Skip to content

Education of Children as a Form of Manipulation

November 8, 2010

This is another in a series of essays that I’m not *so* embarrassed by that I felt like sharing.

Why don't you let me make my own decisions? Courtesy: kkbutterfly01

ResearchBlogging.org

Eric Cave in “What’s Wrong with Motive Manipulation” described a variety of ways in which we could be manipulated to alter our behaviour, movement or actions. He accurately described two different broad sets of motives which are acted upon to influence our actions.

Concern motives are motives whereby you are directly conscious that it is your reason for moving or behaving in the way that you do. Also, you must hold a positive or negative attitude towards your perceived outcome of your undertaking the behaviour. Thus, a concern motive is present when you undertake a specific course of action in the hopes that your perceived outcome will come about, one that you will favour. Or, likewise, you consciously and deliberately attempt to prevent an outcome you perceive as unfavourable.

Non-concern motives are your reasons for moving or behaving where you either are unaware that it is your motive, or you are indifferent to the perceived possible outcome. This means you are not intentionally acting in this way in an attempt to secure a specific outcome or avoid another. Within the category of non-concern motives also lies a third situation; motives towards which you would have a preferential outcome if only you were aware that it were your motive. This is a conclusion from Cave’s description of non-concern motives being something towards which you must be conscious and hold an opinion of the possible outcomes.

In total this yields four possible states in which a motive can exist. You can be both aware of the motive and hold an opinion of the possible outcomes, the concern motive, and the three forms of non-concern motive: unaware and indifferent, aware and indifferent, and unaware but opinionated.

I agree with Cave in the assumption that non-concern motives can become concern motives. If a person were to receive more information on a topic, or reflect critically on the information they already hold, they may come to form an opinion about an outcome towards which they were previously indifferent.

Likewise, a motive that the person was acting on could become conscious to them. This could be as simple as realizing a habit or tendency within them that they had previously overlooked. Upon this recognition, the person could then form an opinion of whether the habit is beneficial, harmful or neutral. If it is perceived as either beneficial or harmful, then it has become a concern motive.

The third, and I feel most interesting, way that a non-concern motive can become a concern motive is through the awareness of a motive on which the person already held a non-conscious opinion. This is itself an interesting notion, because how does a person gain an opinion on something towards which they are unaware? I see this happening when a person has an opinion taught to them, but it is on a topic which they don’t perceive as a motivating force in their life. The person would not think of the motive as affecting their behaviour or actions, but if they became aware of it as such they would hold an automatically formed opinion about which outcome they would prefer.

This varies significantly from the case of realization of a habit because in that event the motive is realised, and then an opinion of the potential outcomes is formed. In the case of the learned opinion, the positive or negative attitude is fully formed, and a gained awareness of the motive yields an immediate holding of that attitude. The opinion in the third case holds a special significance because it is the only one of the three where it is originally from outside the person who holds it. The opinion isn’t formed by someone who was already consciously entertaining the motive as one which is active in them, but rather the opinion was taught by another. For this essay I will refer to this type of opinion as one which was instilled. This topic will be discussed in greater detail further on in this piece.

Cave makes the appropriate argument that appealing to non-concern motives to persuade a person is a form of manipulation. He then also makes an incompatible argument that the non-concern influencing of children does not count as a similar type of manipulation and is thus not necessarily immoral. Cave’s argument to exclude children runs on his account of coherence and completeness.

Cave presents an extension of his idea of concerns whereby they need not be fully complete or coherent. What he means by this is that all of a person’s opinions about possible consequences need not mesh together perfectly. A person could reasonably be thought to hold mildly conflicting opinions about what they would prefer as outcomes in different situations. Also, they need not be able to fully predict the outcomes of their actions brought about by their concern motives. This is a fair assessment on the grounds that to expect a fully coherent and complete understanding of these things would be incredibly mentally taxing, and require many sessions of prolonged, concentrated thought to even begin to achieve. It would then seem to be unreasonable to expect this sort of endeavour on the part of an average person.

This assertion, however, runs contrary to Cave’s later claim. He attempts to show that the expectations for normal people are different than those for children. He says, “…the concerns of very young children are not complete and coherent across all of the contexts in which they make choices. Sometimes very young children do not know or care about all of their options.” Cave’s argument seems to be that children are perceived to be irrational, and they may be unable to fully predict the consequences of their behaviour. On this ground, Cave attempts to argue that the rules outlined to describe the immorality of non-concern manipulation need not be applied when it comes to children. I see no reason why children should be held to a higher standard than adults. While children may not have fully coherent or complete understandings, Cave already made the concession that adults don’t need these things either.

