Sunday, 26 June 2011 00:00

Manipulation's Unethical Ethics

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A friend of mine alerted me to an article in a PMI Community post titled Is Manipulation Ethical? From the title, I thought this would be neat read. However, the article was pretty swallow. How foolish to think that a 650-word article would address an issue that has plagued philosophers for a few millennia. The initial reaction was to the manipulative title, which was deceptive. It led me to believe the article would supply some profound knowledge. The short treatise failed. To its credit, though, it made me think. On the second pass, I decided that I disliked the article. In fact, its thesis—manipulation is ethical—is morally wrong.

Ethics: Passenger Jets And Cruise Missiles

To say that manipulation is acceptable based on its ethical outcome is absurd. In the eighties I was in a conversation with a friend's brother who was repulsed at the fact that I was working for Boeing. His contention was that behind the guise of building commercial aircraft, Boeing was building weaponry that could be unleashed on innocent people. Unbeknownst to him I was working automating an electronics manufacturing line that surely was making extremely sophisticated electronics, including cruise missile components. Did he persuade me? No, his logic was a flawed and based on conspiracy theories. The thought stuck with me, what if I were doing the same job in the then USSR? An Individual's beliefs of what is good may not be what is actually good for others. Ethics, like it or not, are societal based and no one can use their principles as a guide to what is proper for others.

Maybe A Hooker Will Help

My talks on culture include a true story about working on a project in a Pacific Rim country. While debating the tactics for securing a multimillion-dollar contract for a project to automate a semiconductor manufacturing facility, the account manager suggested funding a prostitute for the potential customer's senior procurement manager. Shocked speechless by this unquestionably unethical proposal, I realized the ensuing conversation by the local management was as matter-of-fact as my suggestion to take the same individual to lunch (incidentally, an equivalent costs). Within a few seconds I had to determine whether to protest or shut up—I knew I could not endorse the idea. Recusing myself was too subtle and putting up an argument on the ethics seemed a little too intrusive into another culture. Many will consider my reaction a cop out. In a joking manner, I recalled company policy and that if they wanted continue that we (there were two other US employees in the room) would have to leave. They responded politely and stopped the conversation and we moved on to the next subject. I can honestly say that I am unaware of what they did. I have my suspicions.

Manipulation Versus Persuasion

The aforementioned article's conclusion is "Is manipulation ethical? Yes, positive context manipulation is not only ethical but it is often the best course of action." I totally disagree. Persuasion is ethical, manipulation is not. In the above example, conversation over lunch persuades, hookers manipulate. Therefore, I fail to see an ethics-based justification. As illustrated, ethics are societal based and moving from one culture to next its definition changes. Examples are everywhere. For instance, cultural attitudes about gender influence everything from terminating pregnancies, to the value of children, to who is allowed to work or drive a car. None of these mores, in my opinion, are ethical. For those who think they are, their basis for justifiable manipulation is quite different from mine. Persuasion, on the other hand, requires presenting data for guiding yourself or others in making informed decisions based on data from a variety of sources.

Manipulation is a poor method to getting people to arrive at a conclusion. Present the data logically so they can see the rationale. In the ensuing discussion, your understanding of the situation changes and outcome morphs, becoming stronger. At some point, stop trying to persuade people and be a leader—make a decision, give direction, and take accountability. Adopt a process that moves from sell to tell. People can disagree with decision, but will accept and follow it if it is made based on sound data. To the contrary, if they feel manipulated into agreeing with a direction, regardless of the intentions or the outcome, they will feel deceived.

Manipulation on a Global Scale

Consider the 2002 decision to invade Iraq. Regardless of whether you think it was justified, nearly everyone agrees that the decision was based on manipulating people's perception of a threat. Innuendo of the culpability of Sadam Hussein in the 9/11 attacks and tales of stockpiled weapons of mass destruction led hundreds of millions of people to stand behind the invasion to depose a heinous dictator. Few people will argue in favor of Mr. Hussein's human rights record; however, the tactics to enter the war has broadened the chasm between political factions around the world. Basing this decision on fact, analysis of the potential outcomes, and persuading governments and the people they governed on its merits and risks, would have drastically changed the outcome from the war and people's reaction to it. The goal of removing a tyrant may have been a noble cause benefiting millions of people, but the resulting division and skepticism of our leaders will have a long-term negative impact.

Simply Unethical

Manipulation may have a place in covert operations and war. It is unethical and should not be used in world politics, business, and especially with our children. If the data fails to support the direction and the decision maker is not accountable for his or her decisions, it is time alter the course.

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