Sunday, February 05, 2006

Robert LeFevre - Emotion and Motivation

Index: Robert LeFevre Commentary Abstracts

LeFevre heads towards the steak tartare of his sixty monologues, in this straight-talking piece. With an opening that could have come directly from the preface of Human Action, LeFevre discusses human emotion and motivation. He postulates that there are four basic motivational patterns guiding human action; (1) the avoidance of loss; (2) the acquisition of gain; (3) the gaining of respect; and (4) the seeking of self-esteem. The balancing of these four motivational patterns, he declares, leads to all normal human behavior. At several points he puts forward brilliant insights, all of them appearing obvious with hindsight, on how each individual balances these four quadrants, thus unmasking the human condition. In this, the fourth of his talks, the Maestro compels you to listen; the piece ends just when you want LeFevre to go on, which is of course the classic sign of a classic speaker in action.

Emotion and Motivation - MP3 Audio File

There is only one reason why a man acts; because he wants to obtain something. Man is a creature of desires and motivation, but because he is a rational being he lacks a pre-supplied list of wants when he is born. However, each man discovers early in his mental development the nature of cause and effect relationships.

If a child failed to discern the various principles behind cause and effect, he would probably miss the lesson of learning to act. He could only become like a tree, putting down roots and putting up leaves and letting nature takes its course.

But what is driving us to desire certain effects above others? We usually feel such desires, wants, and needs emotionally, though we like to think we’re simply being rational. Historically this rationalist attitude may have taken hold because we used to think that the brain was the intellectual seat of rationalism and that the mere superfluousity of emotion came from the heart, or the spleen, or the liver.

But emotion is deeply intertwined with rationalism in the brain, as we can witness when we perform a lobotomy. As well as losing much rational thought, a lobotomized patient also loses much of their emotion.

(We have to remember that LeFevre delivered this talk in 1970.)

Because of this deep intertwining of rationalism with emotion, ideas are tremendously individualistic. As individuals we choose discrete packets of information from the world around us and relate them to ourselves in entirely unique ways to create our own personalized ideologies which ultimately govern our own individual human actions.

(You may like to see my article on the iPod Wars which heads into this kind of territory.)

However, although individual men may possess many different ideas, all of mankind tends towards the same emotional and intrinsic instinctive drives at the root of each of these personal ideologies. This is independent of creed or color. In other words, intellectual ideas vary widely between men, but our basic emotional drives remain very similar.

What about the dichotomy here? Surely we behave rationally rather than instinctively? Surely our behavior rises above the instinctoid nature of insects? But LeFevre is only putting forward a platform for where our motivational drives arise from. The actual behaviors themselves can be entirely rational, he claims, given the motivations. For instance, we used to say that every man had a basic instinct for self-preservation. But this is false.

Rather than any such basic instinct of self-preservation, LeFevre claims that there are four basic motivational patterns driving our rational behaviors. The first is that all men have a tendency to prevent loss. If a man has something he values he will seek to preserve it or diminish its loss. Therefore if a man ceases to place a high value on his life, he may take risks with it. Further, if a man's life becomes burdensome to him, he may even do away with himself.

(Especially if he lives in a high-suicide socialist utopia such as Sweden.)

Therefore it is manifestly untrue that all of us try to maintain instinctive self-preservation at all costs. We may trade our lives for something we hold of more value than our lives. Many have gone to the gallows or walked into the lions’ den rather than deny something they held to be true, or betray a friend or loved one.

(LeFevre avoids saying that the state itself is propped up on the noble altar of soldiers hurling themselves at the deadly defensive spears of the enemy, but you can feel the implicit thought hovering in the background.)

Men often trade things they consider of higher value for their lives. Some men live quiet retiring lives and minimize all risk. But some men find this kind of life unbearable. Stunt pilots and racing drivers, for example, enjoy chancing their lives on the altar of risk and many of us place more value on how we live our lives, rather than on how we can continue to maintain a basic existence.

So if all men act to minimize or prevent loss, what is the second motivational principle according to LeFevre? All men will act to promote personal gain.

So what's the difference between minimizing loss and maximizing gain?

(It’s at this point that LeFevre makes a point which could explain the whole security-based raison d'être behind the initial formation of all states.)
  • When men anticipate a loss, they try to get in with the group

  • When men anticipate a gain, they try to get by themselves
LeFevre does not claim this as a principle, but only as a high probability. He is aware of counter-examples, but to put it simply: If there's a loss, we want to share it. If there's a gain, we want to keep it for ourselves. We are egocentric, he states, and the most important person in the eyes of any individual is always that self-same individual.

