Sunday, January 13, 2013
Merits, not motives
As I wrote yesterday, some people have reacted to our school district’s proposed diversity policy by questioning the motives—or, ominously, the “ulterior motives”—of the people who disagree with them.
I won’t say motives never matter; if you’re relying on someone’s expertise, for example, it helps to know whether a conflict of interest might bring that expert’s credibility into question. But compulsively focusing on a speaker’s motive very quickly turns into an ad hominem distraction from the actual substance of his or her argument.
So, just a reminder: The soundness of a policy argument does not depend at all on the motives of the person making it. An argument stands or falls on its own merits, regardless of whether it comes from the mouth of a hero or a villain. A bad motive doesn’t discredit a good policy, and a good motive won’t save a bad one.
People seem to find it very tempting, when they get worked up about political issues, to talk about motives or personalities or credentials or scandals or behind-the-scenes maneuvering—just about anything other than actually engage the substance of an argument. If that were less true, maybe fewer people would get freaked out by the disagreement and conflict that are an unavoidable part of the democratic process.
(Cartoon © 2013 I. Samuelson for A Blog About School.)