How do you know if someone is good at heart or if they’re expecting something in return? Should it matter to me what people’s motives are when they act well?

  1. You nailed it in one. Your second question: no, it shouldn’t matter. One, because others’ motives are unknowable, two because others’ motives are almost always mixed. More than one drive, more than one argument, more than one reason rises in us when we determine what we’ll do. We’re there in the moment feeling all these reasons to do and all the reasons not to, and we add our judgment as the tiebreaker. Sometimes there are three big reasons to do something and one little reason not to, but we go case by case. In this moment we may add weight to the little reason and refrain. Or we may add weight to one of the big reasons and it’s a landslide victory for DO IT.

But all the motives were in there. All of them were working. The fact one particular motive you don’t like was in there too is no reason to assume that it was the main driver – or that other reasons you like better weren’t also in there strong. Check it out, in your scenario: even a person who hopes for moral reward, or social reward (in how you’ll see them and be disposed to them) is almost always also doing it for the pure good feeling they get from being good and doing good. From acting with their desires to be a good thing in the world. That’s pleasurable, man! It feels good to be good.

So if you want, you could call it selfish. Any reward of pleasure and enjoyment is a reward for the self. But what does it get you to cut all things down to cynicism? If it feels good to do well, to be good, then what that really tells us is this person is a good being. Something in their essential nature or personal inclination cries out for the satisfaction or fulfillment of good being. Good doing. Should it not feel good?

Good feels good to be. To do. Selfish. But if you care about other people, then the amazing flip that happens is: you begin to find the greatest part of your “own good” in their own good. This isn’t anybody’s idea of “selfish” – yet still they will get that selfish reward of pleasure, in knowing they could be good to you, good for you, and did. Good for them!

Good for you is good for them.

What’s it matter if mixed up in all that, they think that being good to you also adds to the tally in their moral deserts column? So they believe in karma, or heaven, or whatever other mechanism. These kinds of beliefs just amount to a belief that good is good and should be rewarded. This is a belief about life and the world, about justice, about good itself – about how people should be to each other – far more than it’s selfish. It is no more selfish than social reward – wanting you to like them. Well of course they’d want you to like them if they think you’re cool, good, nice or interesting! It’s no more selfish than the good feeling of pleasure in fulfillment and satisfaction of some inner need or desire to be good.

Here’s the only time a selfish motive could be a concern: when the person is seeking their own good at your cost or loss. To your detriment. Cruel or callous selfishness. But that’s not what you’re talking about here. Their own idea of moral deserts is no skin off your back. Nor is any hoped-for social benefit (which really, they believe is or would be your benefit too, in them). Nor is their pleasure in being or doing well.

You don’t know what their motives are anyway. Me? I assume the best/most harmless motive for another’s statement or act. It’s not a moral thing. I just find it helps me react better, stronger and clearer from what they’ve actually given me, without getting lost in a forest of motives and other unknowns. It gives me my best strongest response, and proceeding that way we always find out between us what we’re about – and what we’re really after.


The only thing you can do is to wait and observe and not commit to anything with them. Over a period of time, it will become clearer what that person’s motives are.

The good you are speaking of is really “transcendent love” versus the more expected quid pro quo (“give to get” which is a strategic way to get something).

In today’s culture, the false kindness used to get something is so common, that many young people never even learn about (much less practice) a transcendent love type of goodness*.

So don’t be shocked if quid pro quo is by far the majority of interactions. Even wanting to be accepted is an expectation and is not a transcendent form of “good”.

So “wait and observe” to see what takes place after the initial or 2nd interaction and almost for sure, the person will display something of their expectation (often a judgment that they expect us to respond in some way they we haven’t).

I hope this helps….

*: these three together form my definition of goodness (based on monotheism)…

  • Transcendent love: a free gift of hoping for the virtuous betterment of ourselves and others. It is unconditional with no expectations in return and frees us and others of our fears so we can gain confidence, understanding and skill without being angry or defensive.
  • Virtue: truthful, wise, logical, prudent, trustworthy, praiseworthy, just, self-restraint, lacking corruption, forgiving, organized, clean, caring, principled, wisely generous, intelligent, humble, courageous.
  • Wisdom: allows us to avoid traps and guides us to success using accumulated insights into what works and what doesn’t work in life and relationships.

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