For Its Own Sake
Welcome to our podcast again: Minds Almost Meeting.
Today, we will try to have our minds meet on one of these topics that we've
struggled with in the past. We've decided to talk about doing things for their
At first, I thought you were welcoming me to our podcast. And I realized
you're welcoming these other people that are not around, and will be listening
to us later. So maybe before we talk about doing things for their own sakes,
let's talk about just much simpler case of motivation. Like suppose someone
asks, "Why are you eating that?"
And you say, "Because I'm hungry."
Now, in that case, so do you think there's – do you think there's a hidden
I would say there's always a long chain of causation. And we can trace that
chain from the proximate action itself, back into your thoughts just before
you did that, back into sort of inclinations and tendencies that you haven't
even promote or endure in yourself that you're aware of. And then back farther
into deeper inclinations, you might have generated, say, in childhood, or been
trained by your culture, or some other context. And we can go even farther
back and look into evolutionary or cultural causes that might cause all of
those sorts of things to happen. So I tend to treat this whole chain of
causation as of a similar sort of interestingness in the sense of talking
about all of it. You may want to cut that chain short at some point and say,
"I only want to talk about things after this point in the chain. And that may
be one of the issues here." But fundamentally, when we look ahead in our life,
say early in our life, we predict what we might do later, like when we might
eat, and what we might eat. We will see a wide range of causes that might
induce us to do one or the other, and a wide range of considerations that
might induce us to sort of push ourselves one way or the other. So if we
anticipate eating too much in the future, and we can imagine that I don't know
being stressed, we predict is a reason why we might eat too much, then that
would be a reason early on, we could try to make our lives less stressful. And
that would be then in our early minds part of the chase of causation and
choice that would lead to that final action. And so, in that case, I might say
that all of those considerations are part of the causes and inputs into that
That's an extremely long answer to a very simple question. So I'm going to try
and restate a simple question but in terms of your blog post. So in your blog
post on Hidden Motives, you say that when we explain what we do by saying "I
did it for its own sake." That's a lie. That is, we're lying to ourselves and
therefore lying to other people, though, unknowingly. Right? So that's a
special case. You think it's different from other cases of motivation, there
may be other ways that we lie to ourselves, but... So I was just trying to – I
was trying to establish a contrast case where we're not lying to ourselves
about our motivation. I thought I would pick the easiest case, which is you
are eating something, and someone asks you why you're eating it. And you say,
"I felt hungry, and that's why." So I was just checking that that was, in
fact, a contrast case. And that would be an example of not lying yourself. I
mean, suppose every single time we described our motivations, we were all just
completely lying to ourselves, then the claim that we're doing it for its own
sake is not especially interesting, right? There had to be really some
contrast, I would think.
Right. So I was trying to indicate that my claim about lying to yourself is
about denying further, deeper causes. So it's not that it's wrong to say that
you did it because you're hungry or even to say that you do it because it's
fun or because it's satisfying. It's just wrong to claim that that's all there
is to the story. And there isn't something deeper to find if you dig deeper.
So am I denying – when someone asks, "Why are you eating that?" And I say,
"Because I'm hungry." Am I denying deeper causes there with that explanation?
Not yet. Depends on what happens when we probe you with further questions.
Suppose I'm like that that's it. That's all I got is that I was hungry.
Well, you could say that you are not aware...
But then am I denying people cause...
Well, are you just claiming that you're not aware and you don't know what are
further causes? Or are you claiming that there are no further causes?
I mean, I think there's a causal story of like, how I came into being. And
that's going to be some necessary conditions on me even developing hunger in
the first place, of course. But I take it that when you ask someone why
they're doing what they're doing. They generally don't think you're asking for
the story of how the entire universe came to arrive at the point where they
would eat the thing, like there's a kind of almost infinite level of
complexity that they could bring to bear on that question, like you're asking
them for their motivation.
It sounds we should pick a more concrete example of the thing we're talking
about. You're trying to contrast it with something else but we haven't said
what it is yet. So let's pick an example of someone who says they like music.
And then we ask them, "Why do you like music?" And they say, "I like music for
its own sake. I don't have some other reason I like music."
"Music is itself a sufficient reason." And then we might ask them, "Well, it
seems like music is giving you a job, or making people impressed by you, or
relaxing you, or letting you show mastery, or giving you social connections,
or occupying your time and preventing you from being bored." And we might list
many other sorts of reasons why, as explanations, causal explanations, and
even reasons that you might have, at one point accepted as something that
would be a reason for doing something. And if we list all of those sorts of
reasons, then you might well say, "No, those are not the reasons. It's because
it's for its own sake." And you would then be denying these other sorts of
explanations. That's the phenomena I was trying to address.
OK, so let's think of the analogy with food. So suppose you say, "Why are you
eating?" And I say, "Because I'm hungry." And you're like, "Well, eating keeps
you alive. It prevents you from dying. And so that's why you're eating as
well." And I say, "No, I really wasn't thinking about that. I wasn't thinking
about trying not to die. Like, I don't really think I'd die if I waited
another hour, but I just feel hungry. I'm just eating because I'm hungry." So
is that the same sort of thing there where I'm lying about my hidden motive to
Well, in that case, you were referring to what you were aware of, and your
thoughts. So if you say to yourself, "I wasn't thinking about not dying as a
reason for eating, I was thinking about being hungry." That's perfectly
accurate. If you deny...
And that would be true in the other cases, too, right? When the person was
like, "Look, I wasn't thinking about that this gave me status or whatever. I
was just thinking about that I liked the music."
Isn't that what they're saying when they say, "No, this is my motive."
People often seem to go farther than that. They seem to go farther than
claiming about – making claims about what was in their head at that moment.
