The
Philosophy Hammer
Philosophy, Economics, Politics & Psychology Tested with a Hammer

15: Theories of Human Motivation:
Why are we?

Summary by: Jeff McLaren

         March 1st is the anniversary of the beginning of the Korean independence movement: the people of Korea rose up against their oppressors and were brutally suppressed. Why did they rise up? Perhaps we could say: they loved their country. But what motivates anyone to love their country enough to risk death for it? What motivates a person's nationalistic love? There may be a chain of reasons but eventually we must come to a first or greatest motive. These first motives are the topic of this session.
        
         Philosophy Club 15: Theories of Human Motivation: Why are we?
        
         Why do we do the things we do? Why do we behave as we do? What motivates us to action? What is the real reason for continuing to live? It is commonly believed that there are as many answers as there are people and situations. However, philosophers look for a first or most basic reason for what we do. Philosophic answers suggest that the multitude of different answers can be distilled into one or two (sometimes a few more) basic reasons of which all the others are just manifestations of the primary reason(s). To answer questions of motivations many theories have been advanced and I hope to briefly describe the theories I find most influential or most interesting.
        
         These theories claim to be the deepest level of analysis. That is, they believe that all human action can be explained using their categories. From each theory's perspective the other theories are merely manifestations of the one theory.
        
         “Which theory is true?” is not a question we will ask because they are all true in a sense; they all have evidence to support them and are therefore easy to defend. We will concern ourselves with the ramifications of believing one of these theories.
        
         Two broad categories are theories that assume we have free will and Behaviorism which is the one theory that says our actions are completely determined by outside forces.
        
         Within the free will theories we can divide the theories into two classifications: Theories with only one ultimate cause for human action and theories with two or more forces competing to influence our actions.
        
         I. Reductionist Theories: one ultimate cause of our actions: These theories claim that everything we do has as its first motivation the expression of one basic desire. This one basic desire manifests itself in all the possible actions of an individual – sometimes obviously other times in a round about way.
        
         1. Renaissance Humanism: Glory: we act to get prestige and recognition. With the development of the European Renaissance people developed a new sense of the individual as separate from the community and our modern drive for fame which is, according to Eric Fromm, very different from at any other time in history, is the most obvious example. According to this theory we want more than anything, even more than life itself, to get glory, eternal fame and recognition from the rest of humanity. According to this theory we fall in love, kill, go to war, work hard, help people for our greater glory.
        
         2. German Romantics: Self expression. We act because we must. It is what makes us human. For the German Romantics the essence of our human nature is movement. By not moving we are playing dead and in a sense we misuse our lifetime we are acting like dead people or stones. We must do something to be human and so we paint, sing, write, work, fight to express our uniqueness and our life.
        
         3. Schopenhauer: A rest from thinking and willing. Arthur Schopenhauer believed that life is hard and not really worth the trouble – but that very few people realized this. Most people falsely hope that life has meaning and we do anything to avoid having to come to this realization. So we choose, as few times as we can, actions that will take up our time and energy in a habitual manner. In so doing we turn ourselves into unthinking and unwilling automatons. We go to work because it is what we have always done: we are familiar with our work and do not need to think about philosophy. We fall in love, fight, engage in hobbies because they are distractions that save us from the true but cruel reality that life is hard, painful and not worth living.
        
         4. Nietzsche: The Will to Power: the ability to affect others. Power over others and over nature is the driving force for all our actions according to Nietzsche. A writer writes, a painter paints, an actor acts in order to change and affect others. Friends are friends because they can influence each other; they are able to reliably and habitually dominate and/or submit to each other. Happiness comes from the successful expression of power over someone or something. Everything from shaking hands to nation building is an expression of someone's power over another. Everything we do is an attempt to dominate someone immediately or in the long term; physically, psychologically or morally. When we are forced to submit to someone it is on OUR understanding that we are some how actually superior to them. So even rationalizations and justifications for a submissive position are clever ways to express power.
        
         II. Dichotomous Theories: Two or more different forces influence our actions:
        
         1. The Ancient Greeks: The Good; the True and the beautiful. We move and act toward anything what is good, true or beautiful. Therefore if we desire something it is because it has one or more of these qualities. We move away from things that seem to be lacking in these qualities.
        
