Motivation is something psychologists study in great depth. To understand what motivates people is to have a “magic” potion allowing you to direct someone’s behavior. Because being able to control the psychological mechanisms around motivation can be so powerful people have been trying to harness its power for some time. Even those of you with limited psychological education understand how motivation works. We use the tools from behaviorism to motivate our young children constantly. If they do what we ask they’re rewarded, if not they’re punished. Reward and punishment are motivators allowing us to shape our children’s behaviors. Every theory of psychology attempts to understand motivation. It’s the heart of human behavior. Freud believed we’re motivated by the “pleasure principle”; that part of our psyche continuing to drive us toward what feels good. Maslow developed his hierarchy of needs as a way to categorize different elements motivating us in a particular order. He claimed we first satisfy our physiological needs and only after that do we seek to fulfill needs for things like intimacy and ultimately self-actualization. Like so many other psychologists he recognized the need to understand motivation.
When I’m counseling people or working with them in spiritual direction, I’m often struck by what motivates them. Some are motivated by the desire for status, wealth, friendships, money, etc., but most striking is all these specific things fall under a more general category. To state it simply, people are motivated by what they love. Love is powerful and when we attach our love to something we’re motivated by that very thing. If I love money, I’m motivated by it. If I love status, I’m motivated by it and by those things allowing me to have it. The things we ultimately love are the things motivating us.
Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist has done some fantastic research helping people understand those very different from them, particularly on the “liberal/conservative” spectrum. I find his work fascinating and believe Haidt gives us a dissection of the human heart; the mechanism acting as a compass for human love. Haidt’s research is articulated as the “Moral Foundations Theory” and is primarily concerned with understanding the evolved psychological mechanisms allowing people to work together, pursue what they value, and develop a social life. It’s this second element, the pursuit of what they value, that interests me because values are the things we love. Haidt’s research documents five foundations directing the human heart. These foundations guide the manner in which we love. The five foundations include harm/care, fairness/reciprocity, in-group/loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/sanctity. According to Haidt those more liberal in their positions tend to favor care and fairness more than the other three foundations. Those more conservative favor loyalty, authority, and the sacred. Haidt argues a more balanced approach is to value care, fairness, loyalty, authority, and sanctity equally. I think there’s merit to his proposal. If one overvalues care and fairness they may be too willing to value individual needs over group needs. What one individual deserves as fair might override the needs of the community. Likewise if we overvalue authority and loyalty we might be more likely to uphold institutions maintaining institutionalized racism and prejudice. A balanced approach is good, but I propose another taxonomy based on what I believe is more Christian in nature.
Christ indicated we must love God above all other things and then one another (Mark 12:30-31). Additionally, we see from the Judaeo Christian perspective after love of God and love of one another, we must care for the world (Genesis 2:15). Using Haidt’s foundations we might argue to love what is sacred should come first and the authority drawn from the sacred as well. This is what it means to love God and what he ordains as good, beautify, and true. Then we must equally love care, loyalty, and fairness as a means for caring for one another and the created order. This balance of love can be the foundation to living life as God intended thus providing us with the greatest happiness.
To truly understand someone we must understand how they have configured their moral foundations. A good spiritual director can then help the directee recognize how their foundations either do or do not reflect the proper order of love ordained by Christ and help them reconfigure their love compass. If what St Augustine said is true, that sin is nothing more than disordered love, we can learn to overcome that sin through a simple recognition of the manner our emotional heart functions. We can learn to love as Christ taught us by choosing to love what is sacred above all else (God and his laws), to obey God and his laws (authority), and then to love one another (care, fairness, loyalty). When we love in the proper order all the other things motivating us become instruments to live as God created us to live. They become instruments used to love in the proper order. To just love is not always good, but to Love as intended motivates us to be icons of the living God.