They are making larger claims about those forces that produce their behavior.
I think when you ask someone, why did you do something? The normal way to take
that request is what was in your head at that moment. And so, if they then –
if they say, "I just like music for its own sake." and you say, "No, actually
it's like for status." And then that wasn't in their head, then they feel like
you're making a false claim about what was in their head. As I would feel if I
said, "I ate because I'm hungry." And you're like, "No, you're trying to not
So I've had a number of conversations with people over the years, where it
seems like more for them is at stake than merely the claim about what was in
their head at that moment. They take it as sort of a criticism of their
sincerity as an artist say or their accusation that they're oppose, you're
inauthentic, if one tries to talk about these other possible causes.
Similarly, for people who make charity choices, or academics who succeed in
academia. So as you know, I have this book, The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden
Motives in Everyday Life, so I've had many occasions where people have pushed
back and said, those hidden motive explanations, they deny them because they
say, "No, I just do this for fun period." There is no other explanation. "I
don't do sports for anything else, or art or anything else. I just do it for
its own sake because it's fun, period, full stop." And they seem to be making
a claim about more than just what is in their head at that moment.
I mean how would they – on what basis could they insist on it? It seems to me
if they're insisting, then they have to think they have special access to
something. But the only thing they have special access to is what's in their
You could certainly criticize them on that basis of making an excessively
strong claim that they don't have support for. But I am addressing people who
seem to make those claims. Now, part of the problem with us talking about this
is you're not representing people making those claims, you're not making that
claim about yourself. So both of us are talking about a third party, and we're
trying to clarify what they might say or mean.
So I mean, when I said like, you know, if I was hungry, and I said, "No, it's
just because I'm hungry that I'm eating." And you're like, "No, it's because
you want to avoid dying." And I say, "No, that's not right. It's just because
I'm hungry." You interpreted that as me talking about what was in my head. I
don't think I use that phrase, "That wasn't in my head or something." But I
guess I don't see why that isn't just the same case. Or like, why not – like
if you're inclined to interpret me that way in that case, why aren't you
inclined to interpret them that way in the other case?
Well, I think in our conversation, you did in fact, talk about what was in
OK. They may be right. They may be right. But it may just like, what would – I
guess what would change if you just interpreted them as talking about what was
in their head?
Then I would object less, and they would be making a much weaker claim. So I
mean, we do have other examples in our lives, where people do things that seem
to have hidden motivations. And then they're being not consciously aware
doesn't fully excuse them, and that they're often a bit embarrassed to
realize. So for example, you might have a rival and it might turn out that
this rival you're sniping at them periodically, or you're like making little
criticisms and pointing out errors of things they do. And you just do this
more than other people around that you might do. And if somebody pointed this
out, you might well say, "I wasn't aware that I was sniping at them, or
criticizing excessively compared to others." But, you know, some people might
then just deny they were doing such a thing at all. They might, "No, I'm not
sniping at them. I'm not criticizing them. I just happen to point out this one
error, because that just happened to be in my view."
So like, if I take a step back, and I think like, you know, this idea that
somebody has hidden motives, ascribing hidden motives to someone, there's
something offensive about it. Like I find it kind of offensive.
And I think it's because people have a sense of like, sort of ownership over
their own lives. And like, "Look, I get to say what my life is about and what
I was doing." And it's not that you can't be mistaken. I think, like, say, you
talk to someone and they say, "You've been sniping at me." And you're like,
"No, I haven't. You know, I haven't been aware I was doing that. I haven't
been trying to do that." They're like, "Yes, you have." And now there's two
ways you might respond to that, or there's a number of ways, but I'm here to –
one of them is like, "Oh, I guess I must have been. Sorry, if I hurt your
feelings." Where I make it clear that though I'm apologizing and though I'm in
some sense, acknowledging you're correct, I don't at all recognize from inside
my own point of view what I was doing. And a different way would be like,
"Well, explain it to me. Try to show it to me." And then I sort of recognize
it. And I suddenly see from my own point of view from the inside that that's
actually what I was doing. And that second thing is usually what the person
who accuses you of this wants, right? They want you to recognize as your own
to like inhabit, and to sort of appropriate and take responsibility for the
way you were treating them. Not just in the, "I'm sorry, if I hurt your
feelings in some way that's completely alien to how I see the world." But
like, here you go, here are some I'm sorrys, but actually like seeing it. And
I think that – so I guess my feeling of like the ethics of hidden motives is –
hidden motives ascriptions is, it's OK to ascribe hidden motives to someone if
you're going to be willing to do the work of helping them recognize that
motive as their own, helping them appropriate it. And then they can be like,
"Oh, this is actually my motive." But if there's no hope of doing that, then I
just find – I do find something offensive about it.
So that seems to be a norm about who says what to whom as opposed to who
believes what about whom.
And I think it'd be offensive that you believed it. If I found out that you
believed it and never told me, I'd be even more offended.
So that seems a harder norm to embrace. So, for example, we often have norms
of criminal accusations. For example, we might say, look, if you suspect
someone of a crime, and you announced to everyone that you think they are
guilty of a crime, then we think you ought to have some evidence to back that
up, some substantial evidence to back it up. And if you just suspect it, but
don't have enough evidence, then we think you should shut up about it, and
maybe privately, look for more evidence, but not make a public accusation. But
we don't think that you should, therefore, like make yourself not think or
suspect this thing that you suspect that is, collecting of evidence would be a
thing that happens after you suspect it. So we're going to want you to be
watching the world around you at a time suspecting things and then pursuing
your suspicions perhaps, and then sometimes, then leading to a more public
accusation on the basis of your suspicions. But if the norm there would say,
unless you have the evidence, you must not even allow yourself to suspect.
