Posts Tagged ‘persuasion’

A Philosopher Examines Jonathan Haidt

February 23, 2016

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, by Jonathan Haidt.  New York, NY: Vintage Books, 2013. 500 pages, Paperback

The title of Jonathan Haidt’s book is well chosen. This is a book that touches on ethical reasoning, political analysis, and religious faith. There is, however, an ambiguity in the main title. The “righteous mind” can refer either to a mind that thinks about that which is right, or it can refer to a self-righteous or dogmatic mind. Haidt intends both meanings. The overall thrust of this book is to explain how and why liberals and conservatives are so divided about politics and religion, and also how this divide can be overcome. What is missing from title of this book is that it is written from the perspective of evolutionary social psychology.

As a philosopher, I found Part I of this book most intriguing – “Intuitions Come First, Strategic Reasoning Second.” Haidt is here challenging much of the history of philosophy that presumes that we are fundamentally rational creatures. For example, Plato assumed that reason ought to control the passions. This kind of thinking was reinforced during the Enlightenment which postulated a universal and objective reason. According to Haidt, we are not as rational as we think we are. We are governed more by intuition and instinct than by reason. Here we must be careful not to see intuition and instinct as inferior to reason. Both are “cognitive” according to Haidt. There are two kinds of cognition, intuition and reasoning. Intuition refers to the hundreds of rapid, effortless decisions and moral judgments that we all make every day (p.53). Many of these are automatic. Only some of them surface as full-blown emotional responses.

Haidt provides a useful illustration to help us understand these two kinds of cognition. He first used this analogy his earlier book, The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom (Basic Books, 2006). Try to imagine a rider on a huge elephant. The rider symbolizes the rational part of human nature, our controlled processes, including “reasoning-why.” The large and lumbering elephant stands for the automatic processes of human nature, including emotion, intuition and all forms of “seeing-that” (p. 53). For Haidt, it is our automatic processes that run the human mind, just as they have been running animal minds for 500 million years (p. 53).

The rider can do several useful things. It can see further into the future and can therefore help the elephant make better decisions. More importantly, the rider acts as the spokesman for the elephant, even though it doesn’t necessarily know what the elephant is really thinking. “The rider is skilled at fabricating post hoc explanations for whatever the elephant has just done, and it is good at finding reasons to justify whatever the elephant wants to do next” (p.54). In evolutionary terms, once human beings developed language and began to communicate with each other, “it became extremely valuable for elephants to carry around on their backs a full-time public relations firm” (p. 54). So, the rider serves the elephant. Reason is the servant of intuition. “Conscious reasoning functions like a press secretary who automatically justifies any position taken by the president” (p.106).

I think Haidt has got it right. We are not as rational as we think we are. We approach many new situations or new ideas with our minds already made up. This has huge implications for how we think about education, or how we think about influencing or persuading others, a subject that I have been preoccupied with for much of my career. We need to pay much more attention to the way in which our thinking is shaped by non-rational influences – social media, movies, culture, propaganda. We seldom change our minds because of rational persuasion. As Haidt puts it, “if you want to change people’s minds, you’ve got to talk to their elephants” (p. 57). At a personal level, we influence people more by displaying warmth and empathy than by rational argument.

Haidt’s analysis is also helpful in understanding churches. Every church has a distinctive culture that is simply a given. It is this pervasive church culture that determines not only the atmosphere of the church but also the decisions it makes. Decisions are largely made automatically in light of the culture of the church. It is very hard to challenge the culture of the church and the decisions that come out of such a culture. Rational persuasion is really of little value. Here again, one needs to learn how to talk to the large and lumbering elephant. Contrary positions need to be expressed with gentleness, and love, and prayer, and with lots of patience. Maybe over time, over a long period of time, one might bring about a small shift in church culture.

