Universal Ethics > Thought of the Month > May 2020

Judging Motives

To correctly judge the motives of others, you must have a clear mind.

Do you ever feel like you have been misjudged by someone else?

Do you suppose that perhaps you might sometimes misjudge the motives of others?

A critical element of judging another person's motives is to have a clear mind, so that one's own emotions are not projected onto the other person.

One might suppose that this mistake is not made among people who are together often, such as a family. Unfortunately, the opposite is often true. When people are together a lot, minor annoyances "get on their nerves." Instead of having understanding, they may tend to misjudge each other.

As I am writing this, the Covid Pandemic is causing people to practice "social distancing." Families are advised to stay at home, eliminating direct contact with friends or co-workers, and leaving family members together a lot. So it's very timely that people should know how to correct the problem of misjudged motivations.

Here's a scenario of a misjudgement: "I am feeling a bit blue myself, so when a family member does something that I find annoying, I judge that they are doing so intentionally out of malevolence (or at least I judge that they are insensitive). So, I say some angry words to them. On their side, however, they had no harmful intent, and were perhaps careless at worst. They feel like their motives were not understood at all, and they are being unjustly treated."

Feeling hurt, the other person may respond in a similar, critical manner, and now we have two people who are making incorrect, clouded judgements. The annoying behaviour will probably continue, and both will be unhappy.

To prevent this situation, my #1 piece of advice is to avoid making a harsh judgement without careful thought. This applies both to the person wishing to criticize, as well as to a person who receives criticism. Suspend judgement and come back to it later, when you can think about it more calmly, with a clear mind.

Having a clear mind means that your mind is not affected by extraneous conditions that are irrelevant to the judgement.

When a person in a "blue mood" or he (or she) is tired or frustrated, he may infer motives in others that are really reflections of how that person feels, rather than being an accurate description of the others' motives. That's a mistake, and sometimes it's one that the person will realize after they are feeling better.

Also, if people are feeling insecure, they may become harsh and judgemental as a means of bolstering their own reputation in the eyes of onlookers. Or it can be the opposite, of having an over-confident self-righteous attitude, typically due to lack of experience and understanding of the other person's situation.

To judge with a clear mind, one has to find some time to think about the matter that is not in an emotionally-charged moment. Take some time to do something you find relaxing, such as to go for a walk in a park, or listen to music. Then make your inference of the other person's motives based on careful contemplation of the facts.

When you have a clear mind, you can not only judge others more accurately, but also have more understanding when they criticize you. You can realize that others who criticize you might sometimes have a valid complaint, and sometimes they are acting that way because of insecurity or other problems of their own. When you understand that, you are less likely to apply retribution for being judged unfairly by them. Instead you will seek to understand how the person is feeling and why they are acting the way they do.

Clear thinking is essential for ethical behavior. If you can't accurately judge other people's motives that need to be fulfilled for their happiness, then your own empathy is defeated because you don't know what to do. Ethics is about methods of cooperation to "spread happiness" but you can't take effective action if you don't know where the gaps are.

Also, ethics sets boundaries on behavior to prevent results that are counter-productive to mutual happiness, which behaviours can result from malevolent motives. So, it's important to identify whether someone is acting on cooperation-compatible motives that you wish to support, or on the opposite.

Mistakes and minor human deficiencies can be occasional annoyances even when a person is acting on good motives, but they can be corrected. If you mistakenly believe there is malevolence when there is not, however, it is unlikely that you will reach any solution; it will be as if the malevolence was really there.

There is a famous phrase from the New Testament of the Bible that captures this idea:

"Judge not, that ye be not judged."
"For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again."
"And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?" - Matthew 7:1-3, King James Version

In addition to clear thinking, I also offer 3 further recommendations for avoiding incorrect assessment of motives that give rise to unnecessary conflict. For more information, click here.

Also, click here for a few comments about the attitude and discipline needed to accurately judge peoples' motives, from the introduction to Reading People by Jo-Ellan Dimitrius and Mark Mazzarella.

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