Monday, June 24, 2013

Moralizing and Persuading

Stefan Molyneux often quotes Nietzsche, who said something like, "Give a man a why and he can bear almost any how." Molyneux prefers arguments that appeal to basic morality, as opposed to consequentialist, cost/benefit oriented, arguments of effect. He claims that no one really cares whether a policy will increase GDP, or reduce crime, or increase average lifespan. If you can persuade someone it is evil, that person will oppose it, and conversely, persons will support that which they evaluate as good. So, persuade someone that the policy or philosophy that they support is evil, and they will abandon it. Persuade me that your philosophy is good, and I will join you.

Marshall Rosenberg advises against moralizing, and excludes it from his vision of "nonviolent communication." Dale Carnegie, in "How to Win Friends and Influence People," says " never tell someone 'you are wrong'."

These two approaches seem opposed, contradictory. Can it be that both are correct? I say yes.

At this point, I must immediately admit I've intentionally framed these in a way to make them look more contradictory than I think they are, in order to emphasize my point. They are not really discussing the same thing.

In my interpretation, Molyneux applies to motivation rather than persuasion. A surprising amount of human activity aims not at selfish gain or even collective gain, but instead at displaying pure motives. Haidt claims that morality evolved as a means for persons to persuade their neighbors of their righteousness.

Rosenberg's approach seeks human connection in order to resolve conflict. Moralizing and evaluating oppose connection. Carnegie seeks to persuade, and persuasion also requires connection. Try to persuade persons to believe that they have been fooled into supporting evil, and they will experience cognitive dissonance. Unless your previous connection to them is unusually strong, they will usually reject your argument. Even if you are strongly connected to them, you will persuade better by avoiding moralistic confrontation.

What about after you persuade someone, will moralizing help motivate them? Human psychology tends toward thinking in terms of "us" and "them". This challenges us to avoid getting trapped by this sort of thinking where it would harm us. Can we also use it to our advantage, honestly, when it may help us? Certainly we feel motivated when we know we are pursuing the good, will it also help motivate us if we think of those who disagree with us and oppose us as enemies, as evil? I answer "no". I can think of three reasons, though not clenchers. First, our opponents are also to some degree potential recruits. They also seek a vision of the good, though a mistaken one, so perhaps we can persuade them to join us. Second, enemy imagery increases conflict, so that if compromise or a creative win-win solution might be conceivable, we are less likely to find it if we demonize our opponents. Third, us/them thinking is very powerful human psychology, to which we are all somewhat vulnerable, and which has been responsible for escalating conflict beyond what is reasonable many times throughout history. So this is a dangerous tool, more attractive to tyrants and demagogues than to someone trying to pursue truth and virtue.

So. I conclude that in "outreach", moralizing will not deliver. Even when trying to motivate those who agree with us ("inreach"), we should limit the role of moralizing to evaluating our beliefs, not demonizing those who may mistakenly oppose us. So to obey Molyneux and Rosenberg at the same time, we must persuade others to adopt our moral outlook while not moralizing at them. Difficult!

I consider this a rough draft, please make suggestions in the comments to help me improve it.

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