The Importance of Caring about the Right Things

One of the most important things that I've recently realized is that my intentions matter. There is a well-known piece of folk wisdom that when you feel like correcting someone, or you want to offer them advice, or more generally get involved in someone's endeavor, you should only do so if your primary intention is to genuinely help that person. Like most folk wisdom, this piece of advice is subject to criticism by those who think they can reason their way out of the problem. If I'm offering to help you, what does it matter if I'm doing it because I want you to get better, or if I'm doing it for money, or to earn your and other people's respect, or to make you feel stupid, or to make you admire me, or to make you attracted to me? If the net effect is that your life has improved, are we not right to conclude that it doesn't matter what my personal motive for helping you is?

Yes, it's true, the only thing that truly matters is the net effect. You can work with the intention of making me as miserable as you can, and if the effect is that my life gets better, then in the final analysis you're contribution was a positive one. In fact, we've not said anything profound here - it's a simple truism that that would be the case. But folk wisdom doesn't deal with analytic truths. Instead, under a simple-sounding advice that typically isn't understood even by those who profess it hides a deep psychological truth.

Before I examine this psychological truth, a digression on how common wisdom develops in societies. First there is a group of individuals who happen to be more successful than others at a given activity. Then people in that group reflect on what it is about their situation that makes them successful. In this way, they come up with "personal truths". These personal truths will inevitably be distorted when communicated using language. Nevertheless, a certain number of individuals will converge on a "collective truth".

Both personal and collective truths are concepts, rather than sequences of symbols in a language. Because of this, considered from an outsider's perspective they could be completely false, because a sentence that isn't "understood" must be first assimilated into a concept, and after it has been assimilated it must be translated into actions. The first part of that process already involves distortion, and then whether that concept results in successful behavior depends on the situation of the individual (that is, what works for one person in their given set of circumstances isn't necessarily going to work for another).

The purpose of this digression is to show that after a common wisdom advice is translated into words and passed through generations, there's no guarantee that it will be understood. The effect is that there are masses of people following rules of behavior about which they don't know where they come from or why they are true (note: this is not meant to imply that the original inventors of the idea knew why it was true). In some cases, people following the rule don't even know what the goal meant to be achieved by the prescribed behavior is. As an example consider religious rites and customs (Why do certain religions prohibit consumption of pork? And so on).

Coming back to our initial statement. Why should I care what my goals are, rather than the net effect of my action? It's because I'm more than just a rational being. My entire organism will respond with a vehement will to accomplish the goal it set for itself. This includes all the subtle behaviors that happen below the threshold of consciousness, my emotions and emotional expressions, my intuitions, how I communicate with others and so on. For example, while I may profess the intention to help my customer, if my true intention is to make money, there's no way to avoid it affecting my behavior.

Imagine you work in a consulting team that has been contracted to improve a commercial product created by another company. You're just now in a meeting with your team members to discuss possible strategies for tackling a problem that your team believes to seriously hinder the product's quality. Two solutions are proposed - one will solve the customer's problem relatively quickly, resulting in a shorter contract and less money for your team. The other solution is less effective and will result in more work for your team, and more revenue. Which one do you choose? (Note: I'm ignoring the question of whether you should adjust your rates based on the value each option brings, etc, essentially I'm assuming you're charging the client an hourly rate).

It's clear that the solution that benefits the customer most is the first one. If you really primarily care about making the customer's product better, that's the one you will choose. This is a very simple ethical problem, and unless you consciously choose to go for the more profitable option, it's unlikely that you would choose the second option with the primary intention of helping the customer. In other words, it looks like it would be difficult to make a mistake here.

But such an isolated example doesn't reflect reality with all of its complexity. What if you're going through financial struggles, and you really need the extra money? What if the worse (to the customer) option gives you an opportunity to develop a solution that has been your personal ambition for years, and you believe it will finally give you a chance to be catapulted to fame (something you've always wanted). What would you do then?

Moreover, this example, when stated in this way, assumes you know what your goals are. But in fact that's almost never true.

Behind every conscious motive, there's another, usually an unconscious one. We go along with our lies about ourselves because to admit the true motive to ourselves would make us realize we're actually more evil, or sometimes plainly more ridiculous than we would like to believe ourselves to be. What John Gall discovered to be true for institutions (the purpose of an institution is never what it purports to be) holds true for individuals as well. Everyone working for a charity organization will tell you that they want to help advance a noble cause. Certainly they are not doing it for social recognition!

Similarly parents will always say that they love their children unconditionally, but this is almost never true. We play games with our children in the same way that we play games with our co-workers and friends. The child's happiness is one of the factors, but parents are just as often driven by their own need for the child's affection or by fear of losing their reputation, and so on (substitute any other value in accordance with your liking).

The idea that people are not conscious of their goals, even in trivial every day matters, might not be an easy one to buy into. I'm not going to pursue proving this proposition here, because it takes a lifetime to become convinced of it... Or rather to come to terms with it. My only intention is to hopefully plant a seed of doubt in your mind.

