Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The Ethical Harm of Manipulation

My department assembled today to meet a candidate for an adjunct section of Intro to Philosophy today. It was fun to get together with the whole department and have some intellectual conversation--something I haven't had much of lately. Our candidate gave a mini-lecture on the "Allegory of the Cave," but his job talk spun into a much more interesting and, at least for me, enlightening discussion on what the true nature of manipulation is and why it is different from what Philosophy ought to be. While our candidate was discussing this in relation to the process and practice of Philosophy, I wanted to expound a bit more on the ethical harm of manipulation.

Manipulation always entails a desire to dominate--have power over--another person. In fact, those who manipulate others--whether they be students, their "loved ones," the citizenry--are demonstrating that they do not believe the one who they are manipulating to be a free subject. To put it another way, manipulators do not respect their "prey." The way that most manipulators proceed is by either lying to the other, suppressing information, or distorting information. The whole goal of manipulation is to prevent--at all costs--that the other will arrive at conclusions differently from your own. The manipulator must control the other's decisions and force him or her to reach only the manipulator's conclusions.

There is no room for dissent, debate, or even dialogue. The manipulator does not treat the other as an equal. And, what is meant by equal here is a moral person, someone who should be afforded full information and respect in his or her reasoning abilities to arrive at the best conclusions. To treat the other as an equal means refraining from lies, distortion, ad hominems, propaganda, and/or threats.

I appreciated thinking of manipulation in connection with domination because it helped me clarify why the attacks against college professors by the right (e.g. the liberal professoriate are trying to manipulate students) are so misguided. There is a difference between inciting students--challenging students to question their beliefs--and denying them the right to disagree with you and to ultimately reject what you are presenting them. Those who manipulate do exactly that--and they use propaganda to do so. The goal of the manipulator is to make it impossible for you to find a way out of the belief system that he or she is presenting you with--to deny that there is another way to look at something.

Clearly, professors who are trying to shake up their students by challenging some of their most cherished beliefs, or just challenging the current administration, are not, by inciting alone, manipulating their students.

Ultimately, this clarification of what manipulation is far more helpful to me in making sense of personal relationships. We can all think of people in our lives who have tried to manipulate us to bend to their will. And, while being manipulated--especially once we realize it is happening--causes us suffering, I have always struggled to say exactly what kind of harm has been inflicted on us. The harm inflicted is that we have been treated as objects; we have been denied our dignity (as Kant would put it). Those who manipulate us, frankly, don't think much of us.