What is conditioning?
Conditioning is a process through which an animal (including humans) is manipulated to perform a desired task. This is most common in domestic pets that are trained to sit, come to you, and urinate in a specific place or at a specific time. It can be done many ways but the best known way is to give rewards for desired behaviour and punishments for incorrect behaviour. The reason we train animals through conditioning is because they do not tend to be intelligent enough to realise their unconditioned actions have negative consequences (like urinating on the floor in a house), and because to co-exist with humans as domesticated pets they need to conform to certain rules to avoid those same negative consequences. Conditioning is essentially the only way to get animals to behave in a way that allows for them to live with us.
Humans however for the most part are able to be reasoned with. We do not need to condition other humans because they are generally intelligent enough to realise the consequences of their actions, and can willingly change their habits and behaviour if they are negatively affecting someone else. Because humans are both intelligent and able to consciously change their behaviour, we reason with them instead of conditioning them.
The problem with conditioning
Despite that, people still use conditioning on other people. In this case it is not because the other people are incapable of being reasoned with (although that is possible), but in order to control these people to do whatever it is the conditioner wants. People can be manipulated into buying certain products over others, which is essentially the purpose of advertising and marketing. This is done to receive the business and therefore money of those people. Conditioning of this type is done to control and manipulate people for one’s own goals, thus making it harmfully selfish. This can be for an overtly selfish goal such as receiving people’s money, or a misguided one, such as thinking that people cannot be trusted to make their own choices. You can also condition people to help them avoid mistakes they would have otherwise made, or simply improve their efficiency, or do other beneficial things, but there are moral issues that generally outweigh the benefits of this.
- The first issue is that reasoning should be used instead. A person should be allowed to make their own conscious choice instead of being manipulated. There are times when people are unreasonable or close minded though, in which case it may be justified to prevent them from making a bad decision, if the consequences would be worse than denying them their freedom to choose. One must be careful though not to simply think that they know better than the other person; if you are not as certain as possible that you are correct, it can be arrogant to assume that you should infringe on someone else’s choices.
- This leads to the second issue: it is disrespectful to condition people to act in the way you want. Most prominently it disrespects their freedom, but it can also be that you have such little respect for the person that you disregard their wishes and impose what you think is best for them. This is inconsiderate and can be selfish, even though you think you’re doing what’s best for someone, since it is difficult to determine what is best for someone else. It is also disrespectful because it treats people like animals, abusing their subconscious to make them do things they do not even realise they were forced to do. It is the same behaviour with which we treat the pets we own.
- It does not really teach them. Someone or something that behaves “properly” because it has been conditioned does not act that way because they want to, chose to, or put any mental effort into doing so. It is not a matter of willpower or any advanced cognitive ability, instead it is simply base instinct. One can say that their behaviour is appropriate, but you cannot say anything about their character based on this conditioned behaviour.
The other reasons have already been mentioned:
- It denies people the freedom to choose. This is a fundamental human right.
- It is abusive: you abuse their subconscious and instinct without them consciously knowing about what you’ve made them do. They have a weakness that you take advantage of for your own ends.
Conditioning is similar to slavery, except the target does not know that they are being controlled. It is also similar to scamming, and indeed scamming can use conditioning to manipulate their marks.
One method of conditioning involved punishment in response to undesired actions and rewards in response to desired actions. This is most notable in experiments such as B.F. Skinner’s “box” in which rats or other animals are placed and prompted to perform an action to receive food as a reward, or otherwise be given an electric shock as punishment. This principle is also used in games and marketing strategies to encourage users to perform actions beneficial to a company for a reward of some kind.
Since conditioning on humans is clearly a last resort that should only be employed to avoid a greater moral bad, operant conditioning is immorally used unless in such situations. If such a system punishes people for actions they do not approve of, it is an unnecessary and immoral punishment that the giver justifies by claiming that their actions made them deserve it [Editor’s note: Link to Deserving]. No one should have to suffer because someone else thinks they need to conform to an arbitrary set of rules. Anyone who does not feel remorse for causing someone harm like this, merely for the goal of changing their behaviour, even if they think it is worth it, would seem to lack empathy and consideration. This of course has the same exception as before, when conforming is deemed absolutely necessary, with a great degree of certainty or a very high risk of a worse outcome otherwise.
It also discourages critical thinking and decision making, as it makes people behave in terms of getting rewards and avoiding punishment through their actions.
Conditioning in general consists of changing people by force and without reasoning. Although reasons may be given, the fact that someone resorts to hurting the target means that the target likely did not understand or agree with the reasons, in which case you are only shallowly being reasonable, and instead forcing your will on them because they do not comply with how you want them to be. When people disagree you morally should not force them to agree with you, because this would assume that you are objectively right and they are wrong. If you force them to change their behaviour, you are denying their freedom of action and possibly making them make the wrong choice if you were in fact wrong. It is a form of closed mindedness.
Children are often the ones who suffer because of this ideology. Many old fashioned parents think that punishment is a good form of teaching their children what not to do, and worse, to be obedient to others. However, doing this means they don’t actually learn or appreciate the importance or reason for rules, they just blindly follow them. This promotes children who do not think for themselves and thus may trouble making decisions. It also pushes them to be gullible and more easily manipulated, as they do not question reasons, instead they think that blind obedience is rewarded and therefore good.
One should never impose their will on others unless they are very sure it will avoid something worse.