Alexander Cheezem weighed in with a wonderful expansion on The Gruber Variation (and its parent, Rationalization #29, The Altruistic Switcheroo). It speaks for itself: the gist involves the situations when deception really does have beneficial results for the deceived, intended by the deceiver—in which case, the claim that an otherwise unethical act was “for his own good” mean that the act not have been unethical, and thus the claim is not rationalization, but truth.
One immediate result of Alexander’s comment is that I’m editing the text in #29. I wrote:
It is true that misfortune carries many life lessons, that what doesn’t kill us often makes us stronger, and that what hurts today may be the source of valuable wisdom and perspective later, but it really takes a lot of gall to cheat, lie to, steal from or otherwise harm someone and claim it will be a good thing in the long term. Yet an amazingly large number of people possess this much gall, because the Altruistic Switcheroo is very common, especially among parents who want to convince themselves that bad parenting is really the opposite. A marker for this rationalization is the statement, “You’ll thank me some day”—the specious theory of the sadistic parent who named his son “Sue” in the famous Shel Silverstein song made famous by Johnny Cash. No, he won’t.
“A Boy Named Sue” is a lousy example. It is true that the singer ends the song by saying he isn’t thankful, and I don’t blame him, but the father’s theory was borne out: the name did make his son tougher. There’s nothing in the lyrics to suggest that he name choice was sadistic, and if the only rationale for the song was what the father claimed it was, it’s no rationalization. Oh, it was cruel, irresponsible and unfair—and stupid— but the father did name the boy “Sue” for his own good. (The fact that his cruel tactic worked still doesn’t make it right: that would be 3. Consequentialism, or “It Worked Out for the Best.”
I’ll end the passage before the dash.
Here is Alexander’s Comment of the Day on the post, “Rationalization List Update: 29 (a). The Gruber Variation and 47. Contrived Consent, or ‘The Rapist’s Defense'”:
Interesting additions, but I think that the Gruber Variation needs a bit of a caveat in nuance regarding its description: it needs to be distinguished from both legitimate teaching techniques which involve parallels and certain grey areas.
To handle the last first, I’ll just give a few examples, starting with Project Alpha ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Project_Alpha ) and the Sokal Hoax (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sokal_affair ). Both involved presenting people who were supposed to safeguard against deception with a hoax in order to expose the holes in said safeguards. Both involved rationales which closely paralleled the Gruber Variation in several respects, and were criticized for actually following that sort of logic (I disagree, although I do think that both were ethically “grey”).
We can also bring up the Carlos hoax ( see http://skepdic.com/carlos.html , http://www.abc.net.au/science/correx/archives/randi4.htm , and the article starting on p. 28 of http://www.skeptics.com.au/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/theskeptic/2ndcoming/skepticism.pdf for details), which was, in essence, an attempt to demonstrate the fake and predatory nature of “channeling” scams by creating a (intentionally) fake channeler who would “come out” as fake, exposing the techniques used and casting doubt on the other scammers who were infesting Australia at the time.
On the other hand, there are legitimate teaching techniques which involve factors which would otherwise be unethical (usually deception) in order to teach a lesson. The most famous user of this sort of teaching technique is, of course, James Randi (who was also involved in both the Carlos Hoax and Project Alpha, above).
Of course, when Randi does it, he lets you know that he’s deceiving you, and many deceptions are revealed moments later (my personal favorite involves him taking off his glasses and pushing his thumbs through to reveal the absence of lenses). Others are revealed as tricks without actually disclosing the mechanisms involved.
A friend of mine who’s a middle-school science teacher follows a similar method: he’ll teach basic critical thinking by assigning students a report on the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus or the dangers of dihydrogen monoxide, giving them a list of sources designed to make the topic seem real (the former is a Photoshop hoax; the latter is the chemical name for water). If the student goes beyond those sources, of course, the deception will be quickly revealed… but he’s found that the students rarely bother to (or think to, for that matter). He reveals the truth, of course, when the reports are due… usually to the shock of the classroom.
Often, he finds that his students are shocked by the very notion of a hoax… or by the idea that they can’t trust information they find on random websites online.
He uses similar methods throughout the year, teaching students the importance of things like critical thinking and the scientific method by repeatedly tricking them and either revealing the trick or challenging them to figure it out.
I mention this to contrast it with the Gruber Variation (and the Altruistic Switcharoo in general): This sort of teaching method is rather transparently genuinely for the student’s benefit. The question becomes, accordingly, what’s the difference?
Well, first off, my friend isn’t really advancing a political agenda with his methods (except, perhaps, indirectly). More, the “payoff”, to his goals, occurs not with the deception, but with the reveal (unlike in the case of Gruber, where the reveal detracts from or is irrelevant to his agenda, depending on how you look at things). My friend isn’t really profiting from deceiving his students: he’s profiting from learning how he deceived them and how to expose such hoaxes.
Or, in other words, he’s not using it as a rationalization. The “for their own good” part is, simply put, actually true.
On the other hand, he’s still manipulating, deceiving, and tricking his students (to give them valuable life experiences in as controlled a manner as possible and to teach them important lessons about critical thinking), in a manner justified by their presumed mental inadequacy (or, more specifically, naivete and lack of said education), for their own good (“good” here being the learning of said lessons).
So, to go back to the point of all of this, I think we can learn a good bit about this sort of unethical (and ethical!) conduct by contrasting the two types of circumstances… perhaps even form some rule-of-thumb rules and heuristics.
A few to start off with?
- Someone who is ethically practicing deception of this type will avoid it unless the deception is inherently necessary to their goals — and not just to bypass legitimate opposition or to defraud.
- Someone who is ethically practicing deception of this type will almost universally be planning to reveal the deception from the beginning of the deception.
- Someone who is ethically practicing deception of this type will generally arrange things in such a way that their goals are accomplished by the revealing of the deception rather than the deception itself.
- Someone who is ethically practicing deception of this type will generally avoid substantially profiting from the deception or using it to advance their goals prior to revealing the deception (the “substantially” being necessary because of things like classroom engagement and media attention).
- Someone who is ethically practicing deception of this type will take what steps are possible, to the maximum extent possible, to mitigate any harms which can potentially be caused by the deception.
And that, I think, is as good a starting point as any.