the second sentence he twists the idea of benefits, indicating that possessing the ability to perceive “who benefits?” generally tends to be less advantageous than the first sentence would indicate, alluding to the possibility of conspiracies to derive benefit secretly, and how such conspirators might ostracise and even punish those who would reveal their secret plans.

In the third sentence, Bierce twists again to note that sometimes benefits merely accrue without especial effort, due to the nature of how one sets about making a living. It makes little sense to excoriate a wealthy lawyer for having successfully won many lawsuits, or a landlord for merely collecting rents, unless there is some improper dealings occurring above and beyond the normal course of business.

Is Bierce simply confused and aiming to confuse his reader? Or is he pointing out how examining motives can lead to getting bogged down in matters where certainty is almost impossible? Certainly Harry Clarke argues that examining the effects of public policies is far more relevant than examining the motives of those who propose and support the policies, an indeed examining the motives is a distraction from evaluating the actual effects of policy.

Harry summarised the Motive Fallacy as “believing that exposing the motives behind an expressed opinion shows that the opinion is false”. Like Tim and Kim, to me that seems an odd concept of what examining motives is meant to achieve: it isn’t as simple as that. Motives are relevant to evaluating politicians and commentators in terms of assessing general trustworthiness and level of nous, which tends to be how people judge who to listen to: do the talking heads know what they’re talking about, do they believe what they’re talking about, and do they mean it when they say that it will help me as well as them?

As Ken Parish notes:

You could only sensibly argue that politicians’ motives are unimportant if:

(a) all politicians were completely honest;

(b) they only announced policies whose letter and spirit they actually believed in and intended to implement fully;

(c) all announced policies were sufficiently detailed to enable their likely effects to be meaningfully assessed; and

(d) we all had sufficient time and expertise to read and assess them.

Bear with me while I swing back to Cicero and weigh some ancient motives: firstly, that successful vindication of the defendant is not why the case is famous. The case is famous because Cicero didn’t stop there, but followed the cui bono? trail along various bribes and improprieties right up to the highest levels of Sulla Dictator’s staff: his favourite advisor, a freedman named Chrysogonus. Yet Cicero managed, while denouncing the corruption of Chrysogonus, to simultaneously vindicate Sulla himself of corruption. The stupendous rhetorical balancing feat which blew the whistle on corruption yet kept the regime (and Cicero’s own skin) intact is what truly made the trial famous.

So, to go back the question: what does examining the protagonists’ (and later chroniclers’) motives in this famous law case of Cicero’s, with all its political implications, tell us?

Why did Cicero choose to defend what was considered a foregone conclusion of a guilty verdict and execution? Cicero is commonly held to have two motives which happily coincided: to make a name for himself as a young legal advocate which would pave the way to a later political career, and to take action against a culture of bureaucratic corruption which both disgusted him and alarmed him with respect to the personal safety of his own social class. It would be an example of what Harry describes as the motives fallacy to decry the result of his campaign against corruption simply because at the same time it advanced his political ambitions and protected his own social/financial privileges.

Yet, why did Cicero work so hard to present Sulla Dictator as ignorant and innocent of the corruptions of Chrysogonus? The chain of cui bono? logic which implicated and then condemned Chrysogonus could easily have been extended to Sulla (almost every historian of the period believes Sulla was fully cogniscent, tolerant and even complicit in Chrysogonus’ peculations and extortions). Was Cicero merely protecting his own skin? Had he been “tipped the wink” that Sulla wished to be rid of Chrysogonus? Did Cicero view Sulla as a strong hand on the tiller of State, who should be bolstered for stability even though he was odious, and that ridding Rome of Chrysogonus would be enough to curb the worst excesses?

What about Sulla? His word was law, and he could at any time have stopped the trial, declared his useful but corrupt bureaucrat beyond reproach, had the defendant executed and Cicero as well. Without going too far into the labyrinthine details of Ancient Roman politics, Sulla’s possible motives for allowing the trial to end with his favourite standing a condemned man range through many intersections of self-serving pragmatism, genuine public altruism, self-disgust, vengeful retribution for a trust betrayed, and more.

