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Ethics and Morality

Might You Be a Lot More Manipulative Than You Think?

The morality of manipulation, like human nature, can be confusingly ambiguous.

Key points

  • However unconsciously, we all engage in forms of communication that are anything but frank or forthright.
  • Even nudging someone could be done either out of kindhearted benevolence or ego-driven self-interest.
  • Seen psychologically—vs. morally—all needs are understandable, and so deserving of (unprejudicial) empathy.
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How We Address Our Dependency Needs—and We All Have Them

Basically, there are only two ways to get dependency needs met. Being assertive represents the direct approach, and it’s almost always viewed positively. Much less acceptable is being manipulative, the indirect approach.

Synonyms for manipulating others to get them to respond favorably to what you need aren’t at all flattering. They include (and this is just a small sampling) controlling, cunning, deceitful, double-dealing, and insidious.

In short, the tendency to influence others indirectly is generally disapproved of as devious or dishonest, for it’s assumed to be inequitable and thus exploitative.

However unconsciously, all of us at times engage in this less-than-aboveboard form of communication. It’s sometimes necessary, even essential, in instances where another’s welfare is at stake, and we haven’t been able to positively influence their thinking or behavior directly.

Nudging someone who’s on the verge of sabotaging themselves could be viewed as “manipulation-light.” Say, we’re strategically (i.e., indirectly) prompting a fully qualified person to attend college, despite their dislike for formal academic learning. Clearly, there’s nothing dishonorable about such a roundabout approach.

Still, even nudging another could be done primarily—or wholly—out of self-interest and thereby be no better ethically than abusive bullying or gaslighting.

How Does Manipulation Become Part of Our Behavioral Repertoire in the First Place?

Whether or not we’re comfortable admitting it, we’re all social creatures, and to truly feel good about ourselves, we need others to take our needs seriously and respond to them favorably.

Unable to accomplish such a supportive, validating relationship, we’ll feel deprived, isolated, and perhaps unworthy of others’ caring. And this experience can link to chronic problems with anxiety and depression.

The practice of manipulating others to get our needs met makes its dubious entrance considerably before we reach adulthood.

In fact, even as a newborn, as pre-verbal and cognitively undeveloped as we are, our behaviors can be understood as combining both the assertive and the manipulative.

If you’re in distress—too hot, cold, hungry, in physical pain, or simply needing to be held—you’ll cry. It’s instinctual, intimately connected to your primal sense of survival.

But less instinctive is crying when, literally, your predominant needs have already been taken care of. If you like being cuddled and you’ve begun to associate crying with your caretakers immediately coming to your side, then you’ll begin to cry “opportunistically” to receive the welcoming pleasure of a parent’s touch.

Although this more conscious stratagem could also be said to deal with an elemental interpersonal need, it has a calculating, deliberative quality to it missing in bawling because you’re experiencing your current circumstances as mortally endangering. And the same might be said when you cry because you’d enjoy engaging in imitative play with a family member.

But what needs to be emphasized is that needs are needs, whether they’re mental, emotional, or physical. Also, it’s often nearly impossible to distinguish between a want and a need. Seen psychologically versus morally, they’re all authentic and understandable, and so deserving of some impartial or unprejudicial empathy.

Moreover, although certain interpersonal needs are universal—so widespread as to be “natural”—not all children (or adults) target these needs similarly.

So variables in identifying one’s needs aren’t relevant in assessing their (subjective) validity. And that’s true regardless of how inconsiderately expressed or downright nasty they may be in relationship to respecting the needs of others.

So How, Without Succumbing to Moral Nihilism, Can We Differentiate Between Acceptable and Unacceptable Manipulation?

The goals of manipulation, conscious or not, range from virtuous to vicious, good-willed to sadistically malevolent, and pursuing justice disinterestedly to seeking revenge out of purely ego-dominated mechanisms.

Here is where you need to focus more on the motivation behind acting manipulatively than on what—internally or externally—provoked your circuitous behavior. Inasmuch as your communication (though it may have turned out to be wrongheaded) was spurred by benign intentions, it’s only fair to qualify the theoretical “badness” of your behavior.

Additionally, it’s kindheartedly reasonable for others to take a humane approach toward your judgment when, though charitable, it’s found to be mistaken—versus appraising your behavior from a pessimistically nihilistic viewpoint.

If we’re to regard compassionately what may drive individuals to act out against innocent people—or, vigilante-like, take the law into their own hands—we’re not thereby required to open up our jail cells and let the freed prisoners, unmonitored, act however they wish.

Doubtless, it’s crucial to protect citizens against those who can’t be trusted not to—impulsively or, for that matter, compulsively—act against them.

Even if a murderer, for example, was victimized as a child by a rageaholic father and subject to the harshest corporal punishment imaginable, that past ill fortune still can’t exonerate him from his own (distrustful and displaced) later transgressions against humanity.

But if, as a society, we’re to escape self-righteous vengefulness, prison reform centering on rehabilitation rather than retribution is the enlightened response to those less fortunate than us.

To add one final layer of complexity to this thorny subject, what about someone who purposely avoids what they regard as manipulativeness because they apprehend it as being (because of its undesirable connotations) something to systematically shun?

Thinking in absolutes is almost always problematic. And there are numerous examples demonstrating that withholding one’s influence when a person is about to make a harmful decision is actually deserving of disapprobation.

So, what if your friend at work shares their decision to forcefully confront your boss about his loathsome, condescending attitude?

You’ve already concluded that this disagreeable individual possesses an extraordinarily defensive narcissistic personality such that directly confronting him will almost certainly lead to your friend’s getting fired.

Not to try, however indirectly or craftily, to influence him to limit his sharing to other like-minded cohorts at work would give you some moral responsibility in the all-too-likely event that his directly blowing off steam would leave him unemployed—particularly when you know that outcome could be financially disastrous for him.

In situations like this, the willingness to employ some form of chicanery to keep your friend gainfully employed makes ethical as well as practical sense.

Consequently, there will always be a place for manipulation when simply asserting the facts about a situation cannot enable you to achieve a hoped-for—and self-disinterested—result.

Like so many things in reality, a “sin,” relatively considered, can be one of omission as well as commission. Thus, manipulating another—but far more for their sake than your own—doesn’t warrant criticism merely because it’s not free of artifice or guile.

© 2023 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.


Buss, S. (2006, Jan). Valuing autonomy and respecting persons: Manipulation, seduction, and the basis of moral constraints. Ethics, 115(2),195-235.

Fischer, A. (2022, Feb 27). Then again, what is manipulation? A broader view of a much-maligned concept. Philosophical Explorations: An International Journal for the Philosophy of Mind and Action, 25(2), 170-188.

Manne, K. (2014). Non-Machiavellian manipulation and the opacity of motive. In Manipulation: Theory and Practice, M. Weber & C. Coons, eds. New York: Oxford University Press.
Noggle, R. (2022, Jun 21). The ethics of manipulation. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Seltzer, L. F. (2013, Apr 30). A new take on manipulation.…

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