Michael Eriksson
A Swede in Germany
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Judging issues based on perceived intents

A very common and very unfortunate phenomenon is that an issue is evaluated mainly and firstly based on the perceived intentions of the involved people, and, if at all, on its own merits in a secondary manner. This is the more tragic as many people who fall into this trap seem to consider it something to be proud of, and something that gives them an edge over others. (Whereas, in reality, it hinders them and can sabotage others—in particular, as the perceived intentions are often different from the actual.)

True, knowledge of and thinking on the underlying intents can be valuable aids in cutting through rhetoric and lies, avoiding pitfalls, etc.; however, they are just aids: The issue should be evaluated, mainly and firstly, based on its own merits.

There are several relevant points to consider:

  1. Even if e.g. the maker of a proposal does have selfish or malicious intents, the proposal may still be perfectly valid; and ruling it out in advance does no-one a favour.

    A case in point is the invasion of Iraq: Whether Bush wanted to rescue the Iraqi people/the world from a dictator with weapons of mass destruction, or rather protect US oil interests, is secondary to whether the invasion was in the interest of the Iraqi people, whether it could be ethically justified, etc. A judicious investigation of the latter issues may (or may not) have given the invasion a red light; but irrespective of this an argumentation based on speculations about Bush’s motivations is not allowable. (However, a suspicion of hidden agendas could validly lead to demands for certain additional constraints, e.g. limits on duration of operations, presence of international observers, full disclosure of this and that, ...)

  2. Speculations are very often wrong, and basing a decision on an incorrect assumption of intentions can do a lot of harm: “When you assume, you make an ass of u and me.” may not be an entirely logical statement, but it does contain a lot of truth.

    (I have the disturbing impression that most people are not even aware that they are making assumptions, but consider their assumptions as conclusively proven—sometimes even in the face of evidence to the contrary. After all, it is “obvious” that someone who quotes the Bible is Christian, that someone who stands to gain from a tax in-/decrease is motivated solely by money when taxes are discussed, etc.)


    An older text on this subtopic has been published.

  3. A human weakness is that we tend to find what we are looking for: Someone who sets out to find evidence that someone is malicious, that an idea is flawed (because it was, allegedly, driven by a hidden agenda), or generally that someone/something has a certain characteristic, is highly likely to find the signs he was looking for—irrespective of the truth. Thus, focusing on perceived intentions can lead to an increasingly distorted view of an idea or its suggester.

    The skeptic may try the simple exercise of telling himself that a particular person, say a colleague, is a friend and that another is an enemy, and pay attention to how they behave. (Without, obviously, keeping the fact that he is engaged in an experiment in mind, lest this makes him more self-observant than otherwise.)

    (Cf. e.g. confirmation biasw. Incidentally, this is one of the few variations on bias that I know that I too am afflicted by—despite deliberate attempts to avoid it.)

A particular example of the above that has happened to me on a number of occasions: I point out errors in reasoning, biases shining through, whatnot, in a text or argumentation by someone else (e.g. in Wikipedia or on a blog)—and others immediately conclude that I am personally vested in the underlying cause, attacking the errors only because they go against my own (alleged) opinions. In truth, however, my cause is against the incorrect reasoning; and taking my feedback seriously would be beneficial to all involved parties (unless, obviously, the feedback it self, irrespective of my intentions, is of too low quality).

(I do, however, not deny that I may care more when opinions I agree with are unjustly attacked than those with which I disagree; nor do I rule out that I may, on occasion, unconsciously overlook unfair attacks against the latter.)

A hypothetical example (exaggerated for better illustration):

Text:All Swedes are tall; ergo, they should be good at basket ball. The fact that they are not, implies that white men cannot jump.
My critique:Not all Swedes are tall; there are other factors than tallness and jumping ability that determine proficiency at basket ball; extrapolating from Swedes to white men is unscientific; there have been many white men who were excellent jumpers, including Swedes Patrik Sjöberg, Christian Olsson, and Stefan Holm. (Besides, not all Swedes are white in the first place.)
Original author:It is obvious that you, being both white and Swedish, follow a self-serving agenda with your unfounded criticism.

(This may also be related to the hostile media effectw.)

Sadly, the possibility that someone can actually have a strong interest in correct argumentation (as opposed to argumentation that favours his cause) seems to be lost on depressingly many people. The same applies, m.m., to a wish for higher productivity, better quality, the best of the team, ...,—something that I have learned the hard way.