In assessing testimony in a court of law motives are important. Elsewhere they are less so and yet they pervasively affect our attitudes. As White notes: ‘The Motive Fallacy is so common in politics that serious policy debate is almost nonexistent.’
Opinion 1: George Bush was morally justified in invading Iraq.
Motive Fallacy: George Bush invaded Iraq because he wanted Iraqi oil; because he wanted to do the work of the Jews; because he wanted to finish the work of his father; because he is a bloodthirsty militarist.
Analysis: All these claims about George Bush’s motives for invading Iraq might be true but still he may have been morally justified in invading Iraq.
Opinion 2: The WorkChoices legislation will improve labour market outcomes for Australian workers.
Motive Fallacy: John Howard is ‘just’ trying to destroy the trade unions, John Howard introduced WorkChoices because he wanted to do the work of the BCA, John Howard hates low income workers. (The word ‘just’ here is seen by White as a giveaway for spotting the Motive Fallacy. He is ‘just’ trying to destroy the trade unions so his claim that WorkChoices will increase worker welfare must be false. But ‘just’ is only a word – it does not help us to refute anything).
Analysis: All of these claims about Howard may be true but WorkChoices may still improve the labour market outcomes of Australian workers.
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.
This is an exaggeration but not much of one. I recently commented on the blog response to recent IPCC reports that many commentators discussed the politics of these reports rather than their substance. I had to search hard for commentary on the latter.
Further examples of motive fallacies include.
These last fallacy here is less straightforward if the premise is true. I am not sure that these statements cannot be construed as testimony so a non-expert evaluator might be rationally interested in motives.