Our moral judgments too are not fundamentally rational in nature, according to Haidt. Here he draws on eighteenth century philosopher, David Hume, who argues that morality is grounded in the emotions, though Haidt prefers to talk about social intuition rather than individual emotions. Emotions are only one type of intuition. Here again, the bulk of our moral judgments are intuitive, automatic, and elephant-like. Moral reasoning comes mainly after the initial intuitive moral judgments have already been made, and has the purpose of rationalizing our intuitions, and communicating them to others, particularly in terms of enhancing our reputation. Haidt comes very close to talking about moral intuitions as innate (pp. 153, 178, 325). Here his evolutionary theory gets in the way. As a Christian, I maintain that God has implanted in us certain moral intuitions, so that we instinctively know that some things are right or wrong (cf. Romans 2:14-15). Of course Haidt can’t admit this because he doesn’t believe in God. Further, he deals with morality at a descriptive level, and tries very hard to avoid prescription.

In Part II Haidt goes on to critique the dominant moral theories of a very small subset of the human population – Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic Western societies (forming the acronym WEIRD). WEIRD societies favor the values of utilitarianism and justice. Haidt argues that there is more to morality than harm and fairness, the values favored by liberals. Other important values include care, loyalty, authority, sanctity and liberty. These are values that tend to be emphasized by conservatives. Chapter 7 attempts to justify these values as part of an evolutionary process – adaptations for human flourishing. The value of care evolved in response to the adaptive challenge of caring for vulnerable children. The value of fairness evolved in response to the adaptive challenge of reaping the rewards of cooperation without getting exploited. The value of loyalty evolved in response to the adaptive challenge of forming and maintaining coalitions. The value of authority evolved in response to the adaptive challenge of forging relationships that will benefit us within social hierarchies. The value of sanctity evolved in response to the adaptive challenge of facing threats of various kinds, and has the effect of binding groups together. The value of liberty evolved in response to the adaptive challenge of resisting bullies and tyrants.

Part III involves an extended treatment of the groupish tendencies of human nature. Evolutionary theory has more recently accepted the notion that natural selection can work at multiple levels, and can include both individuals and groups. Religion plays a key role in creating community, an essential component for human survival. Contrary to the current crusading atheists, Dawkins, Dennett, and Hitchens, Haidt is quite sympathetic with religion.

The book ends with a final look at the increasing polarity between liberals and conservatives, arguing that in part these polarities are genetically based. “People whose genes gave them brains that get a special pleasure from novelty, variety, and diversity, while simultaneously being less sensitive to signs of threat are predisposed (but not predestined) to become liberals. They tend to develop certain ‘characteristic adaptations’ and ‘life narratives’ that make them resonate – unconsciously and intuitively – with the grand narratives told by political movements on the left” (p. 365). People whose genes have given them brains with the opposite settings are predisposed, for the same reasons, to resonate with grand narratives of the right. What to do about this polarity? Haidt pleads with both sides to listen and learn from each other. In fact the two sides compliment each other. A healthy society needs both liberals and conservatives. But he especially urges liberals to recognize that conservatives are better at creating and preserving moral and social capital that are essential to any society. “Moral communities are fragile things, hard to build and easy to destroy” (p.342). I admire Haidt, a former liberal, for having the courage to say this. I also appreciated his observation that liberals tend to be more dogmatic and narrow-minded than conservatives. So true, but all too often denied by liberals!

I conclude with some comments about the evolutionary perspective from which this book is written. As a Christian I am not entirely hostile to evolutionary theory. I am quite willing to go where the evidence leads me. I believe scientific evidence and biblical revelation point to a position of theistic evolution. Haidt, though more sympathetic to religion than most atheists, in the end interprets religion from an evolutionary perspective. Religion gives expression to our social nature (ch. 11), and captures the sacred (higher than I) dimension of our value system (pp. 173-4). At times Haidt is very careful to provide empirical support for his evolutionary theory. But especially when dealing with religion as a means of creating community, his analysis becomes increasingly speculative. It seems his evolutionary framework drives his interpretation, with or without empirical evidence.

This book provides a good example of how scientific theory relates to empirical evidence. Ultimately, theory needs to be grounded in the empirical. But we can never approach the empirical without some theoretical framework. Hence, the hermeneutical circle. How do we get out of this circle? First, by admitting that there is a problem. Further, a good scientist will always be open to having his/her interpretive framework challenged by empirical data that don’t quite fit the interpretative framework. The danger for a scientist who adopts an evolutionary theory, is that he interprets empirical data from the perspective of his assumed evolutionary perspective, and then lets nothing change his interpretive framework.

