A Philosopher's Blog


Posted in Ethics, Relationships/Dating by Michael LaBossiere on February 20, 2008

Amy Sutherland has a book coming out entitled What Shamu Taught Me About Life, Love and Marriage. In this book she discusses how a wife can use the training techniques developed for animals (such as Shamu, the famous killer whale) in order to get her husband to do what she wants. It must be noted that her book is aimed at making a marriage better by reducing conflict and problems. As such, the intent can be seen as laudable.

The idea of conditioning human behavior is a rather old one. Aristotle, in his Nicomachean Ethics,outlines his method of moral education. Essentially it is a program of habituation. For example, one becomes brave by being conditioned to face danger (an approach long utilized in military training). After Aristotle others built on this theory such as Pavlov (in his famous dog experiments) and Skinner (in his behaviorist approach). Naturally enough, men have long been regarded by some women as dogs to be trained or domesticated and this often ends up in humor as well.

There are, of course, moral concerns about intentionally using training techniques on someone you love in order to change their behavior. Such an intent seems to be a matter of manipulation and seems to show a lack of respect for the person. It further seems to be based on the assumption that people are not free agents and can be conditioned and controlled. This view of humans is seen as morally repugnant by many people.

That said, there is the obvious fact that people always try to change the behavior of others towards what they would prefer. For example, I try to get my students to learn, write better and do well in class. This is done, in part,  by  motivating them with rewards (good grades) and punishments (bad grades). As another example, if I am interested in dating someone, I would act in ways that I hope would incline her to go out with me. Of course, it could be said that in doing such things I am not using animal training techniques to make a person conform to my will. This, it could be argued, is a morally relevant difference.

While that is a reasonable point, there is the main question of whether such techniques are immoral or not. In the case of pets, the techniques are, in general, morally acceptable.  After all, pets do not have a very good grasp of language and are somewhat limited in terms of their powers of reason. Hence, conditioning techniques are what are needed. In general, such training does benefit the animal. A well trained and well behaved pet is generally happier than a poorly trained and badly behaved pet. After all, a badly behaved pet could well be sent to the shelter or end up creating conflict and unhappiness. For example, a badly trained dog might end up destroying furniture and attacking other dogs or even people. A well trained dog, on the other hand, will not exhibit such bad behavior.  So, the techniques are justified in that they are effective and the end for which they are intended is a good end. Of course, some animal training uses methods that are needlessly brutal and some is aimed at bad ends. In those cases, such training would be morally unacceptable.

Turning to humans, the same sort of justification can be used. If the end is laudable and the means are the most effective, then such conditioning could be justified.

In the case of Sutherland, her goal seems to be to have a better marriage by modifying behavior that creates needless conflict. That seems like a laudable goal. In general, if woman used this technique to create a better marriage in the sense of reducing needless conflict and enhancing domestic tranquility, then the ends would be good.

What, then, about the means? Is it acceptable to use conditioning techniques on humans? Since humans are, one hopes, rational beings (to some extent) it would seem that such techniques would not be acceptable. People should attempt to use reason in order to change the behavior of others.

Naturally, this assumes that people are rational and are governed by rationality. This is sometimes the case, but often not the case. If people were generally rational, they would behave in ways much differently than they do now.  In reality, most people tend to be ruled by their passions and desires and do not submit readily to arguments and fine ideals (to steal from Aristotle). In such cases the only viable option is to use methods that work. As Aristotle argued, habituation does work. Further, merely convincing someone that their behavior is causing problems only rarely causes them to change that behavior and act in ways that would less problematic. In order for someone to actually change and stick with the change, they need to be habituated to change their behavior. This can, of course, be done by the person himself. But it does help to have exterior motivations (such as salsa and chips-as used by Sutherland). To use an analogy, think of exercise. Almost everyone believes that exercise is beneficial. But believing this does not result in most people exercising. To get people to exercise generally requires more motivation. Getting someone to stick with it requires habituation.

Naturally, if such techniques are used to achieve unacceptable ends, then such actions would be immoral. History shows that people can be readily conditioned in ways that are oppressive and abusive. Clearly, such things would be harmful and hence immoral.

In light of the above discussion, it seems that conditioning people can be acceptable-provided that the methods are benevolent and the goals are laudable.