The obvious immediate winners in this trial situation were the vindicated defendant Roscius, the victorious advocate Cicero and a Rome no longer in fear of the greedy whims of Chryosgonus. But Sulla also won: by allowing his favourite to be condemned he won priceless political goodwill at a time when he needed it badly. So, as a short term policy the disgrace of Chrysogonus was beneficial to many. Now, this level of analysis of the effects of policy is usually about where it stops.

But what about the longer-term effects of policy as the short term results interact with unpredicted later events? Through the verdict in this one trial Rome also benefitted in the longer run, giving Sulla time to complete his radical reorganisation of public institutions, a reorganisation which was credited with strengthening the Republic greatly. Yet later chroniclers also looked at Sulla’s dictatorship as laying the ground for the later dictatorship of Julius Caesar, which in turn heralded the end of the Roman Republic and the formation of the Imperium.

So, how are we to judge Cicero’s policy of confronting Chrysogonus via the justice courts? Motives are murky, but so indeed, as we see above, is an analysis of consequences when the long view is taken. Policies intended to have one effect often end up with another result entirely. Case in point: the longterm consequences of bolstering Sulla while ruining Chrysogonus were disastrous for the Republic that Cicero wished to preserve. This was not the intent of any of the protagonists. Nobody, not Chrysogonus, not the real murderers, not Sulla and certainly not Cicero, intended to set in train events that would lead to the end of the Republic. Yet, that is actually what occurred. Was the transition from Republic to Imperium ultimately a benefit or a blight to Rome? How many historians have come down on different sides of that question?

I don’t point out the impossibility of truly predicting all possible outcomes of enacting public policy to say that therefore analysis is worthless and we may as well toss a coin. I do it more to point out the limitations of purely concentrating on the effects of policy without redress to other methods of assessing public policy stances.

Given that we don’t know what other events will interact with policy acts to shape the future, assessing politicians on the basis of perceived trustworthiness and nous is a valid area of emphasis. When the unexpected happens, we want leaders and analysts who are honest about what they’re talking about and who know what they’re talking about. That is why the motives of our politicians and commentators are at least as relevant as the analysis of policy effects, and why for most of us are actually more so. We go with our guts. Cui bono?

Other Responses:

Harry Clarke
Tim Dunlop
Kim Jameson
Ken Parish
Andrew Bartlett
Joshua Gans
Robert Merkel



Categories: culture wars, ethics & philosophy, history, Politics, skepticism

Tags: , , ,

8 replies

  1. Very stimulating post. I’d never thought about the Pro Roscio in such an interesting braid of contexts. And I’m a huge Tully fan! Can you do something similar for “concord of the orders” sometime?

  2. I’m glad you enjoyed it, Dave. I think it may have gone too far into the ancient history arena for some, but I think more of us should look at the politics of Athens and Rome for insights into the intertwinings of ambition, altruism and sheer bloodymindedness. They seemed more honest about the way their institutions harnessed ambition openly for the benefit of the state, and also the nastiness that pursuing ambition sometimes entailed.
    As for the “braid of contexts” (nice phrase) I hadn’t thought about it in precisely this way either, it’s just the way Harry’s question provoked me, and the avenues I found myself following as I examined it. (That’s why this took so long to write, and why my post was the last one up this time around.) Of course I’d never argue that Pro Roscio was the only piece of political manoeuvring at the time of Sulla that ended in bolstering his dictatorship and thus paving the way for Caesar and Imperium, but the disgrace of Chrysogonus was definitely one of the crux points.
    “Concord of the orders”, eh? I get to pose One Question in the cycle myself. I might see if I can come up with a question that will let the others shine in their habitual fashions on current politics while I ramble around the borders of that one.

  3. I disagree that you went too much into ancient history, as it provides excellent salutary instruction on the same dangers we face. e.g. I find Gibbon’s description of the decline into a dangerous military-religious-imperial symbiosis extraordinarily pertinent. The long-term review of consequences available to us of a thoroughly documented age is useful. I also argue in a series beginning with this that understanding of the classics predispose to progressive, if not lefty, politics.

  4. Dave, I haven’t had the time to surf over yet and read your series about the classics predisposing to progressive politics, but it sounds fascinating and I will get around to it.

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