That seems, you know, to preclude the whole process by which might then find
evidence to support it.
I think going around collecting evidence about how people did bad stuff is
like, that doesn't sound very nice to me and I don't think you should do it. I
mean, it's one thing if you're a police detective, OK, then it's your job.
Right? But like, I mean, if you suspect that I might have done something bad,
I think you should ask me, "Did you do the bad thing?" And if you didn't ask
me and instead went around collecting evidence, I'd be offended. I would say,
"You should have asked me." So I guess I think the same thing applies to
people doing wrong things is you should ask them. And if you don't – look, I
mean, the thought that you're doing something offensive, right? It's not an
absolute norm. Sometimes we do things that are offensive, sometimes we offend
people, sometimes it's worth offending people in order to get some other good.
And so, it may be that the circumstances are such that you think the world
will explode if you don't discover the bad thing that you think I did and so
you have to collect this evidence and be – and offend me and mistreat me.
Maybe you should, but you're still offending me and mistreating me, and I'll
So I'm not sure what you mean to say by this, by just calling it offensive,
then if it's not going to be connected to a norm about what I should do in
response to it's being offensive. But I'll take the concrete example of our
book, Kevin Simler and I's book, The Elephant in the Brain, we are in fact,
looking at evidence that might lead us to believe that many behaviors have
hidden motives, you could say we are insulting the entire human race in that
process. And therefore, we should go and talk to every person in the world and
convince them, otherwise, we should just not write our book, even think about
things in our book. And that seems to me just crazy wrong as the standard.
So, I think you are insulting the human race in your book.
But it is not offen–
Yes. But the thing I just said is there are a lot of norms and they conflict.
And sometimes you have to violate some norms in order to satisfy other norms.
That's just a fact of life. Right? So I'm not saying this norm trumps all
other norms. But it is present. And so I think one thing is like, well, what's
the really big value that is achieved by insulting the human race? Maybe there
is a really big value, like maybe the value of a certain kind of knowledge is
worth it. Right? That would be the case to be made. But yes, I do think that
you're violating norms. And I suppose I think, if you think can you temper
that? Yeah, I think you can temper it by, like, talking in such a way as to
try to get your reader to acknowledge and recognize these motives in
themselves. So if you were to present the material in that way, I think that
that would cut a lot against the offensiveness. Like, think about yourself,
and you can come to start to see that these are, in fact, your own motives as
you move through the world.
I'm perfectly willing to admit that it would be preferable to be able to have
people see this from their own point of view, rather than just as an outside
description of them. The question is, how strong is that preference? And how
much is that an obligation to then not do other things unless you can achieve
that? So, we are now having a podcast where you and I are talking about some
hypothetical artists, for example. And they're not here in the room and
they're not necessarily even in the audience. I am describing how they might
have hidden motives and how they might not be fully honest with themselves.
You then describe me as basically offending any hypothetical artists out
there. In what way does that obligate any sort of change in my behavior?
Somehow – are you suggesting somehow our conversation should be different
because of the fact that I'm offending a hypothetical artist in this
conversation with you?
Well, I mean, the sort of third party people who describe themselves as doing
things for their own sakes, and in your view, are not merely representing
their own mental states but are making this extra claim, right? I suppose I'm
trying to explain, I'm trying to explain the difference between the two cases,
the hunger case and the for its own sake case. In a lot of ways, they're
structurally quite similar. In both cases, you want to say, here's an
additional cause. And in both cases, the other person says, "I don't recognize
that. I just felt hungry. I just did it for its own sake." But in the art
case, you kind of want to push it – you can feel yourself pushing against
something, right? So, you're getting into a conflict with the person, right?
And they're getting annoyed at you. And you're trying to tell them they're
lying. Right? And I'm saying that's unethical interaction here that you're
having with that person. You're having a fight with them. You're offending
them. You're calling them a liar, right? Now, you might have good reason for
doing that. Right? But I suppose I think like in those interactions, yeah,
there are ethical rules that govern the content, the way to conduct those
interactions. Sometimes we toss those rules for some reasons. But that's
really what's happening there. That's the salient difference between the two
cases is that it's not OK to go around telling people they're lying, or lying
to themselves. Just like that, like that that's – there's something invasive
Just like that is the question. So, the just like that seems to suggest I
should have some other protocol or perhaps a ritual of words to say, in
between introducing the topic and getting to that conclusion. But the whole
stake here is, what is the extra that would be ethically required, between
noticing this thing and talking about it directly, as I'm doing with you. So,
a couple of other examples we could talk about. I'm an economist, so we,
economists, have many theories about common policies in the world, such as
rent control, or unemployment, sort of minimum wages, or even wars. And we
often explain these policies as counterproductive and even counterproductive
due to hidden motives. And it seemed like you are suggesting some protocol
there whereby we need to do something extra between thinking among ourselves,
perhaps about these theories. And then telling the world for example, that we
often – leaders often fight wars, make wars happen because they have to do
something. And the need to do something is a thing that produces the wars, and
they might well know the war is not actually going to help unless people get
killed. But politically, they need to do that. That's something, you know,
people who study political economy say and it sounds like you would say, "Yes,
but that's now insulting these politicians by claiming they're letting people
die in wars, because they need to do something, and I need to do something
extra.” And I want to know what this extra thing you want us to do it.
