The prime motive of human behavior

A friend of mine writes: “my theory of human behavior posits fear as the driver of most important decisions; your mileage may vary. Someone I spoke with, for example, thought lust was the engine that drove behavior. I asked her to justify food-gathering behavior, territoriality, religion, etc. on lust-driven grounds, and it boiled down to “people do whatever they think they have to do to attract a mate.” Well, if you have that as an axiom, no conceivable counterexample is going to budge you from it.”

My comment: As for human action, it is an open question as to what is in the driver’s seat. I submit that whole periods of history were motivated by things they seem like very trivial questions to us: does the Trinity have one nature or three natures? Should prayers be in Latin or in the vernacular?

On the other hand, men from those periods would look at the questions that led to mass-death in the 20th century and wonder in puzzlement. Should factories and farms be owned by the state or by the individual? Well, gee, the church owns Church lands, and the King owns the fealty of those who hold their land by His Majesty’s grace, and surely the Guild would take a dim view of tradesmen from other class entering their Burgh to practice their craft–but the common green is surely kept in order for the peasants who have had bad crops to bring their Lord’s kine to graze…. Or how about: should the Jews be burned by the Germans? Well, OK, I guess the Dark Ages guys would grasp that one pretty quick, but they would through a few witches and paynims on the faggots for good measure.

And while racism could not really have existed as an ideology for them, they certainly would not have permitted someone to marry out of his class! It would dilute the blood! My whole point here is that many things in life are motivated by extraordinarily abstract reasons, but that fear, honor, and greed are high on the list.

And lust? I think the only think we can say for sure about human action is that rational creatures act whenever, in their own personal estimation of their circumstances, acting will substitute an outcome less unsatisfactory than the outcome which (again, in their own personal estimation) is likely to eventuate in the absence of such action.

I remember a time when I repeated to someone that self same idea, that the desire for a mate prompted all human endeavor (which I picked up from a Robert Heinlein book. “There are no Eunuchs in museums, patent offices, etc.”) The guy asked me, ‘what about gambling? Wouldn’t a person who gambles end up less attractive to a mate?’ I mumbled something about making money increasing one’s attraction to the opposite sex. He said, ‘What about joining a monastery? Wouldn’t a monk render himself unable to mate?’ I mumbled some more. He did not even go into behaviors like remaining faithful to one’s wife, widows refusing to remarry, using birth control, or becoming a homosexual.

Perhaps I should have argued that the one single driver of all human behavior is the desire to win arguments. Racism is an ad hominem attack; Russia invades Poland as a massive ad baculum argument, and men make money to be able to hire people to win argument for them. Hmmm. What d’you think? If anyone disagrees with my position, and debates against it, I can always point out HE is ARUGING with me! Brilliant, or what?

If one attributes to a man anything other than what he says his motivations are, one is indulging in the speculations of psychology–what we lawyers call hearsay evidence. In general, the man himself is closer to the source, is more aware of his own motivations, than the guesswork of an outside observer. When, for example, an Arab fanatic kills himself to murder a Jew with a suicide-bomb, his own testimony, that he is doing it because Allah hates Jews and rewards Jew-killing with 72 dark-eyed virgins in paradise, has more evidentiary firmness than the “root causes” type speculation that he did it because the Bush Administration did not sign the Kyoto global warming treaty.