However, there is more to it than simple pure self-centered egotism. LeFevre’s third motivational principle is that all men act to gain approval from others. This is not necessarily from all others. Indeed, we may even take pleasure from the disapproval of certain others. However, we do seek approval from at least some others.

What about rugged individualists?

LeFevre claims that even rugged individualists are trying to appeal to a very small group of other similar rugged individualists. There may be a woodsman up in the mountains of Colorado who claims he cares nothing for the thoughts of others. But if in some other mountain range another similar rugged woodsman approved of this attitude, then our man in Colorado would probably allow the trace of a smile to crease his cragged whisky-stained lips.

Even a child, says LeFevre, will sometimes invent an imaginary friend to gain approval from someone else. Other people don’t even have to like us. They just have to understand our lives to the point of lending us their grudging respect or approval.

Some people need respect from just one approver. Some people need a few approvers. And a few people may need many approvers. But the principle is there, that we are all seekers of some form of approval. Why? Because we have to feel, to at least some measurable extent, that we fit in with some part of society and that our lives are working well.

This is particularly true of businessmen, often self-proclaimed rugged individualists, who are always seeking the approval of others via the activity of goods and services provision. A businessman needs to be in tune with others to survive and prosper. Although he may like to think he is a rugged individualist, he needs to concentrate on the needs of others all the time in order to anticipate these needs so that he can fulfill them; obviously this particular need for approval is for a dollar profit, not that there's anything wrong with that, but it is still based upon the thinking of others nevertheless.

So what of LeFevre’s fourth principle?

All men act to gain approval from themselves, or what you might call self-respect or self-esteem. According to the medical profession, a decline in self-esteem can often cause psychological problems. For instance, a guilt complex can create all sorts of complications and we can even become physically ill if we over-criticize ourselves. We must maintain self-esteem, to at least a certain point, to prevent ourselves entering a potential realm of mental imbalance. One of the best ways to gain self-approval is to behave in a way that we personally approve of. Doing things we may think fun, but that we morally disapprove of, can trigger a downward spiral into mental imbalance.

(I think Professor Hoppe would have some fun here, discussing decivilisation.)

In summation then, according to LeFevre, to be emotionally healthy we need to approve ourselves, get approval from others, seek gain, and avoid loss. Therefore, every human being, by their nature, is a Profit Seeker.

(At this point Bob asks the audience to avoid jumping up too high. The point he has just made is the ultimate given of this talk, but he does acknowledge that he needs to explain his use of the word Profit, which he believes goes beyond the usual meaning of the word in the materialist sense.)

By Profit Seeker he does not mean purely a dollar chaser. He means a Plus Seeker; a searcher for something that is better than it otherwise was going to be. If someone mitigates a loss, this is a plus factor; if they acquire a gain, this is a plus factor; if they gain approval, this is a plus factor; and if they retain self-esteem, this is a plus factor.

Can someone extend charity, then, and still enhance their plus factor? Yes, if this act increases their personal plus factor. If a man gives a hundred dollars to his church he will almost certainly feel better after doing this than he felt beforehand. If he didn't anticipate feeling better afterwards, he wouldn't have done it in the first place. Yes, he's down financially a hundred dollars, but for that money he has bought a non-material plus factor. He may think he is going to gain a better position in the next world; he may want his church to succeed; he may want recognition as a donor of the church, to stand as an important figure in front of others; he may simply enjoy the self-approval of such an action. But however you want to frame it, fundamentally he is donating one hundred dollars to please himself; he is buying something of greater personal value than a piece of paper stamped with the image of Benjamin Franklin. There can therefore be no such thing as pure selflessness, unless someone is mentally disturbed.

(And here we get interesting.)

So what of altruism?

Altruism is impossible, says LeFevre, unless you have a mental problem, for all of the plus seeking reasons outlined above. It is impossible to place another person or thing above yourself.

What about self-sacrifice?

You can sacrifice others, by throwing them into the lions' den, but if you throw yourself into the lion's den, this is self-fulfillment rather than self-sacrifice.

(Your abstract writer was staggered when he first heard the above LeFevre statement!)

But what of an acquaintance of LeFevre’s who said they had sacrificed everything to help put their daughter through a good school. Why was it sacrifice, asked LeFevre? Who held a gun to your head?

Nobody made any sacrifice. The acquaintance simply placed their daughter’s education higher in their personal list of priorities than anything else.

Only the sacrificing of others is possible, ends LeFevre. Self-sacrifice is impossible.

(It’s a topic he promises to come back to in the next piece.)

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