Yeah, by explaining what it is. It is the same thing you would do when you say
to someone, "You've been sniping at me through this whole conversation." The
thing that you do is you try to get them to see, to see from their own point
of view that the things that they took for perfectly innocent comments, were
actually sniping. So I think that's actually what I'm doing right now in this
very conversation. So when you say, "How do you think one should conduct these
conversations? The answer is just the way that I'm doing it right now. Namely,
I'm saying, "Hey, you've been sniping at the human race." But I don't just
want to like give you some evidence, whatever I want you to like actually
inhabit from your own point of view that you've been doing this sniping,
right. I'm trying to show you that so you can see it. And I will not have
succeeded unless you see it from your point of view. And that's not an extra
thing. It's not like, well, I show you the data. And then there's some ritual
I go through. It's part of it is that even the way that I talk about it to you
has to be inflicted, I have to say stuff and then hear what you say back and
then I'm like, "OK, here's how Robin is seeing it. Let me reshape the thing
I'm saying so it'll more fit the way he's thinking."
But again, the context here is intellectuals like myself and my colleagues
writing to each other, and then in relatively generic ways to the world. We
don't have – we're not talking to particular other peoples with their
particular context. We're talking in the abstract about general patterns. So
that that makes it much harder to sort of successfully make all of those
people who might read or even indirectly hear about everything we say, inhabit
the vision that we're trying to describe. That seems to be a very extra large
demand, you're asking on us. We can't just talk among ourselves the way we
otherwise would. We have to go out and maybe write op-eds in a very compelling
and personal story sort of way. Otherwise, we should shut up.
I mean, like, you know, you're contrasting talking among yourselves. And I
mean, like, I guess, if you want to just like talk behind humanity's back
among yourselves, then I too, don't think that's like, super nice, but maybe
that's sort of more OK. But when you're talking to humanity, like in the form
of your book, right? That is a slightly different case. And all I'm saying –
I'm not saying, "You have to do this other thing." I'm just like, an
economist, in doing their cause, you're insulting people, right? And so when
you insult people, they're going to get offended. Right? And they're getting
offended, because you actually are insulting them. Like you're being mean to
them. Right? And – but maybe it's worth insulting people and being mean to
them, because maybe there's like a corresponding good, right? But – so I'm not
saying you shouldn't do it. I'm saying, maybe you should do it. But ideally,
there, there are ways of doing it where you don't insult people. And that's a
possible thing to do. Now, maybe that is too high cost, and so not worth
doing, right? I haven't – I'm not claiming to have done the math here in terms
of whether that's worth doing, whether it's doable. All I'm saying is in a
certain way, it's like if you're like, "Look, me and my economist friends, we
want to be able to talk like this. And then we want the general public, like
be OK with it, instead of being insulted." I'm like, "Well, you're insulting
them so that's why they're insulted. If you want them to be OK with it, you
have to talk about them in the way that will make them OK with it." That's
just the – it's just the result of insulting people that they feel insulted.
But isn't this really – the first act that leads to this chain of causation
that leads to this consequence, you're talking about is studying human
behavior at all. If we were to just study cosmology, or chemistry or something
else, we would be much less likely to offend people. People have all their
preconceptions about human behavior in society. They mix their emotions up
with those, they feel proud about many things. And if we, intellectuals, go
bother and study such things, then the chain of causation goes, even if we're
just talking about ourselves on a blog or something, somebody else might read
that blog, or somebody might watch that YouTube interview, and they would get
offended. And you might say, "Look, aren't you worried that people out there
might get offended that if you study human behavior and social behavior, that
their preconceptions will get violated, that they will be offended by that?
And shouldn't you just like study chemistry or something less harmful, because
then you won't be offending people."
So I think that maybe the thought is when the study of human behavior becomes
like very much of public interest, in the sense that these intellectuals want
to be public intellectuals, they want to be known to the public, and they want
to speak to the public. Then even their study of it has to be informed by that
endpoint. So you have to study in a certain way. So let me give you the
example of, you know, me talking to you. Like suppose, right, that I had just
done – OK, you're weird so this is actually probably not going to come out
with now you're offended. But if you were a regular person, imagine I had
studied all our interactions, and I'd studied our podcast, right, and I have
all this data. And I'm like, bringing it before you and I'm like, "Look,
Robin, here's all this data about how you've been treating me. You know, for
every 47 seconds I speak, you speak 52 seconds, and look at how you change
your tone of voice blah, blah, blah." I give this giant data set. OK, you're
going to be fine with that. But the normal person would be like, "Wait, why
did you do this? Why did you like study our interactions instead of just
talking to me?" Right? "If you were upset about how much you were talking or I
was talking, you just brought that up with me." Right? And that's – so then
you might say, "Well, there are like, there's a choice. Like, either you do
the crunched the numbers on our interaction, or you do the like, talk to the
person." But I think you can combine those. I think you could have, like, a
spirit of inquiry with someone was like, "Hey, Robin, let's like, look at the
data of our conversations and see how we've been doing." That doesn't seem
unreasonable to me, but it seems like you would want there to be a
participatory element. You'd want to do that in a particular way, if it was
going to figure in a relationship. And so I think, yeah, maybe the study of
human behavior should – if it's going to aim to speak to human beings, should
include their participation in the sense of like, this is going to have to be
something we can tell people and teach them so that we're not simply slapping
them with these hidden motives, but we're exposing to them something that they
will then be able to recognize.
So most good teachers, managers, salespeople, et cetera know that to persuade
a particular person of a particular thing, especially something they are
sensitive to, usually, you need to craft a message and a style to that person.
You need to build a relationship with that person. You need to craft your
message to context their personal style, your relationship with them to that.
