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The Ethics of Manipulation

Exploitation by a Narcissist

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Narcissists, Narcissistic Supply and Sources of Supply

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The Ethics of Manipulation
First published Fri Mar 30, 2018
Consider this case: Tonya plans to do Y, but Irving wants her to do X instead. Irving has tried unsuccessfully to provide Tonya with reasons for doing X rather than Y. If Irving is unwilling to resort to coercion or force, he might deploy any of the following tactics to try to influence Tonya’s choice. For example, Irving might …

Charm Tonya into wanting to please Irving by doingX.
Exaggerate the advantages of doing X and the disadvantages of doing Y, and/or understate the disadvantages of doing X and the advantages of doing Y.
Make Tonya feel guilty for preferring to doY.
Induce Tonya into an emotional state that makes doing X seem more appropriate than it really is.
Point out that doing Y will make Tonya seem less worthy and appealing to her friends.
Make Tonya feel badly about herself and portrayY as a choice that will confirm or exacerbate this feeling, and/or portray X as a choice that will disconfirm or combat it.
Do a small favor for Tonya before asking her to doX, so that she feels obligated to comply.
Make Tonya doubt her own judgment so that she will rely on Irving’s advice to do X.
Make it clear to Tonya that if she does Yrather than X, Irving will withdraw his friendship, sulk, or become irritable and generally unpleasant.
Focus Tonya’s attention on some aspect of doing Y that Tonya fears and ramp up that fear to get her to change her mind about doing Y.
Each of these tactics could reasonably be called a form of manipulation. Many also have more specific, commonplace names, such as “guilt trip” (tactic 3), “gaslighting” (tactic 8),“peer pressure” (tactic 5), “negging” (tactic 6), and “emotional blackmail” (tactic 9). Perhaps not everyone will agree that every tactic on this list is properly described as manipulation. And in some cases, whether the tactic seems manipulative may depend on various details not specified in the case as described. For example, if Y is seriously immoral, then perhaps it is not manipulative for Irving to induce Tonya to feel guilty about planning to do Y. It is also possible that we might revise our judgments about some of these tactics in light of a fully worked out and well supported theory of manipulation—if we had one. Nevertheless, this list should provide a reasonably good sense of what we mean by“manipulation” in the present context. It should also serve to illustrate the wide variety of tactics commonly described as manipulation.

Manipulation is often characterized as a form of influence that is neither coercion nor rational persuasion. But this characterization immediately raises the question: Is every form of influence that is neither coercion nor rational persuasion a form of manipulation? If manipulation does not occupy the entire logical space of influences that are neither rational persuasion nor coercion, then what distinguishes it from other forms of influence that are neither coercion nor rational persuasion?

The term “manipulation” is commonly thought to include an element of moral disapprobation: To say that Irving manipulated Tonya is commonly taken to be a moral criticism of Irving’s behavior. Is manipulation always immoral? Why is manipulation immoral (when it is immoral)? If manipulation is not always immoral, then what determines when it is immoral?

1. Preliminaries
1.1 Ordinary versus Global Manipulation
1.2 Applications of a Theory of Ordinary Manipulation
1.3 Two Questions about Manipulation
2. Answering the Identification Question
2.1 Manipulation as Bypassing Reason
2.2 Manipulation as Trickery
2.3 Manipulation as Pressure
2.4 Disjunctive, Hybrid, and Other Views
3. Answering the Evaluation Question
3.1 Is Manipulation Always Wrong?
3.2 Manipulation and Harm
3.3 Manipulation and Autonomy
3.4 Manipulation and Treating Persons as Things
3.5 Other Suggestions
4. Further Issues
4.1 Manipulating Persons versus Manipulating Situations
4.2 Unintentional Manipulation
4.3 Manipulation, Vulnerability, and Oppression
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