Motive and Intent

I drew the design for my first tattoo as a 14-year-old doing time in in-school suspension. It’s a stylized rendition of the word “Why?” As a theater geek with ambitions of being on Broadway or starring in Hollywood pictures someday, I knew that motivation was crucial to understanding a character and a scene. There’s a long-standing joke in the performing arts about an actor asking the director, “But what’s my motivation?”, unable to do the scene without that knowledge. I used to say “motive matters” and took it not just as an acting tool, but as a lens for looking at other people.

In the social justice circles I move in today there is another, seemingly contradictory catchphrase: “Intent isn’t magic.” It’s meant to recognize that well-meaning feelings don’t erase the impact of harmful acts. It’s meant to encourage responsibility not just for our actions but for the outcome as well. Even accidental harm is harm and needs to be addressed. I think both these ideas – intent isn’t magic and motive matters – are valuable and I think they work best in concert with one another.

If someone hurts me, my hurt may not care what their motive was, but I do. I want to know their intent so I can decide what solutions I will accept. If someone drops a heavy weight on my foot, my response will vary based on what I think their intention was. If it was an accident, I don’t want to yell at them as if they did it on purpose. If they did it on purpose, I don’t want to forgive them like it was an accident. I will want my foot looked at and attended either way.

Likewise, intent and motive matter with positive interactions as well. Recruiters for cults engage in a tactic called “love bombing” where everyone tells you how wonderful you are and how much you belong. These positive-feeling interactions have a nefarious motive: cutting you off from friends and families and making you dependent upon the group for all feelings of love and acceptance. We all know a man who is only nice to you so he can sleep  with you isn’t actually very nice. Clearly then, just as someone can accidentally cause a harm with pure motives, someone can purposefully do good with impure motives.

I rely on both these ideas as I go about interacting with my fellow humans. I understand that harm is harm no matter what, but I also understand that some people are more likely to cause harm than others. I recognize that motive tells you something about another, and about how they may behave again in the future. Intent isn’t magic, but it’s not nothing. It’s someone’s reason for doing what they do, and that information can help me decide who to give another chance to and who to cut out of my life. Motive matters, and so does outcome.

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