The Ethics Of… Manipulation

After last weeks relentless spleen-venting that was The Ethics Of Fashion, you’ll all be happy to hear I’ve gotten all the angst off my chest and am ready to start being reasonable again. For now at least.

But while my opinions on Fashion may indeed be as balanced and nuanced as a pogrom, the underlying ethics of the situation bring up an interesting question: those of you who read the article last week would have noticed that one of the two circumstances in which I argued fashion was in any way important was “When you need to manipulate someone who doesn’t think enough”.

Many of you may have brushed this off as all part of the sensationalism of the entire article, but you would be mistaken – I openly and genuinely claimed that manipulation of other people was an ethical act, indeed one of only two ethical acts in the circumstances. Given that ‘manipulation’ almost by definition implies unscrupulousness or event outright fraud, it seems practically an oxymoron to describe it as an ethical option.

“I told the boss what he wanted to hear”, or “She’s got him wrapped around her little finger”, or “He’s a heartbreaker”, or even “I talked my parents into letting me” all serve as pretty typical examples of manipulation in practice, and they all paint a fairly ugly picture of both parties involved: the manipulator as cynical, selfish and unconcerned with upsetting or hurting others, and the people being manipulated as weak, foolish or just plain clueless for allowing it to happen to them.

All in all we tend to view the act of manipulation as the act of a clever yet ruthless person toying with and exploiting another, simpler, weaker person. And this act becomes all the more foul when you realise that this involves not just the simple brutishness of ignoring the needs of the other party, but actually understanding them quite intimately, getting to know how they tick and what they hope and dream about – and then using this information to exploit them. By using empathy (which should build a concern and love for others) and twisting it for purely selfish ends, manipulation gets a particularly nasty reputation as a concept – this is much the same as the we often view acts of brutality by women as worse than those by men; all the more shocking because they clash so badly against our stereotypes of women as caring, sensitive and weak.

So arguing that using fashion to manipulate “those who don’t think enough” is probably enough to raise quite a few eyebrows. Am I seriously arguing that we should exploit the weakness of other to get what we want?

…yep. Yeah, that’s exactly what I’m saying.

Let’s skip the usual rhetoric I throw in at this point of the article (running seriously late here) and get to the point: there is a difference between manipulation and exploitation.

Exploitation is the out-and-out use of another person for your own benefit, with little or no benefit for them. It’s a deliberate or negligent act of taking time, money, resources or work from another person and denying them the benefit they could reasonably expect for it in return. Whether this is sweatshop labourers in developing countries putting in 10 hour days for miniscule wages in terrible conditions so shoe companies can make a bigger profit margin, or leading on someone who loves you for gifts, favours or entertainment despite having no intention of ever returning their sentiments, exploitation is ethically negative no matter which way you slice it. Sure, it might be possible to justify this sort of thing in certain circumstances (and as a Utilitarian I’d argue that virtually anything can be justified in the right circumstances) but removed from context exploitation leads to needless suffering and should not be accepted or allowed.

But manipulating someone is not necessarily the same as exploiting them. You should know this since you do it all the time (ooh, breaking the 4th wall to speak to the audience as individuals! Classic!).

Fashion is the obvious example; ever dressed up to give a good impression? That’s manipulation. Ever gone on a date and focussed more on your positive, attractive qualities than your mortifying flaws? Manipulation again. Ever turned the charm on with a receptionist, retail worker or café staff to get slightly better service? That’s manipulation right there. And have you ever researched a person before a business meeting, interview, date or social engagement so you’d know what they were interested in and how to they like to interact? Wanna guess what that was you were doing there?

Each and every time we put in that extra effort to improve a person’s attitude towards ourselves, we are being manipulative. Why? Because would we do it if we didn’t get something out of it? I’m not necessarily talking about improving the odds on a job interview or a discount on your coffee here – how about that warm fuzzy feeling you get when a compliment goes down well? That’s all about you bud.

Don’t believe me? Then ask yourself how you’d feel if you dropped that little compliment and got a frown in return – pretty pissed off, am I right? Why? Because you didn’t get what you wanted, and feel entitled to, out of the interaction. You went out of your way to be nice and what’d you get? Nothing! But if the entire reason for your going out your way in the first place wasn’t about making yourself feel good, then why is it important that you don’t?

This all sounds horribly cynical doesn’t it? It’s almost like I’m arguing that the foundation of everything humans do is self-interest (not yet, but I’ll get to it).

But this is where the distinction between manipulation and exploitation becomes important: there is nothing inherently wrong with manipulating other people because while manipulation may be about using our intimate knowledge about people to get what we want, this does not mean that it has to come at anyone’s expense.

Take the compliment example for example (there’s a clumsy turn of phrase for you – again, in a rush here): sure we might be acting in pure self-interest when we complement our intended target, but (assuming we’re not completely incompetent and manage to insult them in the process) how does that take anything away from the complimentee? Indeed if anything it makes them feel good as well. Wins all round!

The same goes for any of the examples I used above; dressed nice to make a good impression? Sure it might be so factually dense that it bends light, but provided there’s no attitude attached to it then who loses here? Your audience feels better towards you and you get better thought of.

Same goes for keeping the weirdness under your hat during a first date. Sure you’re holding back important information, but spilling the crazy beans all over the table is the surest way to stay single you can think of – take it from someone who knows. There’ll be plenty of time to go over each-other’s gallery of psychological quirks once you both actually know each other. And given that any defensible notion of ethics lives or dies on how well informed we are about facts relevant to the situation, how could we ever consider research into the people we interact with a negative thing?

So is manipulation a good thing now? What about all the nasty examples I gave earlier on, where I described it as “particularly foul” because it “twisted empathy for purely selfish ends”?

Indeed manipulation can lead to good or negative ends. This is because manipulation is not a ethically justified or unjustified thing in-and-of itself, but rather a tool that can be used for good or negative causes. Getting to know a person intimately so that you can get them to give you favours for free is manipulation used for exploitation and there’s nothing pretty about it. But getting to know them to brighten each other’s days, to facilitate best possible outcomes or to manage them so that they’re enjoyable to be around benefits both of you – there is no suffering so there is no problem.

Yet the fact remains that we more often associate manipulation with exploitation than we do with positive things. This might simple be because exploitation is so much more visible and noteworthy than its more positive uses. But at least in part it’s the covert nature of manipulation that makes it so prone to be used to hurt rather than help – by using a person’s inner workings to adjust their behaviour we actively ignore their autonomy as a person and show a marked lack of respect for their ability to make the right decisions themselves. Sometimes that may be necessary – hell, sometimes it’s an outright duty if the person in question is particularly dysfunctional (we all know someone who needs to be handled with kid gloves) – but it’s a dangerous slope to slip down and does nothing for our respect for the intelligence of others.

As with so many other dangerous things in life, manipulation is what you make of it. The burden rests on each of us to decide if it can be justified.


2 thoughts on “The Ethics Of… Manipulation

  1. Pingback: The Ethics Of… Entitlement | The Ethics Of

  2. Pingback: The Ethics Of… The Youth of Today | The Ethics Of

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