Situationism, Manipulation, and Objective Self-Awareness

Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 20 (3):489-503 (2017)
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Abstract

Among those taking the implications of situationism seriously, some have suggested exploiting our tendency to be shaped by our environments toward desirable ends. The key insight here is that if experimental studies produce reliable, probabilistic predictions about the effects of situational variables on behavior—for example, how people react to the presence or absence of various sounds, objects, and their placement—then we should deploy those variables that promote prosocial behavior, while avoiding or limiting those that tend toward antisocial behavior. Put another way, some have suggested that we tweak situations to nudge or influence others toward good behavior. A question arises: Isn’t this manipulative? In this paper, I describe some existing proposals in the literature and consider the manipulation worry. Drawing on classical Confucian ethics, I argue that, when all is considered, it is chimerical to think we can refrain from influencing or manipulating others. We must rather accept that influence is part of social existence. Once we accept this, the only remaining question is how to influence others. I suggest that this should make us conceive ourselves in an objective fashion.

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Hagop Sarkissian
CUNY Graduate Center

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