Cave unsuccessfully attempts to exclude very young children from his condemning of non-concern manipulation with his discussion of education. The education of very small children need necessarily involve non-concern motives, because the alternative route involves rational persuasion. In rational persuasion, facts and observations are given to the student in an attempt to get them to draw the desired conclusion. The student assimilates all of the information and follows it through logically to understand what is being presented.

The reason that rational persuasion is not morally troublesome is because it works by appealing to concern motives. That is, persuading people to reconsider their attitude on things about which they already hold an opinion. This means that the only reason the person will be swayed by the persuasion is if they are convinced by the new facts or argument.

Very young children lack this ability to rationally assimilate and interpret facts, and thus rational persuasion is ineffective on them. If we are unable to appeal to the child’s concerns to convince them of something we want them to learn because they lack the necessary capacity for rational thought, all that remains is that we appeal to their non-concern motives. This means that in educating very small children we need to get them to behave or act through motives that they are unaware of, or of which they have no attitude towards the consequences.

Cave attempts, unconvincingly, to argue that educating a small child by influencing their non-concern motives is justifiable on the grounds that it is only manipulation if you cause them to move in a way which is counter to what they otherwise would have done if they were left alone. Cave uses his argument that children don’t have complete and coherent understandings of their opinions and behaviours to claim that there exists no concept of ‘what they otherwise would have done.’ He argues that if we can’t make sense of what the child would do on their own, it is illogical to assume that we are swaying them away from any intended action when directing them towards our desired goal, having them learn what we are trying to teach.

The issue is that it is ridiculous to assume that small children have no intentions or preferences with their actions. Children do not move without purpose, and each one has a distinctive personality. It is then more appropriate, with this realization, to assume that the set of what the child ‘otherwise would have done’ consists of a finite list of their preferred actions, rather than Cave’s assumed empty set. The education of a small child, directing them towards a specific way of thinking, doing, or reasoning is then equivalent to directing them away from their likely preferred course of action. Of the myriad moral theories in existence I would be hard-pressed to find even one that advocates the intentional manipulation of an entire group of people. This puts the education of small children back into the camp of being at least morally worrisome. In fact, I feel that the non-concern manipulation of children should be more morally worrisome than that of adults, not less.

The education of very small children should be considered more than merely morally worrisome; it could even be downright distressing. The reason I say this is because of the breadth of topics which we attempt to teach children. The education of children involves teaching them the basics of values, societal opinions and customs. Children are taught to follow orders, to share, or to follow religious practices before they are able to rationally understand the reasons for doing these things. Children learn that they need to share with each other before something as complex as property, or the benefits of the act of sharing resources (i.e. toys), can even begin to be grasped. If this is an accurate description, then it follows that this learning must have proceeded through appeal to non-concern motives within the children. Thus, when the child comes to consciously appreciate their motive for giving their resource to another, the concept of sharing, they will automatically hold a positive attitude towards the outcome derived from that motive.

While a proliferation of sharing may not seem morally troublesome on its own, what is important is that this positive attitude towards sharing was not determined but rather instilled. The move of the concept of sharing from a non-concern to a concern follows the description of the third type, whereby the opinion is placed in the child by an outside source.

It may seem the case that this process of instilling opinions is obviously morally troubling, and thus the emphasis on children was unnecessary. There are a few differences that make the issue more disconcerting.

The first major feature is the frequency in which this occurs. As was shown, nearly all of the education of young children flows through non-concern motives. Thus any opinions, values, or social customs which are taught are necessarily instilled. This is a significant disparity from the regularity in which this process occurs in adults. The reason isn’t that there are more malicious people in charge of educating children, but rather that non-concern manipulation is presumed to be the only way to achieve the desired end. When interacting with adults, a well-intended person is more likely to engage in rational persuasion, reducing the proportion of interactions which proceed via non-concern manipulation.

The second far more important reason that non-concern manipulation of children is far more serious than in adults is because of the ramifications of instilling an opinion in a child. The attitudes and values instilled in a child work to build their framework of belief. For a typical coherence theory of knowledge, it is thought that people’s opinions and beliefs should tie together at least reasonably well. I think that this fits the discussion well, and as such I will use it as a model.

As the child has other people’s opinions and values instilled in them, they tie these together to form a belief system. When the ability to rationally deduce conclusions is developed in the child as he or she ages, the conclusions will be compared against their belief system to check for compatibility. If the new belief seems to fit in the framework it may be accepted by the child. If the deduced conclusion is incompatible, two things may occur; the conclusion may be rejected, or a review of the belief system may be called for by the child.