There's a lot of work to do to take one person and persuade them of something
they might be reluctant to believe. But now, if we're talking about people
like me, who are talking about humanity in general. And just trying to tell
people in general about things, it seems quite difficult for us to then craft
individual messages for particular audiences in particular way and have
particular relationships with them, that we get credibility through. As a
matter of the nature of a small number of us talking to each other about the
whole world, we're going to have to be relatively generic in our rhetorical
strategies. Is it really feasible for us to, you know, at a modest cost,
accommodate the fact that we might be offending people in our discussion, when
we can't adapt it much to particular circumstances?
Right. So again, there's a question about like, is it reasonable – I don't
know the answer, because I'm not sure what the relative costs are and what the
benefits are of having this knowledge, how much will humanity be able to do
better things because it knows about these hidden motives. If there are just
massive, like improvements on the horizon from knowing about these things that
could be just worth offending people for, right, as I said. But in terms of
does this have to be personalized? I don't think so. So I think that really
what you have are two audiences. One audience is the audience of scientific
insiders, right, who are like the – who are used to adopting a certain point
of view of detachment with respect to the material. And the other point of
view is the non-insiders, right? Who are like, "Hey, you talk – those are my
motives you're talking about." Right? And I think that what you're trying to
do is speak in such a way that you are specifically addressing the fact that
those people are not the scientific community, but they are instead the
bearers of the motives that you're laying claim on. Right? And that to speak
in such a way that you sort of allow them at the end of the conversation to
like, re-appropriate those motives as their own and as intelligible to them.
But now, having more insight into them, like, "Oh, now I really understand my
motives better than I did before." If that's what you want to offer people,
right, then you've given them something of value.
What I fear is that you're just especially good at that. And you want others
to do what you are, you know, 99.999 percentile ranked ability at and the rest
of us are just not up to that. So, in particular, if you look at Elephant in
the Brain, I would say compared to the vast majority of academic writing, we
have gone much further at finding a way to write about it in a way that was
less offensive. And that's primarily credit to my co-author, Kevin Simler, not
myself. And if you really are saying that that wasn't far enough, it seems to
me that you're asking for too much compared to the vast majority of
intellectual writings. I would say, "We exceeded the rest – in the direction
you want by a substantial degree. And yet, you seem to be saying it wasn't
So actually, that kind of made it worse. Because what you did was you made it
accessible, right? That's not – like that is, you put it in language, you put
it in language that was simple enough that an ordinary person could read and
And we tried and succeeded, I think to take a tone where we weren't personally
accusing people of anything or thinking less of them because of it. We were
embracing and accepting these sorts of behaviors and being pretty explicit
about that repeatedly. But that's not good enough, it seems.
Yeah. So like to me, if you're like – suppose you say that you're sniping, you
know, that I'm sniping at you, right? And you're like, "But it's fine. Like I
embrace it, and I accept it." That doesn't help. That is, what I want from you
is to give me a kind of insight. That's... And look, so maybe what you're
saying is I'm the only one who's good at this, or very, very few people are
good at it. And so you couldn't possibly do it.
I mean great many readers have said that we thought, they thought we gave them
insight. I mean, I don't know, I guess you as a reader that doesn't come
across, but for other people...
No, I think I did. I did get a certain kind of insight. There's another kind
that I wanted that I didn't get.
But asking for all possible kinds of insight is asking for a lot.
Well, so I mean, if we just go back for a minute to like the for its own sake.
Like that blog post in particular, it's almost like you're having this almost
like territorial battle over this person. This person's like, "Look, I just
wanted to listen to music, right? I just like listening to music." And you're
like, "No, you're lying." Actually, there are all these other things that are
going on. Now, what – I kind of want to know, like, what's happening in that
conversation, from your point of view? Like, what's the benefit of saying that
to them? You predict that their response is going to be to be like, "No, it is
for its own sake." And you said you've had these conversations before, right?
And they get annoyed. Right? That is that's the audience were imagining that
you were sketching for me. And so it's like, "Well, I'll put it here on my
blog post." And I'll just like, "Yeah, but it really is your motive, right?"
And I'm like, just channeling this other person just getting more and more
annoyed at you. And be like, "Stop saying that's my motive!" Right? And you're
like, "Ah, I knew you'd say that. It's your motive." Like what? Like, so to
me, somehow, this is just like, not a productive conversation. And I don't
really understand like what's at stake or what's happening in the
conversation. That's why this blog post motivated me to have this response in
a way more than your book. Or, it condenses, like, it condenses to, in a pure
way, this aspect of your book.
So whenever you write to a wide audience, the first thing you have to realize
is your wide audience varies. There are many different subgroups of your wide
audience, and you probably won't be able to reach them all. And you should
wonder which of them you were most trying to reach, and what you wanted them
to get out of it. So, as I said, at the end of that blog post, I'm often
telling people that their minds are hiding things from them. And they're often
tempted to believe me in the abstract, but it's a little frustrating that they
can't like see a particular thing, at one moment in their minds and say,
"That's a thing my mind is lying to me about." It's much more persuasive and
satisfying if they could identify concrete examples, in their own mind at a
particular moment, and say, "There. Right there. There it is." And so I
thought this was a case where I could offer that at least to the readers of
mine, who are at that point where they're generally sympathetic to the idea
that their mind lies to them, but are, again, frustrated with not being able
to find particular concrete examples at a moment and point to them. And so
this, I was suggesting, is such an example. I'm offering to them as an example
of that, where, and some people did respond that way. They said, "Yes, you
persuaded me. I saw that and that was helpful to be able to see a particular
concrete example where my mind is trying to hide something from me."
