The Ethics of Persuasion

(This blog first appeared in the Waterloo Region Record, May 4, 2009, p. A7, while I was serving on the Community Editorial Board, and is here slightly revised.  Newspaper title:  “The art of persuasion isn’t necessary bad”)

Do you think it is wrong for someone to try to persuade you about anything?  My hunch is that most readers will answer, yes.

Suspicion about persuasion is widespread.  We also don’t have a very high opinion of practitioners of persuasion, for example, people involved in public relations, merchandizing and religious proselytizing.  Why?  I suspect the main reason for these suspicions is that we like to think of ourselves as autonomous.  We see ourselves as independent thinkers and believe that we don’t need anyone meddling around with our beliefs.  Leave us alone!  After all, we can make up our own minds, thank you very much!

There is a problem with this attitude, however.  None of us are quite as independent as we think we are.  The human condition is characterized fundamentally by inter-dependence, and this also applies to the way in which we acquire our beliefs.  Indeed, most (maybe even 95%) of the beliefs that we hold are a result of persuasion.  Just think of all the beliefs that we’ve inherited from our parents.  Here we need to keep in mind that persuasion can be both, explicit or implicit.  Some time ago Vance Packard, a noted critic of the advertising industry, correctly drew our attention to “hidden persuaders.”  The phenomenon of hidden persuasion also applies to the beliefs, attitudes and prejudices that we absorb in childhood.  This is similarly true for many of the beliefs that we absorb via our immediate environment – the media and our culture.  These are powerful persuaders, and we can’t avoid them.

Then there are our teachers.  Much of what we believe is accepted on authority.  Children believe what their teachers say.  Even at universities, professors exert a powerful persuasive influence on students.  Indeed, university professors themselves are not quite as independent as they would like to think.  They too submit to the latest academic fads and to pressures of political correctness.  The late Richard John Neuhaus, a prominent Canadian-born churchman and writer liked to characterize the intellectual elite and the chattering class as “a herd of independent minds.”

We are dependent creatures.  We need to be persuaded.  We would not be human without persuasion.  And we like to persuade others.  We are by nature persuading animals.  Our prejudice against persuasion is unwarranted.  To be suspicious about all persuasion is to hide our heads in the sand.

Rather than condemning persuasion outright, we need to pay more attention to distinguishing between ethical and unethical forms of persuasion.  Unfortunately, not much attention has been given to this task.  I suspect the main reason for this neglect is the widespread tendency to condemn all forms of persuasion.  This neglect is also due to the notorious difficulties associated with distinguishing ethical from unethical forms of persuasion.

Take for example the need to distinguish between coercive and non-coercive forms of persuasion.  An ancient and armed crusader announcing, “Convert, or I will kill you,” was obviously engaging in coercive and hence immoral proselytizing.  However, it is much more difficult to identify psychologically coercive proselytizing.

But we must not give up too soon.  Here are some questions that might help us to make the all-important distinction between ethical and unethical forms of persuasion.  Have you given explicit or implicit permission to be persuaded? Does the persuader genuinely care for you as a person?  Are persuaders being truthful?  Do they engage your reason in trying to persuade you?  Are they people of integrity?  Do they have something to gain from persuading you?  Are they willing to admit that they might be wrong?  Is the persuader open to having you persuade them?  Do they respect your freedom to say no?

At a societal level, we need to be especially concerned about the connection between power and persuasion. Do monopolies of persuasion exist?  Multiple voices of persuasion are an essential feature of liberal democratic societies.

So the next time that you encounter a persuader, whether a salesperson, a political or religious proselytizer, an editorial writer, or a friend trying to convince you about something, don’t simply engage in a blanket condemnation of what they are doing.  At least they are being explicit about trying to persuade you.  Maybe you can even learn something from them.

Persuasion arises because we as human beings differ.  Persuasion, if done in an ethical manner contributes to the dignity of difference.  Indeed, healthy persuasion is both an expression of the persuader’s own dignity, and an acknowledgement of the dignity of the person being persuaded.

(For more on this topic, see my book entitled, “The Ethics of Evangelism:  A Defense of Proselytizing and Persuasion,”  published by Paternoster Press and IVP Academic, 2011.)  For more information on this book, see topic of “Books” under Pages.


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