Thursday, November 15, 2018

The Desire for Autonomy

Any practical consideration of human behavior tends to lead to an ethical quagmire: when we attempt to influence a person to do something, we cannot be certain that what we are doing is truly in that person’s best interest.   Even when it can be objectively and mathematically demonstrated that the person is better off for taking the action that we have persuaded him to undertake, there is still the question of ethics because, outcome aside, we have interfered with his autonomy.

This comes from the implicit assumption that people wish to be autonomous – to exercise their free will and enjoy the benefits of so doing.  Even when the exercise of free will would have negative consequences, it is argued that suffering the consequences of liberty is also of value in the long term.   In this sense, any attempt to interfere with autonomy, even for beneficent reasons, is considered ethically shady.

But this rests upon the assumption that people wish to be autonomous – and while this is assumed to be universal, it certainly is not:  there are personality types and even entire cultures in which there is an obvious desire to be controlled – people who would rather be told what to do than to decide for themselves, and who will gladly surrender themselves to the dominion of others. Whence this urge to be conditioned, to conform, and to obey?

Essentially, it is an escape from having personal responsibility – of making difficult choices and accepting the blame for any unfortunate consequences.  Even people who are quite autonomous and strong-willed will eagerly seek out authorities to tell them what to do in specific instances – to see a doctor when they are sick is to yield to the doctor’s authority.  Those who are less intelligent and strong seek out authorities more often, for less significant things.   Anyone who undertakes to diet is essentially admitting they are not competent to choose the foods they eat, and has placed themselves in the hands of an authority, and is glad to be told what to do.   Life is so much easier when one is relieved of the burden of thinking and can simply obey orders – and even if the outcome is bad, there is someone else to blame.

The willingness to compromise is the basis of human society.    While living with others is beneficial in many regards, it is also detrimental in others – and man chooses to participate in society because the good outweighs the bad.   The same can be said of an individual who submits to any system of control: so long as he perceives that the benefits of obedience outweigh the costs, he will remain obedient.   In many instances, this is faith in institutions that, like religious fervor, is based on belief rather than any evidence that can be presented – life in a totalitarian regime may be miserable, but if it is perceived to be better than the past, or hoped that it will be better in future, people will accept and support the authoritarian state.

It is not accurate to state that such people have been conditioned – they are voluntary participants and coercion and deception are unnecessary.   Those who need conditioning are the ones who do not perceive that the benefits of obedience outweigh the costs – and if the state cannot change the balance by its actions (providing greater benefits at lesser costs), then it may attempt to change the perception of such individuals: to convince them that the benefits are greater than they are, or the cost is less than it is.

To the autonomous individual, the greatest cost of subordination is his own dignity and humanity, hence the most common technique for gaining is compliance is to abolish both: one he has been dehumanized and stripped of his dignity, he has nothing to lose by cooperating with those who wish to control him.   If freedom is not an option, he can only choose which master to whom he will enslave himself.   If thinking for himself is not possible, he can only choose who will do his thinking for him.  And this is the basis of all forms of conditioning – to adjust an individual’s perception of cost and benefit – and its ultimate end is to produce the malleable man, whose perception of authority is positive regardless of cost or benefit.

And at this point, it seems I’ve strayed a bit too far from my intended subject (advertising)  - and should come to a close.

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