Let me give one example. Haidt is very careful to ground his interpretation of moral cognition as intuition in examples. So far, so good. Intuitions are then interpreted as adaptations of the human animal that have evolved over time, and that then become entrenched as automatic moral responses to certain situations. Again, this conclusion seems to be grounded in evidence. But there is a bit of an interpretive leap of faith here. As a Christian I interpret these moral intuitions as innate, as instincts that God has implanted into human nature. This interpretation is surely as plausible as an evolutionary interpretation. Indeed, as I have already pointed out, Haidt at times flirts with the notion of innateness. All that is needed to convert his interpretative theory into a Christian theory is to add the notion of God. Of course, I need to provide some additional evidence for preferring my interpretative framework, but that would take us far beyond the scope of this paper. Haidt clearly doesn’t want to adopt my Christian interpretive framework, because he is so thoroughly committed to his evolutionary interpretive framework. What would change Haidt’s mind? As we have already seen, rational argument will not be of much help. But perhaps the rider might look into the distant future, and entertain alternate scenarios, and this might eventually nudge the elephant closer to a genuinely religious interpretative framework.

Let me say a bit more about Haidt’s approach to morality. I find his position with regard to the nature of morality rather confusing. As an evolutionary social psychologist he is operating primarily at a descriptive level. His six foundational moral matrixes are descriptions of the values that people in fact do appeal to. As already noted, liberals tend to focus on liberty and equality. While conservatives have a broader moral matrix that includes loyalty, authority, and the sacred as importance values. But, as is the tendency of social scientists, Haidt doesn’t limit himself to description. He flirts with prescription. For example, Haidt argues (at least implicitly) that we ought to think in terms of all six moral foundations. He argues that liberals, especially, ought to be more open to conservative values. He decries the ideological divide between liberals and conservatives. The book concludes: “We’re all stuck here for a while, so let’s try to work it out” (p. 371). Yes indeed, but this comes very close to being a prescriptive conclusion. Haidt is saying that we ought to get along. Here again I believe Haidt needs to draw on Christian insights to overcome his confusion with regard to the descriptive/prescriptive divide. In the Christian canon of Scripture, God clearly issues prescriptions, the best example of which are the giving of the 10 commandments. But these commandments are not given arbitrarily. They are in fact given to us for our own good (Deut 6:3, 18). They work. If you want a healthy society, follow God’s laws. Or to draw on Haidt’s evolutionary perspective, God created man and society so that they have evolved in such a way that following the six moral matrixes will in fact lead to a healthy, well functioning society.

And what about the issue of moral relativism. Haidt is in fact very confusing here. At times he quite specifically adopts a relativistic stance (p.368). At other times, he quite specifically says he is not a relativist (pp.132-3). He wants to say that his six pillars of moral values are in fact the right way to make decisions. He comes very close to saying that these are objective moral values that all human beings should adopt. He correctly suggests that while these values are objective and universal, the way they are applied to different cultures will in fact be different (p.31). Here again I agree. There is some truth to situational relativism. But let’s not be so hesitant to admit that there are some core values that are built into nature that all people everywhere ought to follow. Again, I prefer a Christian interpretive framework which maintains that God created the world in such a way that the following of certain norms will in fact lead to flourishing societies.

As a philosopher, I often have difficulties appreciating books written by social scientists. As a Christian I also frequently have problems with overly dogmatic assertions of evolutionary scientists. I did not encounter these problems in reading Jonathan Haidt. Despite its confusions, this book deserves to be read.

