Intent and Purpose

Nathan Richardson

In a series of previous posts beginning with “There Are No One-ended Sticks,” I described two broad currents in psychology that compete for our loyalty and adherence. Beginning with certain assumptions about the nature of self, they lead to different conclusions regarding how we can understand reality, what freedom and agency are, and what is right and wrong. Depending on which paradigm we adopt, we end up with two different ideas of the intent and purpose behind our actions and choices in life. (The following discussion relies heavily on a thesis by Renée Beckwith,1 and I am indebted to her for her insights.)


In the first paradigm, each individual chooses for himself what is right and wrong, and freedom consists of pursuing those desires with no obligations to other selves, except those which the individual voluntarily chooses. Therefore, the main purpose or intent behind each action then becomes maximizing personal gain. There are two ways to do this: ignoring the desires of others, or giving space for others’ desires to increase the odds of obtaining your own desires. “As long you see the individual and the community as independent, there will never be harmony between them. On one end you will have hostility—one encroaching upon the other—and the other end you have permissiveness, or non-involvement.”2 (An example of this ethic exists in the fictional series Star Trek, in which the Prime Directive is non-interference; the highest moral good is seen as not treading on anyone’s feet by interacting with their choices.)

Thus, some attempt to maximize personal gain in spite of the desires and intents of others, while some see considering others’ desires as a useful auxiliary to advancing their own. Both approaches, however, use people; the only difference is whether the Other consents to being used. In this paradigm, “man … cares little about the needs of the other and is concerned with them only insofar as they affect his personal interests. … People become objects that either hinder or facilitate personal objectives and are treated in a purely instrumental fashion.” Governments and laws become a way that people “agree to contractual restraints on the ways everyone may pursue their interests” so that individuals are not hindered in their pursuits. This is not because hindering another is inherently wrong, but rather because it increases the odds that someone else will hinder you. “This ideal of moral autonomy, in turn, forms the basis for the justice tradition’s stress on the dignity of the individual person.”4

In this paradigm, if a person and her attachments inconvenience you, then she ceases to be relevant in your ultimate intent of maximizing personal gain. This paradigm cannot account for genuine love or altruism; it ends up reducing love to a phenomenon that can be explained by selfish motives, such as passing on your genes or indebting another to you.


In this paradigm, all selves are inherently connected by obligations that they did not choose. Selfhood is impossible without them, and thus the purpose and intent of individual lives must involve, at least in part, honoring and fulfilling those natural and indelible bonds. This perspective creates the possibility that people can do things “just because they should.” People keep promises, people help strangers, and spouses stay married. They can do these things not in order to maximize personal gain or increase the odds that others will fulfill their desires or to build up good karma that will some day pay off (although some may have those reasons). They can do these things simply because “that’s the way things ought to be.” Their very makeup calls for those actions as a facticity of existence. Perhaps that is why Paul calls charity “the pure love of Christ”—mixing in any other motives only dilutes our selfless love for another.

Because this paradigm includes the idea that we are all connected, it implies that when I help another, his happiness inevitably increases my own. Joy is not a finite commodity, and any increase in genuine joy is an increase in joy for each individual. But this fact does not necessarily negate the previous idea, that we can act selflessly. In fact, in order to truly do right to the Other, we must forget ourselves, because thinking of our needs first is a distorted perspective of the reality that my self (and therefore my needs) inherently includes all other selves. If I ignore that fact of relatedness by thinking of myself as having true needs that genuinely conflict with the happiness of others, then I cannot truly honor my bonds to them or serve them. By forgetting myself, I am most able to serve others, which only tangentially happens to fulfill myself as well.


I had a hard time thinking of how to write the “Other-interest” section of this article (in fact, this whole series has been a very difficult task). I think that may be the case for two reasons. First, the Self-interest paradigm is one we hear explained and corroborated so often, and on so many different fronts—in economics, in biology, and in law. So it was much easier to articulate because we all hear it described so often in so many areas of life.

But second, perhaps it’s because the first paradigm, Self-interest, relies on rational thought and articulation for its power. Because it can be described verbally, it has a certain appeal and ethos. It begins on the page and works its way into our hearts. The second paradigm, Other-interest, is harder to articulate, at least for me. It begins in the heart, and only works its way onto the page, into articulable expression, after much pondering, patience, and brain-sweat. To me, that is one sign that it is true. In spite of my weakness and inability to express it as aptly, it continues to press itself on me. To say it another way, it feels real in the same way as my love for my wife. I learned a long time ago not to dismiss realities just because I have a hard time describing them. Indeed, they are often the most import realities of all.


1. Renée Beckwith, “Exploring Maternal Ambivalence: Comparing Findings with Two Opposing Paradigms of Intent,” master’s thesis (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University, 2003), p. 28.
2. Dorothy Lee, Valuing the Self: What We can Learn from Other Cultures (Illinois: Waveland Press, 1986), p. 24.
3. Virginia Held, “Mothering versus Contract“; in Jane J. Mansbridge (ed.), Beyond Self-interest (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1990), p. 296.
4. E. F. Kittay and D. T. Meyers (eds.). Women and Moral Theory (Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Littlefield, 1987), p. 5.