This is an excerpt from The Ethics of Manipulation (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). Highly recommended for anyone interested in this topic.
3. Answering the Evaluation Question
A complete answer to the evaluation question should tell us about the sort of wrongfulness that manipulation possesses: Is it absolutely immoral, pro tanto immoral, prima facie immoral, etc.? It should also tell us when manipulation is immoral if it is not always immoral. Finally, a satisfactory answer to the evaluation question should tell us what makes manipulation immoral in cases where it is immoral.
3.1 Is Manipulation Always Wrong?
Suppose that Tonya is a captured terrorist who has hidden a bomb in the city and that her preferred course of action is to keep its location secret until it to explodes. And suppose that Irving is an FBI interrogator who wants Tonya to reveal the bomb’s location before it explodes. How would this way filling in the details of the case change our moral assessment of the various ways that Irving might induce Tonya to change her mind?
One rather extreme answer would be: “not at all”. This hardline view would hold that manipulation is always morally wrong, no matter what the consequences. Inasmuch as this hardline view resembles Kant’s notorious hardline position that lying is always wrong, one might look to Kant’s ethics for considerations to support it. But just as hardly anyone accepts Kant’s hardline position against lying, the hardline view against manipulation also seems short on defenders.
A less extreme position would be that while manipulation is always pro tanto wrong, other moral considerations can sometimes outweigh the pro tanto wrongness of manipulation. Thus, we might think that manipulation is always wrong to some extent, but that countervailing moral factors might sometimes suffice to make manipulation justified on balance. What might such factors include? One obvious candidate would be consequences—for example, the fact that Irving’s successful manipulation of Tonya would save many innocent lives. Non-consequentialist factors might also be thought to be countervailing considerations: Perhaps the immorality of Tonya’s character, or the fact that she is acting on an evil desire or intention, is a countervailing factor that can outweigh the pro tanto wrongness of Irving’s manipulation. It is important to note that, on this view, the fact that an action involves manipulation is always a moral reason to avoid it, even if stronger countervailing considerations render it not wrong on balance. For example, even if Irving’s manipulation of Terrorist Tonya is not wrong on balance (e.g., because of the innocent lives that will be saved), if Irving can get Tonya to reveal the bomb’s location without manipulation (or anything else that is comparably immoral), then it would be morally better to avoid manipulating her.
By contrast, we might hold that manipulation is merely prima facie immoral. On this view, there is a presumption that manipulation is immoral, but this presumption can be defeated in some situations. When the presumption is defeated, manipulation is not wrong at all (i.e., not even pro tanto wrong). On this view, we might say that while manipulation is usually wrong, it is not wrong at all in the terrorist scenario. On this view, not only is Irving’s manipulation of Terrorist Tonya not wrong on balance, but there is not even any moral reason for him to choose a non-manipulative method of getting Tonya to reveal the bomb’s location if one is available.
A more complex—but, perhaps, ultimately more plausible—view would combine the prima facie and pro tanto approaches. Such a view would hold that manipulation is prima facie immoral, but that when it is wrong, the wrongness is pro tanto rather than absolute. On this view, there are situations in which the presumption against manipulation is defeated and manipulation is not even pro tanto wrong. Perhaps bluffing in poker is like this. But where the presumption is not defeated, the wrongness of manipulation is only pro tanto, and thus able to be outweighed by sufficiently weighty countervailing moral considerations. In such cases, even if it is not wrong on balance to manipulate, it would still be morally preferable to avoid manipulation in favor of some other, morally legitimate, form of influence. Manipulating a friend into refraining from sending a text to rekindle an abusive relationship might be an example where the pro tanto wrongness of manipulation is outweighed by other considerations. In such a case, it seems plausible to maintain that it would be morally preferable to use reason rather than manipulation to get one’s friend to see that sending the text would be a mistake, even if the facts of the situation would justify resorting to manipulation. A view along these lines has been defended by Marcia Baron (2014: 116–17). Although this view is far less absolute than the hardline view, it retains the claim that manipulation is prima facie wrong, so that there is always a presumption that it is immoral, though this presumption is sometimes defeated. It is also compatible with the idea that the term “manipulation” has built into it a connotation of moral dis-approbation.