OK, but there's a reason why I started this by asking you to compare the
hunger case. So I'm like, "What about when my mind just tells me, eat this,
you know, because I'm hungry." Right? And is that my mind lying to me also,
right? And you're like, "Well, it depends on how you're going to answer my
follow-up questions, and whether you're going to resist me in those follow-ups
when I tell you that, Actually, you're trying to stay alive." But maybe you're
just talking about what's in your head, right? And in that case, you don't
seem to want to say, "Here's a case where your mind is lying to you, every
time you're hungry, then your mind is lying to you." Right? And so you want to
say is, "No, no, I'm just thinking about the for your own sake. And in fact,
I'm thinking about the subset of the for your own sake, namely, those people
who, after they say I do it for its own sake, and after I tried to say, what
about these other things? They say, "No, this is the only reason for doing
it." And it's not just that it's the one in my head. It's the one that
precludes any other motive, right? So these are people who are quite
resistant, right, who, in fact, you anticipate that you're not going to get
through to them, that's we picked out that subset of people it seems like.
I think it's a general phenomena in many of us, including myself, that when we
ask ourselves, "Why did I do this?" That we get back the answer, "Because it's
fun." And then if somebody asks us to push farther, we're reluctant to go
there. I think that's a common thing. It's not a rare, unusual thing. And the
key difference with hunger is most people are fine with saying, you know, "Do
you think people evolved to be hungry in order to not starve to death?" And
most people are quite fine embracing that, that's not a hidden motive that
people are at all embarrassed by granting. But the reason for, say, like the
Is it a hidden motive which is one that people are not embarrassed to grant?
Or is it not a hidden motive at all?
Well, again, there's two concepts, one of which is level of indirection sort
of causes are more proximal or distal. And so it's a more distal cause. And
then the question might be, is it denied, or reluctant to embrace? So hidden
motives contains both the idea that it's deeper or more distal, and the idea
that you don't see it or even are unwilling to see it. So if you are accepting
the more distal cause, then it's less of a hidden motive because you accept
But I don't accept it as what motivates me, like that is I think, no, I wasn't
– the reason I was trying to eat wasn't like to survive, I was just hungry. I
can accept it, like I evolved to this for this reason. But that's not why I
did it. And I mean, similarly, I can set like I evolved and developed my love
of music under whatever circumstances, but none of that has anything to do
with why I'm listening to music now, any more than evolution has anything to
do with why I'm like, I'm eating because I'm hungry. If I would say that, if I
would say, "I just see these things as parallel." Then is your thought that I
then just am lying to myself equally in both cases.
It might be that this isn't an issue so much for you. But it is for me, and
for many other people, including many people who read my post, that for them,
they are, and notice they are, reluctant to embrace or accept these other
deeper, less admirable causes of their more immediate cause, that it's fun.
I guess what I'm saying is, I think what they mean when they're reluctant to
embrace it is they don't recognize it in their own motivation, in their own
mind. And in that sense, I'm very reluctant to embrace that I'm eating in
order to stay alive. That's not what I'm doing. I'm eating because I'm hungry.
So, and maybe I'm just more reluctant about the other case, and I'm not
unreluctant about that case. But I'm telling you, I know why I do what I do.
It's available to me by introspection, and I can tell you, I'm hungry. That's
why I ate. I know why I listen to music. It's because I like it.
In my post, I go through the example of us trying to explain somebody else's
behavior. Say, somebody who says they like to drive. And we might – or
somebody who is thinking about why I like to drive. So in both of those cases,
there would be a list of motivations we might be willing to list as reasons
why I should learn to drive or maybe get into the habit of driving, say, get a
job that requires a longer commute, might be like that. Or, why I might
predict that some people would drive or other people might not drive. So we
could look at a sense of mastery, getting to be by yourself, getting the wind
in your hair, getting to see new places, you know, a range of explanations we
might have for why you yourself might want to drive and why you would predict
other people would drive. And then we might get to a person who at that moment
is choosing to drive or sees themselves as enjoying driving. And that that
moment, we ask, "Why do you drive?" And then they might say, "For its own
sake." And then they might resist these other explanations. I do it for its
own sake, not because I like the wind in my hair and not because it gives me a
sense of mastery and not because I get to see new places or escape things or
all these other things I just like to drive. And that's the target of my
skepticism, is that sort of a stance, which I do think is common. And I can
see in myself and I think other readers can see in themselves. They have this
initial inclination to sort of defend a view like that and resist these larger
contextual causes, even though they would accept those contextual causes in
explaining again, other people's behavior or earlier in their life choosing
whether or not to get in the habit of doing it.
So like, I'll give you an example of me and driving, which is that for a long
time, for maybe 15 years, I would just sort of say, "I don't like driving."
And you would be like, "Why?" I don't feel like, I wouldn't even say I don't
like it, I would just say, that like, you know, be like, "Oh, do you want to
do this?" I'm like, "Then I'd have to drive. I don't feel like driving." I'd
say that I just don't feel like it, right? And I accept that as explanation, I
would keep giving that "I just don't feel like it." They're you know, "But why
not?" "I just don't like it, whatever." And then eventually, I came to
realize, and it took me a while to realize, through talking to people, that
I'm afraid of killing people. And every time I get in the car, I like, in
effect, I'm thinking I could kill someone through driving. And it took me a
while to come to see that, that that was really what was behind my "I don't
feel like it." And once I did, it really changed how I like, even managed that
motive, right? But that was like hard work. It was hard to come to see that,
it took me years. And so I think that maybe, maybe part of what is annoying
people is like, they think that you're proposing something like that, but not
willing to do the hard work of getting them to actually see that that's their
What seems to me that these people in your past, they had good reason to think
that something like this explanation existed, and they wanted to encourage you
to look for it. And you were resistant to even look for this explanation that
eventually you found and was satisfied. That's exactly the phenomena we're
talking about here. This common initial reluctance to probe beneath the simple
explanation, "I just don't like."
