Persuasion Through Moral Arguments

Moral Foundation Theory - Political CampsChoosing the lesser of evils, whether in voting or in philosophical decision making, is a point of contention. Do you stick to your principles? Or do you stray from them for the sake of persuasion?

There is no right or wrong answer. But research shows that we must compromise on our own ideas if we want to convince people of our ideas. It’s a counter-intuitive way of thinking, but once you start to understand it, it becomes natural.

Morals Are Not Universal

People like Ayn Rand, Stefan Molyneux and Walter Block have always insisted on the existence of an objective set of morals. Even insisting that their beliefs are the objective truth.

But the more you study the ideas of others, the easier it is to realize that there is no universal morality.

Morality has always varied between cultures. The foundations of those morals are reactive and adaptive in nature. They stem from fear and survival rather than rationale.

In the moral foundations theory Jonathan Haidt and Craig Joseph propose six foundations of moral reasoning. Care, fairness, loyalty, authority, and sanctity.

Haidt argues that progressives focus only on care and fairness, libertarians stress only liberty and fairness, and conservatives stress all six equally.

The six moral foundations explained.

The details of the moral roots of conservatives and liberals is explained in further detail in Jonathan Haidt’s TED talk.

The research behind the moral foundations theory says that when members of a political camp hear the words and see the behavior of the other, they see it as self-interested or evil.

They don’t see the perspective of those speaking the words or taking the action. They perceive it from their moral standpoint. They are blind to the moral foundations of others. We all experience this when we look at those with different moral foundations than our own.

Why Can’t We All Agree?

The reason why we can not see the perspective of others with different morals, as with many sociological theories, stems back to the hunter-gatherer societies of our ancestors.

The three elements unique to conservatives; loyalty, authority, and sanctity, bind groups together through strength and tribal competition. In the modern world, those principles translate to war, trade restrictions, and geopolitics.

Libertarians and liberals both argue that maintaining these principles is unnecessary in the modern world. Conservatives argue that human nature is still a factor and that natural competition and conflict will never go away.

To understand this difference in thinking, the difference between aiming for internal growth vs geopolitically fighting ‘external threats’ to maintain dominance, Haidt suggests that humans have evolved what he calls a ‘hive switch.’

The hive switch suggests the ability to switch between ape-like competitiveness and a bee-like cooperativeness.

Humans have formed larger groups over time to compete against other large groups. The difference in thinking between independent competition and group competition is, to an extent, what separates liberals and conservatives.

In conservative thinking, the individual must pull their own weight for the survival of the group. In progressive thinking, the group must take care of the individuals for the survival of the group. In libertarian thinking, the individual must find the best course of action for themselves for the survival of the group. Same goal, different perspective, different morals.

Liberals are morally concerned about care. Libertarians about liberty. And conservatives about loyalty and sanctity.

It’s nearly impossible for one group to imagine what it’s like to think like someone with a different moral standing. The phenomenon that makes it difficult to see another’s moral perspective is a “moral empathy gap.”

Creating Understanding

A normal empathy gap in the social sciences “is a cognitive bias in which people underestimate the influences of visceral drives on their own attitudes, preferences, and behaviors.”

In practice, when you are angry, it is hard to understand what it’s like not to be angry. In a moral empathy gap, when you are outraged by police killing innocent people, it is hard to understand what it’s like to be happy that police are patrolling the streets. When you’re happy that police are patrolling the streets, it is hard to understand what it’s like to hate the police because of a few shootings.

Taking another moral perspective requires a conscious effort that we naturally do not do in every situation. It is not easy to change your own moral perspective to gain a greater understanding of the whole picture.

Moral foundations theory research suggest that moral principles come from a genetic disposition and is influenced by upbringing. People may cross political party lines, but it’s unlikely that their moral foundations have ever changed.

It is possible to close the moral empathy gap and get better at understanding the perspective of others. Doing so requires the previously mentionedtheory of mind.’

That previous article on the libertarian image problem summarizes many cognitive biases and heuristics. It also proposes deep canvassing as a way to change people’s minds by talking to them in an empathetic way.

The ideas mentioned there are no different than the ones here. What the moral foundations theory provides is a way to see and understand the ideas of others.

Deep canvassing is a way to discover someone’s moral principles. It gives you a perspective on where they’re coming from. Listening and having a conversation has been proven to have a greater effect on changing someone’s mind.

We all know this to be true. But so often people tend to make arguments based on their own moral values instead of making an attempt to understand who they’re talking to.

Too often people speak the argument that would persuade them. Not the argument that would persuade the person they’re talking to.

Use Your Understanding to Persuade

It is important to remember that people will not sacrifice their own moral values in favor of yours. If you want someone to understand your ideas. If you want to convince someone of your ideas. You need to be able to put them in the perspective of their values, not yours.

Framing, in the social sciences, “comprises a set of concepts and theoretical perspectives on how individuals, groups and societies, organize, perceive, and communicate about reality.”

Arguing from the frame of whomever you are arguing with is ‘moral reframing.’ The writing and marketing industries have always used the idea of moral reframing. But somehow it has not extended into the political world, and that’s the major issue I’m getting at here.

Consider who your target audience is. Who do you want to convince of your ideas? What kind of language do they use? What are their beliefs, their interests, their morals? What do they respond to? With the answers to these questions, you can reframe your arguments and perspectives into the terms that are most effective. To gain the answers to those questions, all you need is a little deep canvassing and listening skills.

The obvious objection here is compromise. Sticking to your principles 100% can, and usually will have a negative impact on your persuasive abilities.

Is Compromise Worth It?

At some point, you will have to compromise if you want to convince someone of an idea. This means softening your message to get a single point across about one policy or issue.

Thus, the question becomes; is this a net negative on the message as a whole? Or is it getting people to take their first step in the right direction when they otherwise wouldn’t?

If you want to be persuasive, you’re going to have to use terms you don’t agree with. For example, to convince a conservative that gay people should be able to get married you might tell them that gay people pay taxes, fight in the military, and obey the laws. They deserve the right to marry just like every other loyal American.

Is that argument wrong? Even if it works? Or is the opposition to that argument in itself an example of the blindness and refusal to accept other people’s perspectives?

We will continue the conversation on those questions below and on social media. The decision to step away from the soapbox and have a compromising conversation for the sake of a gentle push in the right direction is up to you.

I don’t claim to have answers, only a few small ideas I felt worth sharing. Tell me your ideas and opinions in the comments.

For some extra fun, take the Moral Foundations Questionnaire and share your results. Below are my results; the green bar is me, blue is liberals, red is conservatives.

Moral Foundations Questionnaire Results

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