         2. Utilitarianism: Pleasure and Pain: We are drawn to pleasure and repelled by pain. Pleasure forms the basis of all that is attractive and pain is the basis of all that is repulsive. When we do something that hurts us, such as exercise, we actually do it because it brings us more pleasure in the long term. All ethics is the realization that things that may be pleasurable immediately are in fact more painful in the long run. All our actions are the result of a cost benefit analysis of pleasure and pain over a life time.
        
         3. Freud's Psychoanalysis: Eros and Thanatos: the life instinct and the death drive. Freud believed that humans were driven by two conflicting central desires: 1) the life drive: Eros that is a quest for survival, sex, propagation and the alleviation of hunger and thirst etc.; and 2) the death drive: Thanatos: an urge inherent in all living things to return to a state of calm or in the extreme death. Eros is obviously pleasurable but so is the death drive. It is pleasurable as a result of a decrease in stimuli (for example, the calm the body enters after having been subjected to orgasmic stimulation). In some cases pleasure increases as stimuli decrease, this is why we have mood swings and act crazy from time to time – the satiated feeling we have as we return to normal.
        
         4. Berne: Affirmation between the relief of boredom and the fear of intimacy. Eric Berne developed a conception of affirmation that meant: saying yes to another's existence. We need others to affirm our existence in the same way we need food to feed our bodies. In a similar way to how there is good food and bad food and the worst situation is having no food, we all want good affirmation, but we will settle for bad affirmation over having no affirmation. When we are hungry for affirmation we will do anything to get it – the hungrier we are the more extreme things we will do. All human actions are attempts to maximize the affirmation we get from others. Boredom is the first sign of hunger for affirmation but at the same time we we have a fear of over indulgence or of having too much affirmation. This explains why we wish to or desire to be intimate with a great many more people than we actually become intimate with.
        
         III. Deterministic Theory: We are not the cause of our action:
        
         1. Behaviorism: All the forces that act on us force our actions. We are all black boxes – it is not important to understand how we work only what the inputs and outputs are. Therefore the reasons for our actions are always outside of us. Where all the other theories claimed that something inside of us chose what to do, this theory says there is not such thing as free will we are machines that behave in a certain way and can be controlled with the proper stimuli. All the already mentioned factors can be inputs but there is no power of choice – action is simply a question of putting the right pressure on the person to elicit the desired response.
        
         Philosophy Club 15: Theories of Human Motivation: Why are we?
        
         I. Reductionist Theories: one ultimate cause of our actions:
        
         Renaissance Humanism: Glory: we act to get prestige and recognition.
         German Romantics: Self expression.
         Schopenhauer: A rest from thinking and willing.
         Nietzsche: The Will to Power: the ability to affect others.
        
         II. Dichotomous Theories: Two or more different forces influence our actions:
        
         The Ancient Greeks: The Good; the True and the beautiful.
         Utilitarianism: Pleasure and Pain: We are drawn to pleasure and repelled by pain.
         Freud: Eros and Thanatos: the life instinct and the death drive
         Berne: Affirmation between the relief of boredom and the fear of intimacy
        
         III. Deterministic Theory: We are not the cause of our action:
        
         Behaviorism: All the forces that act on us force our actions.
        
         ---
        
         Questions:
        
         1. Which theory do you prefer or which seems most accurate? Or can you imagine a better explanation of human action?
        
         2. What is at stake, what is the significance of explaining the following human actions according to the motivations of each of these theories: What is the meaning of human action when people:
         1. fall in and out of love?
         2. form friendships; get married; join churches or clubs?
         3. play sports; exercise; take frivolous risks; practice hobbies?
         4. go to war; commit terrorism or crimes; physically or psychologically abuse others?
         5. work more than they need for a good life?
         6. sacrifice themselves for a greater cause; for their friend or loved one?
         7. continue to live and not commit suicide?
         8. believe what they believe?
         9. seek vengeance; justice; help; honor; new experiences?
         10. feel emotions such as lust, pity, jealousy, envy, hatred, pride, shame, fear, guilt, regret?
        
         3. Which theory do you think is healthiest for you and for your society? Why?
        
         4. Which theory do you think is most detrimental for you and for your society? Why?
        


© 2008 - 2017, James Jeff McLaren