July 23, 2021•813 words
I think its a generally shared maxim that you shouldn’t do something for bad reasons. In fact this is so wide spread we take it for granted. A bit of reflection as to how prominent this maxim is shared would tell you how often its advice is actually followed. Its actually quite hard to spot a bad reason within oneself. Its quite easy, or so we think, to spot when others are reasoning badly. Because we can see this (or think we do), we become exacerbated at others and believe them insane or idiotic at times for disagreeing. So what we end up thinking is, it’s obvious when someone is acting from bad reasons and they’re simply refusing out of some obstinacy to see what should be clear. Meanwhile for ourselves, we naturally reason well, and perhaps when we fail, those few times when we fail, well its because we’re tired, or distracted or…
If we look at the discrepancy in our experience of others and ourselves, it should be clear that its often more subtle and complex then we want to admit. And this is complicated when it comes to technical matters, in which I think reasoning, which in its particular form becomes highly developed, can still exhibit this kind of distortion.
You can see this in say, a conversation a senior expert and someone more junior, where the senior expert becomes upset at the juniors idea (fill in your reason, it just has to be unrelated to the validity of the idea). The junior suggests an idea from a place of naivety. The senior will destroy the idea. The argument will be quite fierce from the senior and because they know more they can always successfully argue for a position they’ve taken and as the junior is new and unexperienced, the senior will get their way. If you’ve ever suggested something from a junior position, had that idea savaged and come away thinking “What the hell?” you’ve experienced this behaviour.
This is not incidentally, to suggest that the things we block out are necessarily correct. The junior can still be wrong, but they know they've been bullied out of knowing why. This is the most easy way to hide from oneself, when you can use being technically correct to hide a bad motive.
So you can spot this in others, but it doesn’t necessarily help us. There is a temptation to say: well you believe it because ‘X’, where ‘X’ is a bad reason. And the temptation to do this to others has to also be resisted. Because its also another form of hiding from arguments, from not hearing the other person.
“I know you don’t actually believe what you say, you’re just swayed by the money/favouring what you’re used to/playing some strange power game” doesn’t actually demonstrate whether something is technically right or wrong, so responding with it is liable to be frustrating. I would say that friends are people that you can say this to, ones who can take that sort of self-criticism, but in a professional world coming out with this sort of thing isn’t really helpful. You have to express and take in good faith if you're ever to learn whether the good or bad reasons someone has for believing something.
What comes from this, is that its always useful to ask yourself if you have motives that are suspect. Whether you are say, more emotionally invested in a project then is good (either for yourself, the project or those around you). Whether a passion for something is blinding you to the aspects of what is going on in front of your own eyes. And the value of this is simple - you communicate better. People will accept what you say because they know that you do not argue you from a place to do with ego, or greed, or insecurity but from something reasoned and considered. They will see that you respect them. And additionally and crucially, you will hear things that you may not have caught before.
Now these things I suggest are true of day to day life, but far harder to apply. The thing is that technical reasoning at least has the scope and space for something “objectively” reasonable and hence suppressed bad reasoning is in a way, easier to spot in oneself (even if the objective response is that we don’t know what the answer is). That is, being right and wrong has a content to it that is not as easy to find in general arguments with friends or passionate arguments over values. There self-reflection is harder and the very principle I’ve raised doesn’t work as well. What a suspect motive is can be held to question. What to do about this is frankly not something I can answer in a single blog post or in fact, a single life time.