What Is the Motive Behind the Action?

Pastor Marvin Arnpriester

Food for thought. I received an email from Bill Cotton, a retired pastor in Iowa. He is a writer of sermon starters based on a Biblical text each week. He shares the following story of his dad’s influence on him:

Once in a Christian ethics course, I had to write a paper defining German philosopher Immanuel Kant’s famous rule, The Categorical Imperative: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” I wasn’t sure what Kant meant.

My dad was a farmer and a person who loved ideas, so I asked him to explain. We were feeding the cattle. He thought for a minute and said, “See that cow over by the fence? She looks good, but the fellow I bought her from gypped me—she has a disease that will keep her from having calves. I asked the guy if she had been tested. He said she had. He told me a lie. I will be selling cattle next week at auction. What do you suppose I should tell the buyer if he asks? And what should I tell him if he doesn’t ask?”

Well, my dad was a Golden-Rule Methodist. He had not read Kant, but he understood perfectly the warning that is implied: If one person tells a lie, then everyone is entitled to lie, and the truth will hang in the balance. Integrity is lost.

So, what if the person who lies is an important person like the pastor, teacher, elected official? We were taught to look up to them as models of integrity. In Kant’s view, the sole feature that gives an action moral worth is not the outcome that is achieved by the action, but the motive that is behind the action.

I remember that day with my dad: He took the loss, told the truth, and ended the lie. He understood integrity.

In our culture today, integrity seems to be on the wane. I am deeply troubled by that reality. My dad taught me both, by what he said and what he did, that everything important in life grows out of our personal integrity. I have long understood one of the most important ways we see integrity defined. It is in the congruency between what one says and what one does. Integrity!