Right. And like, I guess, I think it's not impossible. It's actually possible
to probe that and to make real progress and to like, have enlightenment about
what it is you really wanted. And maybe like, that's sort of what I wanted
from your blog post is like the thought of not just being like, "Hey, you have
all these hidden, you know, these other motives. You're never going to find
out what they are, I don't care, whether do you find out what they are, but
like you have them, and you're lying to yourself about them." Like somehow
that – like, what I want to know is like, how is that a productive
intervention in someone? Now, maybe your thought is, well, it's productive
because people needed an explanation of how, in general, we have all these
motives that we're never going to come into contact with. And yeah, here's a
particular example of when you can come into contact with. But like, why isn't
the goal here actually just coming to understand and recognize your own
motives? It doesn't seem like on the table for you, in terms of as a goal,
like, you might think it's nice, but doesn't seem like a goal. And why isn't
that the goal?
There are different conversations that happen in the world for different
purposes. I am fine with accepting that that kind of conversation can and
should happen sometimes. And that people may have the reason to have that
conversation. And I might well be willing to participate in that conversation,
sometimes for that purpose. But there can be other conversations for other
purposes. And they even can overlap. So, I would say there are great many
people in the world who do things like figure out which foods are nutritious,
or which hobbies are dangerous, or which crimes are risky, or which kind of, I
don't know, sexual activities might be problematic. There are just a lot of
people for whom they are just studying things that matter to people. And the
reason they study those things and talk about them is because they matter to
people. And because they matter to people, it's quite likely that people out
there have some emotion invested in various positions on those things. And
then the people who study those things, I think it usually OK for them to come
to whatever direct answer they find. And then as a first effort to tell the
world that without packaging that with a complicated sales pitch and marketing
program to try to get people to most embrace something. So, you know, like,
think of the difference between a company trying to sell their product, versus
just somebody who happens to experience the product and has something to say
about it, right? If I happen to have a bad experience with the product that
lots of other people love then I should tell the world, "Hey, this thing went
wrong with this product." Now the company itself is trying to sell people the
product, they're going to try to wrap, you know, wrap up a whole sales pitch
and maybe acknowledged by one fact in some bigger perspective that gets to the
heart of the customer in an ad and makes them still want to stay with the
product. But I don't necessarily think everyone should be doing something like
that. And actually, I might be somewhat suspicious of that. So I, as a person
looking at this product, might want to just look at the people who just have
this habit of telling it like it is when, you know, the brakes break and the
car crashes. And that's what they're telling me about this car. And they
didn't know what all the extra trouble to try to help me see emotionally why,
you know, I should be willing to embrace that because it's my favorite kind of
car or something. They just going to tell me about "The brakes go wrong." And
I respect that there are people who just would say it straight like that and
whoever's trying to mix it with a big emotional message and pitch to try to
get me to see it in a certain emotional way, I might be more suspicious of
their agenda, like, are they being paid by this car company to sell me the
So imagine – I'm going to say one last thing, and then you can say anything,
and then we should stop because remember, we're trying to like, keep our
...under an hour. OK. So, you know, imagine those people who study which foods
are nutritious. But imagine they were studying them with no question about
like, which foods are human beings likely to be able to get or to want to eat.
And so they're like, "Oh, we discovered that like, Mars dust would be very
nutritious. Or, we discovered like this kind of caviar or whatever." And like
they're studying nutrition, right? And they're never informed in any way by
the constraints of what people would eat, or would be able to ever get. That
there – like, you might say that there's a certain kind of uselessness to
that, right? And I'm not even saying they shouldn't do it, right? But now
imagine that that study is also hurtful to people and insults them and offends
them. Right? Then you might say, "OK, this is, you know, if you showed us that
you were trying to benefit us and that you were going to find like the good
food for us, then that would be one thing. But you're insulting and offending
us and you're telling, you're telling us about the nutritional value of food
we're never going to be able to eat." And they might say, "Look, it's not an
unreasonable requirement that your whole research be if your idea is like
studying nutritious foods, because you're trying to benefit humanity that
actually it should be geared toward benefiting humanity and thus towards, for
instance, teaching us about motives that we can come to ultimately recognizes
our own, in the sense of teaching us about foods that we will someday come to
I emphatically reject the suggestion that the sorts of hidden motive research
that I and others do is useless unless individuals are not offended by hearing
about it. That's...
Not just not offended. But I mean, my claim is stronger, that they have to be
able to recognize it as their own.
I just don't think that's at all the only channel of influence in the world. I
think that we look at behaviors of others, and we change our own behavior in
response to what we think other people might be doing and what their motives
might be. And we are willing to, in the abstract, judge that we might have
hidden motives, even when we don't entirely see them and accommodate that in
our behavior. There are great many other channels of influence by which one
can usefully tell the world other than convincing individuals. So for example,
if we're talking about the food, let's talk about insects, right? People don't
want to eat insects. And you might be offended by telling them that insects
are nutritious. But it could still be useful to learn that insects are
nutritious, because somebody might put insects in the food that you don't even
know about. Or they might be prepared in emergency situation to give you
insects, and at that point, you might be willing to suffer because you need
the nutrition. So, and I mean, in some sense, you know, I guess we could have
a different podcast maybe on just the general idea of offense. But we are in a
world today where the offense has been weaponized more than it used to be in
some sense. That is there's become this presumption that if somebody is
offended, then their preference is not to be offended just with.
I haven't said that. I've been very clear that I don't think that.
Right. But this topic is connected to that clearly, in the sense that you are
suggesting that people like me, who are as some side effect offending people
do more to accommodate that offense.
