Most every theory of psychology tries to describe an underlying motivating factor for human behavior. For example, Freud believed the underlying motivating factor for all human behavior was a psychosexual drive he called the pleasure principle. According to his perspective all human beings desire pleasure and it’s the job of your ego to temper the demands of the pleasure seeking entity in your subconscious (The id) so you can realistically interact with the world and get what you want. Other psychologists like Abraham Maslow believe the motivating force in the human person is the desire for self-actualization. By meeting our most basic needs first and then moving through a hierarchy of needs we ultimately achieve a self-actualized state and a healthy human being is constantly motivated to achieve that state. Each school of psychology believes there’s an underlying force of motivation and each proposes something different. I find all these theories fascinating however I believe the motivating force in the human person is love. As one who follows the Christian faith I hold this “force” in high regard but I also see it working and motivating people everywhere. The things people value are the things they love, the people they will die for are those they love, and ultimately the things and ideas they will completely invest themselves in are the things they love. Human beings are motivated predominantly by their passions because we’re primarily affective creatures. For the longest time thinkers in the western world have given primacy to reason. From Plato to the modern rationalists, it has been believed if people reason well they’ll come to appropriate conclusions and act on those conclusions in a most logical and effective way. In fact this worship of reason is so strong we often dismiss the passions (love being at the heart of them) as unhelpful and as a roadblock for making good decisions. After all, look at what happened to Romeo and Juliet, certainly that’s passion and love gone wrong! We should all be like Mr. Spock in the famous American science fiction series Star Trek. If we got rid or our emotions we could all function in a psychologically adjusted way. Not really, at least according to some of the latest research in psychology.
When we divorce ourselves from our passions, emotions, and love, we actually act in very unbalanced ways. In fact, sociopaths are excellent at using logic and reason to justify the crimes they commit. The common factor keeping sociopaths from acting in a more human way is they’re disconnected from their emotional self (Thus the phrase “cold and calculating”). Their affect is often flat or expressed in very negative ways showing no empathy, feelings, or sense of connectedness with others. People are merely objects providing a means to the ends they want to achieve. They can effectively reason how to use that object to get the things they desire. Logic divorced from reason causes some pretty poor decisions.
I’m reading a book by Jonathan Haidt called “The Righteous Mind” and in it he doesn’t just reemphasize the need for people to recapture the value of emotions, passions, and intuitions, he actually demonstrates through a number of psychological studies human beings are driven by their passions first and then use reason to justify why they do and think the way they do. This post is too short to go into all the details but he makes a great argument summed up in the following way. Haidt states our emotions are not lesser forces merely existing to serve our intellect, it’s in fact quite the opposite. Our intellect exists to serve the passions and give justifications for why we’re drawn to certain items, ideas, and positions. We’re primarily affective creatures given the gift of reason to articulate and share why those passions exist.
Now, if what Haidt states is true and our motivations are less about how we reason ourselves into things and more about how we’re motivated by passions and intuitions, I think the Christian idea that love is the primary motivating force for humans has some strong support given this recent research. If we’re created in the image of God, and God is love as scripture teaches, we are primarily created as agents who desire to give and receive love. When that love is not longer an essential part of who we are as in the case of the psychopath we tend to act more like demons reasoning ourselves into anything (Look at the good reasons Satan provides Jesus with while he is tempted in the desert) than humans acting in a way conscious of how our actions impact other people. Yet, if we take this position, how do we account for the fact people often are motivated to act in ways that appear so unloving? The good doctor of love himself, St Augustine provides a perfect explanation for why we commit sins contrary to love.
In the writings of Augustine of Hippo one reads frequently that love is the motivating force in the lives of people and when love is disordered sin emerges. St. Augustine believes human beings are motivated to pursue what they believe is good, beautiful, and true. However, instead of loving God first (The ultimate understanding of the good, beautiful, and true) and our neighbor as ourselves, we love in a disordered way thus causing pathological behaviors. For example, Augustine states the following in the Confessions, (book 13.9), “My weight is my love, and by it I am carried wheresoever I am carried.” His point being that even within the pathological it’s love that motivates behavior.
If we want to live flourishing healthy human lives we must work hard to create feelings, emotions, and passions that develop into intuitions of properly ordered love. I cannot think myself into something, I have to start with how I feel about it. When I understand what I am passionate about I can then use reason and intellect to help steer these passions to their proper ends instead of distorted sinful ends.
Let me close with this. We’re creatures that are first and foremost affective in nature and driven by what we love. If we want a society that flourishes and develops what’s best for all its members we must teach children more than facts and ideas, we must develop within them the proper order of love. They must enter into a living love relationship with Christ first and then because of that love, learn to love one another. Only by becoming radically loving people who love in a proper way can we reason ourselves into a flourishing productive society.