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The Ethics of Evangelism and Integral Mission

November 2, 2014

(This essay grew out of two presentations I made at the 5th. Global Triennial Consultation of the Micah Network, Thun, Switzerland, Sept. 10-14, 2012. A French version of this essay has been published in a book growing out of this conference: “Éthique de l’évangélisation et Mission intégrale”, in Le cri des chrétiens du Sud, Pour une Bonne Nouvelle incarnée dans des actes, Éditions « Je sème », sl, Dossier vivre n°34, 2013, p.83-103)

Western cultures have been shaped by the Enlightenment and its central liberal values of reason, autonomy, and tolerance. The Enlightenment made peace with “irrational” religion by relegating it to the private sphere. It is this inheritance that explains why evangelism is today viewed with a lot of suspicion. Christians engaging in evangelism are daring to enter the public arena and are further declaring the gospel to be public truth. I address this tension in my recent book, The Ethics of Evangelism: A Philosophical Defence of Ethical Proselytizing and Persuasion (Thiessen 2011).(1) This essay is meant to provide a brief summary of my book, after which I will address the relation between evangelism and integral mission. I will then deal with the ethics of integral mission.

I had three basic objectives in mind when I wrote the book – to defend evangelism against a variety of objections, to defend evangelism more generally, and to develop criteria to distinguish between ethical and unethical forms of evangelism. The book was written with two readerships in mind – skeptics opposed to religion and religious activity, and religious adherents, especially evangelical Christians, who are very much committed to evangelism. Writing for these two very different readerships is a challenge, particularly with regard to using language that will be understood by both. In the next section I treat two aspects of that challenge.

Evangelism and Ethics
First, what word should be used to identify the central focus of my book – “evangelism” or “proselytizing”? Christians prefer to talk about evangelism, the meaning of which can vary from “evangelism is social action,” to evangelism is “announcing the gospel to non-Christians with a view to faith and conversion.” Another word that is sometimes used as a synonym for evangelism is “proselytizing.” The dictionary definition of “proselytism” refers only to conversion from one opinion, creed or party to another. My use of the term “proselytizing” throughout the book was based on the conviction that this term was more familiar to my “secular” readership. However, in Christian circles proselytism has come to be associated with “evangelistic malpractice,” or the use of coercive techniques to achieve conversion.(2) In ecumenical circles ‘proselytism’ has also come to mean “sheep-stealing.” In this paper, I will for clarity’s sake, use only the word, “evangelism,” treating this as a neutral term from an ethical point of view, and then acknowledging that evangelism can be done either in an ethical or an unethical manner.

I have already suggested that “evangelism” also has a range of meanings. In my book – and in this essay – evangelism will be understood in its narrower sense as giving verbal witness to the gospel with a view to conversion. Another term sometimes used by Christians as a synonym of evangelism is “proclamation.” This word too can be used to refer both to verbal proclamation, and to living out the Lordship of Jesus Christ in everything that Christians do, including relief, rehabilitation, development, working for justice, and environmental care. (I will use the term “social action” as an abbreviation for the broader collective meaning of proclamation.) This paper begins with a focus on the narrower meaning of proclamation or evangelism, and I will later deal with these notions within the context of social action.

The second challenge I faced in writing for two very different readerships, involves the question, what ethical framework would I use to deal with the ethics of evangelism? Obviously, for us as Christians, ethics or the definition of right and wrong are rooted in God and in God’s word, especially God’s revelation in Jesus Christ.(3) In a way, nothing more needs to be said about providing an ethical framework for Christians. But, when talking with others who don’t share our faith, I believe it is important to try to find an ethical framework that we as Christians share with unbelievers. Why do I believe in the possibility of some common ground between believers and unbelievers when it comes to ethics? First, because of my faith in God as Creator of all that exists. God created laws – both physical laws and ethical norms. So a careful and open-minded study of nature will lead to a discovery of these laws. This has led various theologians to stress the notion of natural law as accessible to both believers and unbelievers. Secondly, God also created human nature, and so we find Paul arguing that Gentiles who don’t have the law nevertheless have the requirements of the law written in their hearts (Rom 2:14). I believe we are all born with a moral compass, which can be distorted, but never entirely silenced. Thirdly, I appeal to the dignity and care of persons as foundational to ethics, and as again providing a common ethical framework for both believers and unbelievers.

It was Immanuel Kant, in the eighteenth century, who gave us the modern and secular version of an ethical theory based on the dignity of persons. Kant repeatedly appeals to the absolute worth of human beings who are rational and free. This leads him to argue that we should always treat human beings as ends in themselves, never simply as a means to an end. Historically, this emphasis on the dignity of human beings has led to an ethics formulated in terms of rights and duties. Some feminist writers have reminded us of the limitations of rights-based ethics. I therefore believe a better approach to ethics is to combine an emphasis on the dignity and worth of persons with an emphasis on love and care for persons.