This view of the formulation of beliefs seems to accurately reflect what would happen when a developing child comes to an awareness of a motive, or forms an attitude about a perceived outcome. It also highlights why the education of very young children is so troubling.

The instilled attitudes act as the child’s first framework against which new attitudes or motives are compared for compatibility. In this way, the things taught to the children significantly impact the types of opinions they are likely to form, or the things they will consider motives. Also, as this belief system was the first one they ever learned, and since the attitudes were instilled by bypassing their concern motives, it is likely that the initial opinions are so deeply engrained that a review would not upset them. Thus, the manipulation which was incurred as a child will, by association, manipulate the attitudes held as an adult.

The reason that instilled attitudes would be less likely to be upset by a review than a deduced attitude is that the instilled opinion would exist as a more fundamental part of the child’s framework. These attitudes would not be able to be rationalized by the developing child, but would rather just be taken for granted as appropriate. While it is possible that these instilled attitudes may eventually be uprooted, this will be a much more difficult process than simply casting aside a minor attitude deduced by the developing child. In this way, it is likely that the manipulated child will become a manipulated adult, barring considerable mental effort.

Critics may want to contest this view on the grounds that this line of thought puts the entire concept of social custom and culture into a moral quandary. The process of socializing children, instilling in them the norms and customs of your culture, would appear to be through a morally troubling process. Cultural traditions are interesting in that it is incredibly unlikely that any child left to their own devices would ever re-form them. This then reinforces the idea that any social understanding would need to be instilled in the child, rather than rationalized to them. Even if it were attempted, it would be extremely difficult to convince anyone rationally that many social practices are necessary, other than on the grounds that they are customs.

This however seems like an acceptable consequence, as intuitively there is no reason why there should be any innate moral justification for forcing a culture on a child. In addition to the numerous ethical issues surrounding the entire issue of cultures and their differences, it seems like the idea of forced behaviour is at its core immoral. The non-concern motive manipulation of children is nothing more than this same imposition of a predominant cultural belief set, masked as education. It would be a far better form of education to allow children to form their attitudes towards possible outcomes through the use of their rational deductions. This topic is clearly too large for the scope of this piece, but it would make for an interesting continuation of thought.

Cave, E. (2006). What’s Wrong with Motive Manipulation? Ethical Theory and Moral Practice, 10 (2), 129-144 DOI: 10.1007/s10677-006-9052-4

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Brian Dean permalink
    November 8, 2010 8:28 pm

    The education of very small children should be considered more than merely morally worrisome; it could even be downright distressing. The reason I say this is because of the breadth of topics which we attempt to teach children. The education of children involves teaching them the basics of values, societal opinions and customs. Children are taught to follow orders, to share, or to follow religious practices before they are able to rationally understand the reasons for doing these things. Children learn that they need to share with each other before something as complex as property, or the benefits of the act of sharing resources (i.e. toys), can even begin to be grasped. If this is an accurate description, then it follows that this learning must have proceeded through appeal to non-concern motives within the children. Thus, when the child comes to consciously appreciate their motive for giving their resource to another, the concept of sharing, they will automatically hold a positive attitude towards the outcome derived from that motive.

    Interesting point. So basically we shouldn’t force 3 year olds to do things that are in their own best interests until they understand why it’s in their best interests. In other words, if they want to have cake and ice cream for dinner every day, we should let them have cake and ice cream every day. Then when they reach elementary school and learn about the food pyramid, only then should we have them eat a more balanced meal.

    But wait, maybe elementary school students wouldn’t understand why the food pyramid is more healthy. After all, that would get into things like carbohydrates, proteins, vitamins, and so forth, which students don’t have a basic understanding of until middle school.

    So I take that back. We should let kids eat nothing but cake and ice cream every day for dinner until middle school (when they TRULY realize why doing so is unhealthy).

    Same for sharing. If a 3 year old doesn’t want to share his toy, and that upsets his other 3 year old friend, we shouldn’t interfere. After all, a 3 year old isn’t going to understand the benefits of a “sharing of resources” anyway right?

    I have another idea for you. How about we teach children to listen to people who know more than they do about what’s beneficial for them? We do that as adults. We listen to nutrition experts because they probably know more about nutrition than we do. We also listen to scientists on questions of evolution, global warming, and so forth, because they probably know more about those subjects than we do.

    I don’t know about you, but the last time I had any interaction with a 3 year old, he didn’t seem to have much knowledge about what was beneficial to him. He only knew what was “fun” and what was “boring”, and had a preference of “fun” over “boring”.

Trackbacks

  1. Epistemology and Testimony: Learning to Trust Beyond Your Own Experiences | CMBR

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 3,338 other followers