What I've written so far is probably already so offensive to some people that my chances of achieving this goal should be very high. (I heard the following anecdote from Moxie Marlinspike on Twitter some time ago. When Carl Jung made his trip to America with Sigmund Freud, upon their entering the country, a crowd of people gathered to greet them. When he saw this, Jung remarked to Freud: "What are they so cheerful for? Don't they know that we're bringing them a plague?". I don't know if the story is true).

But assuming we accept this proposition, let's summarize what we've arrived at so far. We often do what we do for reasons we're not aware of, and, these reasons are often at odds with our professed values (e.g we dismiss them as "selfish"). Now, when we have stated the problem like this, we are already to present a solution.

First, we accept all feelings, needs, and motives of the human organism as valid. It is valid (and important from the biological point of view) to desire money, social recognition, power, sex, affection, admiration, etc. It is valid to be angry, hateful, resentful, envious and in general to desire another person's misfortune (this is not to be read as a statement of approval for such impulses. Essentially I am saying that the choice here to between accepting them as valid expressions of human nature, or lying to yourself and others about them).

Second, and this is only possible when we have realized the first step, we make a conscious moral effort to be aware of our intentions, and we only act on those that contribute positively to the society, while still respecting our own needs (a good rule of thumb is to in every action strive for a solution that benefits both you and the other party). And I want to emphasize, that this really has to be a constant effort that manifests itself in our every day life. It has to be a principle to live by. It does require a great skill in self-awareness, and we are always to treat what we think we know about ourselves with a friendly suspicion. Certainly this skill takes a long time to develop, so it is important to remember that every incremental step towards the development of character is a commendable one and there is no reason to be too harsh on ourselves.

Once you start paying attention to your hidden goals, you'll see this everywhere. You'll realize you care about some things that are so ridiculous that you'll start wondering how you got in such a strange position in the first place. This is what happens to people who suffer from obsessive-compulsive symptoms - they care about things in a way that clearly is maladaptive. I've realized I care entirely too much that my laundry is spaced out on the drying rack in a specific way. I hate getting my hands dirty, especially with grease. These examples are so ridiculous that it's embarrassing to mention them. Which is precisely the point - once you bring them to attention, it's easier to get rid of them because of how silly they are.

I care about impressing people a lot, and it sometimes impairs my communication with others. When I focus on what other people think about me, essentially it makes me less focused on solving the problem. I see this with other people too, and it's especially prevalent in a workplace that's knowledge-based. The desire to appear smart often gets in the way of effective communication.

Sometimes, when writing, instead of focusing on conveying my thoughts in a clear way, I focus on producing the required number of words, or I think too much about following the prescribed structure of the work, or I try to appease the reader, or to impress them with my vocabulary and style. But these only matter insofar as they make the point I am trying to convey in my work clearer.

Only by becoming aware of our motives are we able to align our character with our ideal ethical behavior.

These results have interesting implications for the issue of telling the truth. This is what I call the moral aspect of truth.

As you closely examine your feelings, needs and motives, you begin to realize that in a large number of interactions with other people, you are driven by "selfish" goals, or in any case goals that you would not want to admit to the others involved. Your "pre-self-aware" personality would shove these motives under the threshold of consciousness, so that you might continue the interaction thinking that you are acting in their interest, instead of being driven by your own "selfish" desires. And so, in a discussion with others you might come up with reasons why they should go along with your proposed course of action (and it's easy to come up with reasons for any proposition, true or false).

This is no longer tenable once you become aware of your personal motives. Concealing the truth is deception, and deception is morally wrong.

Oftentimes, when people in business environments speak of phrasing something in a certain way, what they really mean is to make a thing appear different than it really is. But if we make it our aim to act in the customer's best interest, making something appear different than it really is would amount to deception, and deception is morally wrong. For example, downplaying the risks of a proposed solution may get you a more favorable deal, but if doing so may cause the client to be misled to an suboptimal course of action, it is deception.

Even faking emotions can be considered a form of deception. In his work, the American psychologist emphasizes the concept of congruence. Congruence is defined as a state where a person's non-verbal behavior matches their mental state. The idea is that when there is such a congruence in the person's behavior, they seem more honest, while a lack of congruence makes us distrust the person.

To summarize what I've written here, self-awareness and conscious moral effort are the basis of proper ethical conduct. Prioritization and setting concrete goals for ourselves are crucial for character development.

If the idea of concentrating on other people's success seems like I'm advocating self-sacrifice, let me say that that I really believe that the approach that I have outlined here is beneficial for personal happiness and success too. This is for two reasons. First, people are really good at recognizing who has their best interest in mind, and they reward others accordingly (by choosing who they associate with, who they employ, who they do business with, and so on). The best way to build a reputation of a valuable person is to be a valuable person. Second, the structure of the human psyche is such that it needs to constantly busy itself with working towards a goal. But there is only so much you can do for yourself. On the other hand, choosing to help others means that you will never run out of problems to solve.

Inspirations & More

The arguments put forward in this essay were developed over many years of my life, mostly in the last year or so. There were many materials that I read or saw that served as an inspiration. Some of these shifted my perspective completely. I especially recommend the following positions: