This Sunday we are discussing, Control and manipulation in our life.
A very apt subject given that this Sunday we'll also be having the
national elections. Maybe for once we won't be under threat of a
football match, but one never knows.
For details of other tertulias (and French classes) please see recent
emails or get in touch with me.
See you Sunday
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Control and manipulation in our life
Until well into the 20th century no philosophy could have been done
without mentioning Kant. Even until recently we find such claims as:
"Philosophy without Kant would be astronomy without a moon – missing a
For a good part of the second half of the 20th century Wittgenstein
occupied such a pivotal role in philosophy. The question today is
whether we can do any philosophy about human beings without considering
genetics and evolution?
I doubt that we can, surely philosophy today without genetics would be
like literature without words. Of course, some would say that such a
position was blatant reductionism and go on to justify themselves by
uttering such ambiguous statements as 'the whole is greater than the sum
of the parts.'
Maybe there is an innate understanding why we should, as individuals,
fear any claims to reductionism. Maybe claims such as identifying and
reducing humans directly to inanimate things such as genes might be
interpreted as saying: you are nothing better than a bunch of genes, but
me, who knows better because I understand these things, I am an
intelligent and free human being. To put it in more graphical terms, we
just do not like a smart alec.
If there are people who think this then of course they are wrong. On the
other hand, if there are people who think that they are made of magic
dust and not star dust then surely they are deluding them selves.
But what has this got to do with control and manipulation? Our
day-to-day meaning of manipulation (I will assume that control is just
part of manipulation) is a negative one. This idea implies such things
as slavery, loss of free will, either due to the actions or intentions
of others; maybe having to do things which are not compatible with our
moral or physical well being. In other words, manipulation is not
something we want to be victims of. As Churchill said in his first
broadcast as prime minister, "for it is better for us to perish in
battle than to look upon the outrage of our nation and our altar..."2
Neither Churchill nor us would want to be manipulated.
The bad news is that, of course, is there are only control and
manipulation at the level of genes, and at any other level we can think
of. Genes and their environment are in a constant struggle to control or
not to be controlled. The environment, also sometimes referred to as
nurture, is as important for any manipulation as the genes themselves
are. So in reality we might be reducible to genes but they do not
operate independent of or outside the environment we find ourselves in.
The good news is that our genes, yours and mine, are equally good as any
other to control and manipulate other genes. And by implication, we are
as good at manipulating others as any others are good at manipulating
us. If you have read so far of this essay then that is evidence that
genes are (or I am) capable of controlling you. This is what Dawkins
might call "acting at a distance." 3 Of course, by volunteering to
receive this essay (or find a way to read it) you have manipulated me to
writing the essay in the first place. And if I do not write the essay I
feel as guilt as you might feel disappointed when you do not receive the
essay. But there is one thing which you and I have in common: we are
both free either to write or to read the essay, despite the fact that we
are manipulating each other.
Hence the real meaning of manipulation ought to be, and in real life we
behave as if it does, that manipulation can be both negative or
positive. At the micro level genes manipulate other genes or the
environment and vice versa. At the macro level the struggle is no
different in form but the content has to be commensurate with the
relevant environment. Of course, words such as genes and environment
have different meaning in their natural habitat of natural science from
our context of philosophy and every day meaning. We use these words in
the same way we see lions and tigers in zoo cages; yes, they are lions,
but surely not the lions of the savannah.
Armed with this caution, we can proceed and say that some people with
genes for strong and aggressive characteristics would probably in a
better position to manipulate and control someone who is weak and maybe
also short. On the other hand a weak person might have a more agile
brain and can therefore avoid most forms of manipulation. This does not
mean that strong people will always have to be aggressive nor that weak
people always have to be smart. Some are aggressive some of the time and
some are smart some of the time. There are of course many genes involved
in a person and many features involved in an environment to make the
whole issue complex and any determinism diluted.
But an anti reductionist might still not be satisfied or convinced. They
might say, for example: yes, if we dig hard enough we do find genes. But
finding inanimate genes is not necessarily a desirable discovery. It is
too gloomy, too impersonal, too unromantic. They might even go so far as
to suggest, that magic dust will give you fairy land, what has star dust
ever given us? Apart from bad movies from Hollywood. Churchill had no
intention of giving up to the Nazis and before that, Patrick Henry, in
Virginia, 1775, echoed the same sentiments, "Give me liberty or give me
death." Why should an anti reductionist give up life as we know it?
Of course, Churchill won the war and Henry got his liberty. But the
lesson an anti reductionist should draw from this is not that genes
ought not to be the centre point of our philosophy, but rather, negative
manipulation can and sometimes is defeated or turned around.
Irrespective, that is, of whether genes are at the bottom of the pit.
This does not mean that negative manipulation and control by others have
now ceased to exist, but that in many cases there is something we can
actually do about it. We can go on and point out some evidence for such
statements as slavery, although it still exists amongst some groups and
in disguised way, but not within other groups; labour conditions, human
rights, fatal diseases some of which are controlled better now and so on.
The anti reductionist should therefore not be too concerned about genes
but more about mustering those genes to thwart any negative manipulation
or control. Of course, anti reductionists already do this anyway, they
still go to the doctor when that have a headache, or eloquently insist
on their rights when given bad service by a business and so one. QED
Mustering our genes to thwart negative manipulation is not easy, and as
Churchill might have said on the matter, "I have nothing to offer but,
blood, toil, tears and sweat." Which is quite encouraging know that
these tools work much better than magic dust.
I started by addressing the question of; what is manipulation? And how
should we interpret manipulation to make it more manageable and
accessible? The next two questions I now want to address are these: How
can we muster our genes or ourselves, as a logical implication, to
counter act negative manipulation by others? And how do we know that a
manipulation is positive?
I shall assume that we are really interested in counter acting negative
manipulation and not manipulation in general. In a way, genes and the
environment do not function in terms of positive or negative
manipulation or whatever. These are value judgements, genes and the
environment just follow the nature of causality. But, nevertheless, they
are still useful for us and such terminology is not necessarily
incompatible with reality. This language, is after all, our way of
manipulating the knowledge base of each and every one of us. Thus, we
might be restricting the beast with this language, we are certainly not
As Dawkins makes it clear in the interview one of the most effective way
to manipulate others is to teach them or train them how to do what we
want them to do for us. He uses the example of training horses. These
animals can easily challenge any type of coercion we care to try on
them, but they usually don't. And the reason why is that we train them
to do what we want from them. The idea of questioning our desires does
not usually arise for horses. The same applies for human beings.
Training can take all sorts of forms, threatening physical force, is
quite effective in the short term. But as we know, maybe even from
experience, this is not very efficient, especially in the long term.
Communication, in the form of oratory, as Dawkins points out, is equally
efficient and effective. He gives Hitler's oratory as an example of
negative manipulation through verbal/language communication. By the same
token, Churchill was equally as good at using communication to
manipulate the English speaking world and allies to rally and fight
against Hitler. We might even go so far and say that until Hitler
invaded Russia, his oratory and aggression seemed to win the day. But
the escalation of physical aggression lost him both the war and the
ideology. Could this be evidence for the belief that physical aggression
is counter productive?
On balance, I would say that communication is more efficient and
economic way of manipulating (positive or negative) others. A good sound
bite, like Churchill's call to arms, "we shall fight on the beaches, we
shall.....,"is more powerful, in the medium and long term, than a shell
from an 88mm field gun. A gun shell can only be used once. A good meme
can reproduce and do its worst (best) without any human limit or
But communication is not enough, it must include the right sort of
information to bring about the right sort of behaviour. Both Hitler and
Churchill used emotive type of information in the context of their
historical situation, which I would also call environment. Hitler, in
the context of the humiliation of Germany after the first world war, and
Churchill in the context of the evacuation of Dunkirk (Fr. Dunkerque).
Notice how I use humiliation instead of the consequences of defeat which
sounds rather tame, especially for Hitler's oratory. And also notice how
I use evacuation instead of rout which is very dispiriting for
Churchill's needs. Not only do we use information to manipulate people,
but we also use language to perform surgical strikes on the people we
want to manipulate, as I have just demonstrated.
Of course, if manipulation is in the form of physical manipulation we
might have no immediate choice but to counter act with physical
aggression. Our reaction when someone jumps the queue is to try and
regain our rightful position or maybe be angry with them. In a way,
countering aggression with aggression is also a from of communication.
After all, communication is to get others to do what we want them to do.
Bombing a gun emplacement can some times be effective communication. I
see no logical imperative that communication should always be linguistic
or verbal, although it is probably the best form when rational agents
Moving on, it is even harder to establish what is positive manipulation.
Of course, positive manipulation can be to counter act negative
manipulation or as a strategy for our life in the future. For example
training to be a better doctor, a better philosopher, or whatever.
Looking back at WWII the manipulation of the allies was superior than
that of the Axis. However, we are usually more concerned in our life
about future events rather than explaining history. What will the future
be like? What might be the consequences of our manipulation? However,
the problem with positive manipulation is that we are constrained by the
context or environment we find ourselves in. Furthermore, moral
judgements and value judgments also depend on the scope of their
epistemological systems. Thus, what is positive manipulation for a Nazi
party member is not necessarily the same for a member of the British war
The way past this problem has always been to find some objective and
independent system that guarantees our values are not tainted by
subjectivism. Some have advocated we search for a priori knowledge while
others have pursued the scientific method. However, the anti
reductionist who rejects such things as genes in favour of some romantic
view of life won't be much help when it comes to cures, fighting
diseases and improving the quality of life. In many cases, and despite
the short comings, the scientific method has been more successful in
providing us with some sort of objective information.
This does not mean that scientific knowledge is the answer for
everything, it might be, but it is not yet. Nor need it be incompatible
with our personal view of the world. My argument is that by using the
right sort of information, it is more likely to give us realistic and
objective answers to the question: what is positive manipulation?
Thus, what is the answer to the practical question we ask ourselves:
what makes a good person? If I were to answer this question I would
start by trying to understand objective and realistic information about
human beings, instead of following dogma or ideology. We might not
always succeed but when we do, we know we are right.
Of all the questions manipulation elicits, there is still THE pivotal
question we have to deal with, and one I have asked many times before:
what incentive does someone have not to negatively manipulate us when
they are already winning? What incentive does a company have to give us
a good deal, when they are already making bumper profits? What
incentives did the North Vietnamese have to go to the negotiating table
when they were already winning the ground war and the propaganda war?
This question, in my opinion, is the Achilles heel of most ideologies
and doctrines who profess themselves as the key holders of justice and
fairness. Of course, we know maybe in advance if not a priori that
negative manipulation sooner or later comes to an end. Oppressive
dictators might be replaced by evil empires, but sometimes they are also
replaced by functioning democracies. This is the history of modern
Europe and a good example of evolutionary struggle and process.
It is beyond my scope to find an answer to this question, but if I had
to consider the issue I would probably start by having another look at
In the animal kingdom, competing animals in the same group do behave
aggressively, but they rarely set out to kill outright their adversary.
In mortal combat both parties know that either one of them can get
killed, hence their cautious aggression. (see Dawkins for the
arguments). Going back to our pivotal question: who is the competition
that deserves our negative manipulation? As Dawkins points out in the
interview, we might not necessarily have a one-to-one relationship with
the competition. Nor might it be the obvious one.
If we are looking for a partner we usually assume that our competition is
someone who is also interested in the man or woman we are interested in.
And if we are selling PC's then our competition is someone else selling
PC's. But the real evolutionary struggle is not between males fighting
over a female, but rather females against males (in that order). Don't
forget that in the evolutionary struggle, the female has, generally
speaking, more to lose than the male and certainly more that two males
fighting each other. To put it in a different way, males do not usually
die at childbirth nor do they lose their looks after years of child rearing.
In business, and politics, therefore, the competition is not necessarily
an other business nor another political party. The competition is
really, under this new point of view, between business and customer and
voter and party. The bargaining power of the customer is usually much
weaker than the business. In business-to-business transactions, however,
a small business, supplying a big businesses assumes the role of
customer rather than supplier; check out the literature on the
relationship between giant supermarkets and small farmers. The same goes
for voters and parties, a voter, like a female giving birth, has more to
lose if they choose the wrong party than the party itself.
Could it be that the objective of a business is not to exploit or
manipulate customers or defeat other businesses, but rather to win over
the loyalty and enthusiasm of their customers. An example of this
strategy is the Apple Corp. who for many years tried every commercial
misjudgement that should have destroyed them many times over, however,
they never did anything to destroy the loyalty and enthusiasm of their
customers. Nor did they ever try to destroy their rivals and competitors
in the PC market. Maybe this is evidence for politicians, to forget
trying to defeat competing parties or ideologies and try and win over
the loyalty and enthusiasm of the people. It can be done because
manipulation is not always negative.
1 Kant, Herder and the Birth of Anthropology by John Zammito
2 The Churchill Center
3 Genes and Determinism: An Interview With Richard Dawkins
Jeremy Stangroom interviewed Professor Richard Dawkins at his home in
Oxford on the 13th October 1998.
[see also The Extended Phenotype and The Selfish Gene]
from Lawrence, Pub Philosophy Group, Sunday meeting: Control and
manipulation in our life