At The Faculty Lounge, Al Brophy has a nice post on “The Print World of Nat Turner” that spills over, so to speak, from the research foci in his paper, “The Nat Turner Trials,” which arose as a result of Nat Turner’s slave rebellion in August of 1831 in Virginia. Professor Brophy’s interest in abolitionist literature, and the role of the book and other print media in the propagation of ideas (as well as how the same ideas are propagated beyond print), provokes him to raise the “further question” of “how to interpret Turner’s motivations:”
“One of my favorite letters that emerged from the rebellion was written by Rachel Lazarus to her relatives in Raleigh. She asked whether the impetus was the desire for freedom or blood lust: ‘I know not whether to ascribe [Turner’s rebellion] to the evil inherent in man, or the powerful influence [of] that noble principle the love of freedom.’ Historians have been asking the same question ever since.”
What follows is my response to the value of pursuing this line of inquiry.
From the outside looking in as it were, that is, as historians or social scientists, I find this endeavor to search for the true “motives” unavailing, particularly in cases where they’re not fairly transparent (according to scholarly consensus) or difficult to ascertain owing to a paucity of evidence. Consider, for instance, the following from Robert Goodin:
“To my way of thinking, sending food to the starving is good because of its good consequences, quite regardless of our motives in sending it. By the same token, I do not think the evil of killing innocent people is wholly erased simply by saying it was merely a by-product—clearly foreseen, but entirely unintended—of something else we were trying to do. By all means…let us punish even unsuccessful attempts to commit criminally injurious acts against others. But let us do so not on the grounds of the mere malice they manifest. Let us do so, instead, on the grounds that attempted criminality sometimes succeeds, and the best way of deterring attempts destined to succeed is to deter attempted criminality tout court. By all means let us reward people for acting from good motives. But, again, let us do so on the grounds that good motives characteristically carry good consequences, rather than on account of any excellence on the motives, in and of itself [sic].”
Another difficulty arises for an entirely different reason: Jon Elster writes that
“The imputation of motives to others is often tainted by malice. Given the choice between believing that an altruistic action was caused by an altruistic motivation and that it was based on self-interest [think of the ‘rational choice’ theory of economists!], we often assume the latter even if there are no positive grounds for the belief. Although such distrust can make sense for prudential reasons, in many cases this justification is unavailable.”*
This is not about an attempt to definitively settle any of the longstanding debates between deontologists or consequentialists, but arises rather from the belief that most actions “particularly collective ones,” arise from mixed motives as we say, from a multiplicity of motives, some of which may be in conflict, and none of which we might pronounce with confidence “wholly good” or “wholly evil.” As Elster informs us, the seventeenth-century French moralists found it necessary to distinguish between three broad types of motivation: interest, reason, and passion, and their peculiar mix in any case may be, to put it mildly, extremely difficult to ascertain. Does doing the right thing for the wrong reason, for instance, undermine the rightness of the action? Goodin illustrates this with several worthy examples, one of which relates to the era under discussion:
“President Lincoln’s abolitionist mandate in the 1860 American election was born partly out of a genuine concern among white voters with the plight of the black but partly, also, out of a selfish concern among whites that there would be less of a market for free labor if the system of slave labor should spread any further.”
The motives, it seems (and we need not assume we’ve exhausted them or presume we know their relative degrees of power), are not that important, after all, the right thing was done regardless of the motives behind the mandate.
Of course a Buddhist, Kantian or Catholic (or a virtue ethicist) is concerned with getting people to act from worthy motives and right intentions, and so too is Goodin in his book, Motivating Political Morality (1992), although his reasons, unlike those of the Buddhist, Kantian, and Catholic, are “pragmatic rather than principled:”
“I do not subscribe to the view that an act cannot be morally worthy unless motivated by worthy motives. But I do suppose that if we are going to secure morally desirable outcomes, then the best way of doing so—over the long haul anyway—is by encouraging people to act on morally worthy motives.”
Goodin rightly values a prominent role for prompting, persuading or convincing people to act from morally worthy motives, and yet he helps us see, I think, that the backward looking analytical or explanatory attempt in many cases to parse the precise motives in historical cases like ours, that is, their good or considerably less-than-good origins, or their precise mix and relative intensity, is a fruitless exercise. Goodin argues that it does not make sense to expect a conclusive answer to the question, “What motive lay behind the act,” in which case our historians will continue to ask such questions with no reasonable chance of resolution.
Finally, I might note that first-person proclamations of motives are probably not to be trusted as well, owing to such “hot” and “cold” psychological mechanisms of irrationality that account for the ubiquity of self-deception, the ardor for fame, wishful thinking, clouded judgment, and so on. I hope the foregoing contributes to a thoughtful assessment of the extent to which we might rely on Nat Turner’s Confessions** to accurately describe or infer what motivated a rebellious slave to engage in an act of revolt in which fifty-five people were said to have been killed.
* For further treatment, see chapters 4, 5, and 6 in Elster’s Explaining Social Behavior: More Nuts and Bolts for the Social Sciences (Cambridge University Press, 2007).
** This link includes a helpful section for “further reading.”
Addendum: In reply to my original comment, Al in part writes that “the motives and not just outcome are important, even if motives are impossible to determine with precision. Motives give us some sense of causation — did abolitionists’ literature have an effect, for instance. They also shape how we think about individual actors. Was Turner a person bent on revenge (even if understandable) or someone fighting a hopeless cause for freedom?” To which I replied: I realize the importance of motives (in particular, forward-looking in the sense of Goodin’s book and the moral psychology having to do with self-examination, etc.). And I understand we will continue to feel the need to ascertain the motives of historical actors, but I suppose I would be happy if we simply acknowledge the highly speculative nature of this enterprise, and the corresponding sundry difficulties it entails such that when it comes to the attribution or endorsement of motives we should keep in mind the proviso that it is virtually impossible to do so with anything approaching certainty or even the confidence warranted by a true social scientific explanation. In the instant case, I’m inclined (indeed, want) to imagine Turner as “someone fighting a hopeless cause for freedom,” but I well realize I could be wrong and I strongly suspect that the motives in this case are rather mixed and probably conflicting.
Further update: A Santa Barbara City College colleague, Michael Colin, kindly wrote to inform me that he worked on this documentary for PBS: Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property—America’s Spartakus.