As Christians we can provide a theological foundation for this appeal to the dignity and care of persons. The most fundamental reason for respecting the dignity of the human being is that each person is created in the image of God. We are also called to love our neighbor, and so care for persons is also foundational to ethics. My hope is that all (or at least most) people will accept the dignity and care of persons as foundational to ethics. This gives rise to two foundational principles for dealing with the ethics of evangelism.

Dignity criterion
Ethical evangelism is always done in such a way as to protect the dignity and worth of the person or persons being evangelized. Evangelism becomes unethical when it reduces the potential convert to the status of an object or a pawn in the evangelism program of any church or Christian organization.

Care criterion
Ethical evangelism must always be an expression of concern for the whole person and all of his or her needs – physical, social, economic, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual. To care only for the salvation of the souls of persons is unethical. It involves an objectification of a part of the person and as such violates that person’s dignity.

Objections to Evangelism
There are many today, including some scholars, who would condemn most or even all evangelism as immoral. Objections to evangelism can be divided roughly into two categories.(4) First, some of the objections are empirical in nature. For example, it is argued that efforts at evangelism have harmful consequences for individuals and for society as a whole. Some critics argue that evangelism leads to resentment, hatred, disunity in society, and even holy wars. Sadly, there is some truth to these empirically-based objections. But, we need to be fair. All too often, claims about the harmful consequences of evangelism involve sweeping generalizations with little or no concern about concrete evidence. Critics also tend to load the dice by talking about fanatic, irrational or aggressive evangelists. And what about the counter-evidence – the countless individuals who have received relief from guilt after responding to evangelists’ proclamation of the message of forgiveness in Jesus Christ? Then there are the religious revivals that have led to significant moral improvement in societies.

The second and more common kind of objection to evangelism is conceptual in nature. It is often argued that there are certain characteristics of evangelism that make it immoral by its very nature. Some critics feel that persuasion is in itself immoral. Others focus more specifically on religious persuasion and argue that this is immoral because of the uncertainty or irrationality of religious claims. Still others maintain that evangelism is arrogant and intolerant. Some critics question the motivation behind evangelism. Then of course there is the charge that evangelism is coercive by its very nature. I argue that each of these objections against evangelism is unsound, based on problematic assumptions and questionable definitions, as I illustrate below with respect to coercion. Blanket condemnations of all evangelism, or claims that evangelism is inherently unethical, are simply unwarranted. This does not at all mean that these charges are never appropriate. The history of the Christian church is littered with evangelistic malpractice, including the use of coercive techniques or force to achieve conversion. This calls for repentance. At the same time, we can and should defend ourselves against criticisms to the effect that ethical evangelism is impossible.

A Positive Defence of Evangelism
As Christians we are called to proclaim the gospel and make disciples of all nations. The gospel is good news. To evangelize is therefore a good thing. But how does one defend evangelism to unbelievers? I argue that persuasion, including religious persuasion is an essential part of the human makeup.(5) Much of our conversation involves persuasion, and our efforts to persuade cover a wide variety of issues, including religion. Persuading others about our convictions is an essential part of our own dignity. Trying to persuade other persons of the error of their ways is also a way to honor others. Indifference is in the end an insult to others. John Stuart Mill, in his classic defense of liberty, argues that proselytizing is a healthy phenomenon, because it encourages controversy and discussion on “subjects which are large and important enough to kindle enthusiasm,” and which therefore enable even ordinary persons to rise “to something of the dignity of thinking beings” (Mill 1978, 33).