I'm saying it's a cost. And I think you agree once you take costs into account
when doing anything, right?
So, that's all I'm saying.
But the reason you're raising this presumably is because you think we're not
sufficiently taking that cost into account. Otherwise, why bring it up?
Oh, just because I want you to learn about it and like to see how you would
see things if you came to actually appropriate and see as your own the insults
that you're doing. That's it. I don't have some further motive as to what you
should do. I really was just doing that thing. The very thing I described that
ones you do. Like, what if you could see the hurt and the pain that you're
causing and see it as a thing that you are doing to people? Does this project
look different to you or not? Maybe it doesn't. Or maybe you haven't yet come
to see it. But that was my whole of my agenda.
But I think I accept right from the beginning that some people would be
offended by this. So right from the beginning the issue is, and yet, what
should we do about that? The fact that they might feel offended seem to be
obvious right from the start. Yes. People like to see themselves as having
high motives. And if you try to get them to accept low motives as part of
their behavior, then they can be offended by that. That's just a very common
human thing there. But then the question is, therefore, what should we do?
No, I was trying to not get you to jump from that first thing to the second
thing, but I was – so remember the thing I said earlier about when you
apologize to someone, and you're like, if you're offended, I get that you're –
"I see that you're offended. And I'm sorry that you're offended." There's a
difference between that where I actually see what I was doing. And I'm like,
"Oh, I was sniping at you that whole time." Right? And so it's that second
thing that I was trying to get you to see it from your own point of view as
sniping, as insulting.
But I think I do see that. Or I'm failing to see that is...
And maybe you do. I mean I can't tell what you see or not see. My point right
now was just that was my motive. You're asking, why I do this? And I'm just
explaining why. Maybe I succeeded. Maybe you did from the beginning, and thus
there was no need for me to do it. But that was it. It wasn't like, to try to
get you to change your behavior. Whether you should change your behavior
depends on your overall calculation as to whether those costs are worth the
What am I to see other than the fact that people like to think high of
themselves and resist descriptions of themselves that attribute part of their
behavior partly to lower motives? Isn't that the thing you want me to see? Or
is there something else that you want me to see?
There's something else. So what I was trying to say early on, is that
someone's conception of their own motives, their hold on that is like their
hold on their own life. It's their sense of like, their ownership over their
person. And that's very, like, personal and important to them. And if you're
stepping in there and messing with that, that's like walking into someone's
house and like messing with their furniture. And maybe you can do it, but
like, you'd want to do it in a certain way. And so, like...
Well, like, I think, you know... I don't know. Maybe you would, maybe you'd
want to just walk into people's houses and rearrange them. But like, there's a
way you have of characterizing what they were doing, which is like, "Oh,
people are conceited and they like to have these high views of themselves, and
they don't like it when you tell them the truth." Right? Which, to me, that is
just a way of describing the situation that's going to offend them more.
Right? That doesn't sound to me, like you've gotten the point that I'm trying
to convey, which is that there is something precious to people that it's
rightly precious and it's important. Like, part of what it is to respect them
as human beings is to sort of get into view how precious that is to them.
That's kind of life for them. And that's where you're stepping. And that's a
big deal. And maybe it's worth it. I'm not saying it's not worth it. But what
I'm saying is you're describing it as well, people like to have high views of
themselves, sounds to me like you haven't gotten it.
What I see is you just added the word precious to what I said. You agreed with
what I said, you just said, "And it's important to them" but I thought I was
admitting it was important to them. That was the point. Yes. So...
Right. So, I mean there's a kind of paradox here, right, about you can have
the very same content, and you can describe it from the outside and from the
inside. So when you say, "You've been sniping at me." And you're like, "Oh, if
this behavior counted for us sniping, I'm sorry, you feel that way about it."
And then they say, "No, no, I really want you to see it." And then you say,
like, "Oh, like, you know, I was like being considerate or whatever." And you
say it in a certain way and another way, and it's like the very same thing
you're saying, but now you just see it. It's like a difference between I know
the Grand Canyon is big, and I see the Grand Canyon. I'm like, Whoa! That's
big! I just said the same thing but I said it in a totally different way. And
so, what we want in like interpersonal communication with apology, et cetera,
is for the person to see it in that second way. And all I'm doing is like
trying to use other language to help you to see it in that other way, in the
So my summary statement here because you wanted to end...
Yeah, so true
...would be to say, intellectuals go study things. Other – lots of people are
intellectuals, most who are intellectual find their lives meaningful and
valuable. Is it valuable to be an intellectual? You might say, "Well, what
would most be helpful as intellectual is to study the stuff that most
matters." But we might have to be able to predict that when you study the
stuff that most matters, because it most matters to them, you are most at risk
of coming to conclusions that are at odds with what they thought before and
therefore, offending them and breaking their sort of precious self-concepts.
That's a risk that's just intrinsic to the idea of studying the things that
people have self-concepts about, that are precious to them. If you want to not
risk offending them about those things, study something unimportant, study
galaxies, or something that they just don't care about. But if you like to
Galaxies are unimportant.
To most people's emotional framework and thinking, I mean, it's certainly– at
a very local current level there. I mean, maybe – eventually, galaxies are
important, but at the moment, to most people, galaxy is honestly are not very
important. Yes. But – so I would think you could just say, "Don't study
important things, because people's opinions about those things are precious to
them, and you will hurt their feelings by contradicting their preconceptions."
That's not a crazy position. I choose to take the opposite position that the
pain will be worth it. That is if we can actually figure out the truth that's
different from what people think and we can tell them, then they will have an
initial period of disruption and dismay, but then later on, have a better
understanding of the truth. And the bet is that will be worth it.
OK, let's end there.