However, the claim that manipulation is presumptively wrong might be challenged. One might argue that “manipulation” is, or at least should be, a morally neutral term without even the presumption of immorality. On this view, whether a given instance of manipulation is immoral will always depend on the facts of the situation, and the term itself includes (or should include) no presumption one way or the other. Clearly there are non-moralized notions of manipulation. When we speak of a scientist manipulating variables in an experiment, or a pilot manipulating the plane’s controls, our use of the term is devoid of any hint of moral opprobrium. In the social sciences, we can find cases of the term “manipulation” being used in a morally neutral way even when another person is the target of manipulation. For example, several papers by the evolutionary psychologist David M. Buss and colleagues use the term “manipulation” more or less as a synonym for “influence” in their discussions of how humans influence the behavior of other humans (D.M. Buss 1992; D.M. Buss et al. 1987). Of course, pointing out morally neutral usages of “manipulation” does not really settle the question of whether we should prefer a moralized or a non-moralized notion of manipulation. An argument for preferring a non-moralized notion of manipulation is provided by Allen Wood, who writes that
If we think that moral argument should proceed not merely by invoking our pro- or con- sentiments, or appealing to our unargued intuitions, but instead by identifying objective facts about a situation that give us good reasons for condemning or approving certain things, then we would generally do much better to use a non-moralized sense of words like “coercion”, “manipulation”, and “exploitation”—a sense in which these words can be used to refer to such objective facts. (Wood 2014: 19–20)
No matter how we answer the question of whether manipulation in general is absolutely immoral, prima facie immoral, pro tanto immoral, or not even presumptively immoral, there are clearly situations in which manipulation is immoral. Any complete answer to the evaluation question must explain why manipulation is immoral in those cases where it is immoral. In addition, any view that holds that manipulation is only pro tanto and/or prima facie immoral should tell us what sorts of considerations can defeat the presumption that it is immoral and/or outweigh its pro tanto immorality. Several accounts have been offered to identify the source of the moral wrongfulness of manipulation (when it is wrong).
3.2 Manipulation and Harm
Perhaps the most straightforward way to explain the wrongfulness of manipulation (when it is wrong) points to the harm done to its targets. Manipulation is commonly used aggressively, as a way to harm the manipulator’s target, or at least to benefit the manipulator at the target’s expense. The harmfulness of manipulation seems especially salient in manipulative relationships, where manipulation may lead to subordination and even abuse. The more minor economic harm of the extraction of money from consumers is often pointed to as a wrong-making feature of manipulative advertising, and there has been some discussion of how manipulation might lead targets to enter into exploitative contracts. Systematic political manipulation may weaken democratic institutions and perhaps even lead to tyranny.
It is commonly held that harmfulness is always a wrong-making feature—though perhaps one that is only prima facie or pro tanto. Thus, it seems reasonable to think that instances of manipulation that harm their victims are, for that reason, at least pro tanto or prima facie immoral. But not all instances of manipulation harm their victims. In fact, manipulation sometimes benefits its target. If the harm to the victim is the only wrong-making feature of manipulation, then paternalistic or beneficent manipulation could never be even pro tanto wrong. But this claim strikes most people as implausible. To see this, consider that the debate about whether paternalistic nudges are wrongfully manipulative is not settled simply by pointing out that they benefit their targets. The fact that it seems possible for an act to be wrongfully manipulative, even though it benefits (and is intended to benefit) the target, presumably explains why there are few, if any, defenses of the claim that manipulation is wrong only when and because it harms the target. Nevertheless, it seems plausible to hold that when manipulation does harm its target, this harm adds to the wrongness of the manipulative behavior.
3.3 Manipulation and Autonomy
Perhaps the most common account of the wrongness of manipulation claims that it violates, undermines, or is otherwise antithetical to the target’s personal autonomy. The reason for this is easy to see: Manipulation, by definition, influences decision-making by means that—unlike rational persuasion—are not clearly autonomy-preserving. Thus, it is natural to regard it as interfering with autonomous decision-making. The idea that manipulation is wrong because it undermines autonomous choice is implicit in discussions of manipulation as a potential invalidator of consent. Indeed, the assumption that manipulation undermines autonomy is so common in discussions of manipulation and consent that it would be difficult to cite a paper on that topic that does not at least implicitly treat manipulation as undermining autonomous choice. But even outside of discussions of autonomous consent, the claim that manipulation is immoral because it undermines autonomy commonly made (and perhaps even more commonly assumed).
However, there are reasons for caution about tying the moral status of manipulation too tightly to its effects on autonomy. One can imagine cases where it is not obvious that manipulation undermines autonomy. One can even imagine cases where a manipulative act might enhance the target’s overall autonomy. For example, a teacher might manipulate a student into taking a course of study which ultimately enhances her autonomy by opening new career options, improving her skills of critical self-reflection, etc. We might also imagine cases where manipulation is used to support the target’s autonomous choice. Suppose that Tonya has autonomously decided to leave an abusive partner, but that she is now tempted to go back. If Irving resorts to a manipulative tactic designed to nudge her away from backsliding on her autonomous choice to leave her abuser, then his action might seem less like undermining Tonya’s autonomy and more like reinforcing it.
One might respond that these examples do not undermine the claim that manipulation is wrong when and because it undermines autonomy because these autonomy-enhancing instances of manipulation are not wrong. However, this response faces a complication: Consider the case where Irving manipulates Tonya into resisting the temptation to backslide on her resolution to leave her abusive partner. It seems plausible to say that Irving’s manipulation in this case is not wrong on balance. But it also seems plausible to say that it was nevertheless pro tanto wrong since it seems plausible to think that it would have been morally preferable for Irving to find some other way to help Tonya avoid backsliding. But even the claim that Irving’s autonomy-enhancing manipulation is merely pro tanto wrong seems inconsistent with the claim that manipulation is wrong when and because it undermines autonomy. Of course, it is open to defenders of the autonomy account of the wrongness of manipulation to bite the bullet here and deny that autonomy-enhancing manipulation is even pro tanto immoral.
