‘How relevant are motives in assessing the public policies stance of a politician or commentator?’
In another round of cross-blog postings on a single question, a range of blogs are posting on the question of ‘How relevant are motives in assessing the public policies stance of a politician or commentator?‘
Seeing I’m a politician, you can all answer the question for yourself by considering how much you are taking into account what you think my motives are when you assess what I say on this question (or any other question).
It’s no secret my short-term motive is to get re-elected to the Senate in Queensland at this year’s election. It is also no secret that this will not be particularly easy, although it is certainly achievable. So a person could dismiss every comment I make by assuming that I’m only saying it to try to get re-elected.
It is certainly true that I hope what I say and do does help me get re-elected, but that doesn’t mean that what I say is dishonest or disingenuous or without substance. My arguments should still stand or fall on their own merits.
One of the reasons I usually try to avoid using this blog as a vehicle for blatant partisan political party promotion is because I feel people who I am trying to convince of something would just discount much of what I say as being self-serving. Instead, I try to use the substance of the argument to try to convince people, rather than take an approach which relies on asserting something is right just because it’s me or the Democrats saying it. Hopefully this will make them more likely to be convinced by whatever position it is I am arguing.
There’s no cut and dried line between these things, more a matter of emphasis, and I think the same applies with the question. It is useful to take into account a person’s motive in assessing the substance of their position, particularly if you only have limited time or other information. But a person’s motive does not in itself establish whether what they are saying is accurate or not.
I try very hard to consider every argument on its merits, rather than on who is saying it. However, it is human nature (and just a more efficient use of time) to take into account what you know about a person’s motives and record. I need more convincing about an argument if it comes from someone I know has a record of sophistry or exaggeration. And of course, knowing a person’s broader political orientation, motives or beliefs can help in filling the wider context that may underlie the person’s arguments.
Of course in politics, there is a greater than usual expectation that the speaker might not be telling the truth, or at least not the whole truth. That means looking at motive can carry greater weight than usual. But as Harry Clarke notes, exposing the motive behind an opinion does not itself mean that it is false. Just because John Howard doesn’t have a genuine commitment to addressing climate change does not in itself mean that any policy proposal he puts up on the issue will be flawed. However, it does mean he is less likely to actually keep his word on implementing such a policy.
Which brings me back to my key motive, which is to take every opportunity to remind people that making the Senate independent of the government of the day once again, and having effective, reliable people in the balance of power is one of the best ways to make sure governments keep their word, act more openly and implement good policy, whatever their other motives are.
You can read other posts responding to this question at:
- Harry Clarke
- View from Benambra
- Joshua Gans
- Tim Dunlop at Blogocracy
- Kim at Larvatus Prodeo
- Ken Parish at Club Troppo
- Tigtog at Hoyden About Town