1 a reason for doing something, especially one that is hidden or not obvious: a motive for his murder.
2 (in art, literature, or music) a motif: the entire work grows organically from the opening horn motive.
Everyone has one. Good or bad. Hidden or plainly known. Everyone has a motive for every action. For some reason, however, “motive” is a word with profoundly negative connotations.
“Don’t trust that guy. He has an ulterior motive.”
“Don’t believe anything (insert the name of ANY politician) says. He has other motives other than what he says.”
Back to the beginning. Everyone, everyone of us, have motives. The reasons we do the things we do and think the things we speak are because of the motives behind them. We don’t want to believe people because they have ulterior motives? I’d bet that most motives are ulterior.
Hey, why did that lady give that guy sitting on the sidewalk half of her sandwich?
Yes, maybe she is a nice lady, but let’s say that she is also a Christian. Every Christian has a motive, and it is usually ulterior. Every Christian wants to get into heaven. Every single one. Getting into heaven is the motivation behind a Christian’s actions. Do Christians always proclaim such when they perform a particular deed or utter a particular statement? No, not all the time. So, the unspoken or hidden motive is ulterior. It isn’t bad. It’s just omitted because in the time and place the motive is not the important issue. The action is more important than the motive. Shedding light on the motive does not make the motive reprehensible. It just gives a better understanding as to why a particular action takes place.
Sometimes, well, a lot of the time, an action, like the one above, has more than one motive. The lady is a Christian and wants to go to heaven, so she helps her neighbor. The lady doesn’t want to see the guy starve, so she gives him something to eat. She wants to feel good about herself, so she does a good deed. These are all motives with good intentions, but they are unspoken, so, therefore, ulterior.
Then there are those that get surprised and/or insulted when it becomes known that one’s motivation to perform an action is self-serving. I’m not sure why this is a surprise, but it is, apparently. The self-serving motive is probably the purest motive there can be. We all want what is best for us and for those closest to us. The primary reason we want the best for those closest to us is because when the ones closest to us are doing well, we are doing well, too…usually. Yet, when someone points out a self-serving motive, you can count on offending someone or pissing someone off. It’s guaranteed.
Let’s take the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 as examples. Certainly there were politicians that wanted to ensure that African-Americans received the full rights, privileges, and protections that white people experienced. Passage of these bills was the morally correct thing to do. Morality can be a powerful and effective motive. Lyndon Johnson and his allies in Congress wanted to pass these laws to ensure that all citizens, regardless of race, creed, or ethnicity, were given equal standing under law. It is a good story and is more than likely true. I have no reason to believe otherwise.
However, is it possible that there were other motivations driving this issue? Of course it’s possible. Is it possible that one of the motives of the Democratic Party to pass these laws was to curry favor with the African-American community? Is it possible that the Democratic Party wanted a larger party base in order to perform well in elections and win? Just think back to political science 101. What is the primary mission of a political party? I’ll answer for you. It’s to win elections. The primary reason for the existence of a political party is to ensure that a group of people of like political persuasion get their candidates elected to office; once the party holds a particular office, it’s motivation becomes to hold on to that particular office. The party is made up of a group of people that are, well, self-serving. They want what they want and want to make sure their opponents do not win.
Does this make the people within that party bad people? No. It makes them human.
The move Selma released a couple of weeks ago demonstrates this idea of motive quite well, giving a glimpse at the pragmatic approach Lyndon Johnson took toward passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. As the president and, ultimately, a politician that still had one more national campaign to run, he had to weigh the pros and cons of promoting and pushing such a bill. He had to weigh the political costs as well as the ramifications it could have among both white and black southerners. This point of view also brought considerable criticism to the film and the story it portrays.
Yes, his morality may have guided him to the need to force passage of the bill, but he had to consider the political motivations and consequences, not to mention, also, the possible social backlash that could arise as a result of the politics. To believe that he did not take into account his political future against his moral motivation is to be naïve. To believe there was not a self-serving motive behind his support of the bill is just as naïve, if not more so.
As much as we respect what we believe to be pure motivations behind political decisions such as whether or not to propose and promote a bill like the Voting Rights Act of 1965, we must accept that there is usually more than one story, more than one motive, when it comes to the people in the story. If we don’t, we fail to see the whole story, and we fail to fully grasp the humanity within it.
Were Johnson’s motives, beyond those compelled by morality, in poor taste? Not necessarily. Were they self-serving? Probably. He was only human, and we humans have a strong tendency to look out for ourselves. Only human, this is what we fail to remember when the great figures of history are polished and glorified without consideration or knowledge of the whole story.
For those that refuse to believe such motivations existed in Johnson’s thought process, I ask these questions. When he and other Democrats pushed for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, why did they not include the laws put forth a year later in the Voting Rights Act of 1965? Why did they wait a year to add these laws to the books? And remember, 1964 was an election year, Johnson’s first, actually.