Alternatively—and perhaps more plausibly—the defender of the autonomy account of the wrongness of manipulation might concede that Irving’s autonomy-enhancing manipulation of Tonya is pro tanto wrong. But she might explain this by claiming that while the manipulation is autonomy-enhancing overall, it nevertheless undermines Tonya’s autonomy in the short term. The fact that Irving’s manipulation undermines Tonya’s autonomy temporarily explains why it is pro tanto immoral—and why it would be morally better for Irving to find a non-manipulative way to help Tonya avoid backsliding. But the fact that the manipulation enhances Tonya’s autonomy overall explains why it is not immoral on balance. Of course, this strategy will not appeal to those who hold that it is wrong to undermine a person’s autonomy even when doing so enhances that same person’s overall autonomy.
A more significant threat to the link between manipulation and autonomy appears in an influential paper by Sarah Buss. She argues that “when we are obligated to refrain from manipulation or deceiving one another, this has relatively little to do with the value of autonomy” (S. Buss 2005: 208). Buss’s argument has two parts. First, she claims that manipulation does not, in fact, deprive its victim of the ability to make choices; indeed, it typically presupposes that the target will make her own choice. But if the manipulation does not take away the target’s choice, Buss maintains, it does not undermine her autonomy. (For a similar argument, see Long 2014). Second, Buss argues that it is false to claim that an autonomous agent would rationally reject being subjected to manipulative influences. To support this claim, Buss argues that manipulation and deception are “pervasive forms of human interaction which are often quite benign and even valuable” (S. Buss 2005: 224). Her most notable example is the cultivation of romantic love, which often involves—and may even require—significant amounts of behavior that is aptly described as manipulation.
Defenders of the link between autonomy and the wrongness of manipulation are not without potential replies to Buss’s intriguing argument. For one thing, it seems possible to craft a notion of autonomy according to which having false information (or other faulty mental states) or being subjected to pressure (even when it does not rise to the level of coercion) compromise a person’s autonomy. Even though false beliefs about how to achieve one’s ends may not compromise one’s authentic values or one’s powers of practical reasoning, they do seem to compromise one’s ability to achieve one’s autonomously-chosen ends, and it is plausible to regard this as a diminishment of (some form of) autonomy. Moreover, the defender of the link between autonomy and the wrongness of manipulation might simply deny that the forms of manipulation to which an autonomous agent would consent (for example, those required by romantic love) are wrongful cases of manipulation.
3.4 Manipulation and Treating Persons as Things
Several accounts of manipulation tie its moral status to the fact that it influences behavior by methods that seem analogous to how one might operate a tool or a device. On this view, manipulation involves treating the target as a device to be operated rather than an agent to be reasoned with. As Claudia Mills puts it,
a manipulator is interested in reasons not as logical justifiers but as causal levers. For the manipulator, reasons are tools, and bad reasons can work as well as, or better than, a good one. (Mills 1995: 100–101)
The point here is that a manipulator treats his target not as a fellow rational agent, for that would require giving good reasons for doing as the manipulator proposes. Instead, the manipulator treats his target as a being whose behavior is to be elicited by pressing the most effective “causal levers”.
Of course, the idea that treating a person as a mere object is immoral is a prominent feature of Kant’s account of respect for persons (see entry on respect). Thus, it would be natural to appeal to Kantian ideas to help elaborate the idea that manipulation is wrong because of the way that it treats its target. Thus, for example, Thomas E. Hill writes,
The idea that one should try to reason with others rather than to manipulate them by nonrational techniques is manifest in Kant’s discussion of the duty to respect others. (Hill 1980: 96)
Although Kant’s moral philosophy (see entry) is a natural place to look for the idea that the wrongfulness of manipulation derives from a failure to treat the target as a person, there are potential drawbacks to tying the account too tightly to Kant. For Kant’s notion of rational agency appears to be of the hyper-cognitive, hyper-intellectual variety. Hence, if it is unethical to fail to treat someone as that kind of rational agent, we might be pushed toward the conclusion that the only acceptable basis for human interaction is the kind of coldly intellectual rational persuasion that excludes any appeal to emotions. But as we saw earlier, there are good reasons for regarding such a conclusion as implausible.
These considerations certainly do not entail that it is hopeless to look to some notion of treating persons as things for an account of the wrongfulness of manipulation. But they do suggest that more work must be done before the claim that manipulation is wrong because it treats a person as a mere thing can be regarded as much more than a platitude.
3.5 Other Suggestions
Although harm, autonomy, and treating persons as things are the most prominent suggestions about what makes manipulation wrong when it is wrong, one can find other suggestions in the literature. For example, Marcia Baron’s virtue-theoretic account of manipulativeness suggests that we might account for what is wrong about manipulation in terms of the character of the manipulator (Baron 2003). Patricia Greenspan suggests that when manipulation is immoral, it is because it violates the terms of the relationship between the manipulator and his target—terms that will vary according to the nature of the relationship between them (Greenspan 2003). Such a view suggests—plausibly—that the moral status of a given instance of manipulation will depend at least in part on the nature of the relationship between the influencer and the target of the influence.