My defense of evangelism is not meant to rule out the possibility of there being unethical methods of evangelism. We can neither approve of evangelism generally nor condemn it outright, as is sadly all too often done. Instead, we need to pay more attention to developing criteria to distinguish between ethical and unethical evangelism. In my book I devote two chapters to analyzing and defending fifteen criteria to define ethical evangelism.(6)

Criteria to Distinguish between Ethical and Unethical Evangelism
I have already considered the first two criteria, dignity and care, in my treatment of the foundation of ethics. One important dimension of treating people with dignity involves respecting their freedom to make choices. Four of my criteria have to do with coercion, which is a frequently made charge against evangelism and proselytizing. While I believe that some evangelistic approaches are coercive and hence immoral, I believe the charge of coercion is not as easy to substantiate as is often assumed. Of course, if one starts with the assumption that all human actions are determined, it follows that all evangelistic efforts are coercive and hence immoral. But this begs the question. Besides, a deterministic worldview precludes moral evaluation. I prefer to talk about degrees of human freedom, and hence degrees of human responsibility. But as soon as one admits to degrees of human freedom, it becomes more difficult to define what is coercive. Indeed, the problem of vagueness pervades charges made against cult recruitment. This does not mean that the charge of coercion can never be made. I argue that it is better to deal with cases of suspected coercive evangelism on a case-by-case analysis. However, I believe some broader types of coercive evangelism can be identified.

It is helpful here to distinguish between four categories of coercion – physical, psychological, social, and inducements to convert. These four categories lead to four criteria to distinguish between ethical and unethical evangelism. The latter two categories are more closely related to the interface between evangelism and Christian aid/development and so I will treat these later. Physical coercion is the easier criterion to define. Some vagueness is unavoidable in defining the other criteria, although in each case there are extremes that should be seen as obviously morally offensive.

Physical coercion criterion
The freedom to make choices is central to the dignity of persons. Ethical evangelism will therefore allow persons to make a genuinely free and uncoerced choice with regard to conversion. Evangelism involving the use of physical force or threats is unethical.

Psychological coercion criterion
Stated as a general principle, ethical evangelism avoids psychological manipulation. There are various ways in which evangelism can be psychologically manipulative. (a) Christians engaged in evangelism should avoid intense, repeated and extremely programmatic approaches to bringing about conversions. (b) Care must be taken to avoid exploiting vulnerability. This becomes especially important when dealing with children, young people, vulnerable adults, and individuals facing personal crises. (c) Excessive appeals to emotion and fear must also be avoided.

Another set of criteria has to do with epistemic concerns, such as rationality, truth, and the way in which we present our claims to truth.

Rationality criterion
Evangelism involves persuasion to convert. Ethical persuasion includes the providing of information in order to make such a decision. It also includes giving reasons for the proposed change of heart and mind. Evangelism that attempts to sidestep human reason entirely is unethical.

Truthfulness criterion
Ethical evangelism is truthful. It seeks to tell the truth about Christianity. It is truthful also with regard to what it says about other religions. Integrity characterizes the ethical evangelist. Evangelism accompanied by hidden agendas, hidden identities, lying, deception, and failure to speak the truth should be condemned as unethical.

Humility criterion
Ethical evangelism is characterized by humility. Evangelism becomes unethical when it becomes arrogant, condescending, and dogmatic in the claims being made.

Sadly, Christians are not always exemplary in displaying the epistemic virtues of rationality and humility. They forget that they “only know in part” when evangelizing (I Cor. 13:12). Sometimes they are also not honest about their evangelistic intent. For example, Perry Glanzer has documented the story of a failure to be entirely truthful in a major missionary/educational endeavor prompted by an invitation by the Russian Ministry of Education in the early 1990’s, when evangelicals from America were invited to come and instruct Russian public school teachers on how to teach Christian ethics. In the main, the 1,500 people recruited to help train teachers in Russia were not educators, and had not been trained to teach Christian ethics, but were in fact missionaries intent on using this opportunity to evangelize and plant churches, leading Glanzer to conclude that the enterprise was “ethically problematic” (Glanzer 2002, p. 196).

A criterion that deserves to stand on its own has to do with motivation. Of course it is difficult to assess someone else’s motivation so perhaps the application of this criterion is best left for self-assessment.

Motivation criterion
The primary motivation for ethical evangelism is love for God and love for humanity. Ethical evangelism grows out of genuine concern for the other person’s well-being, and his or her assumed need to hear the truth as understood by the evangelist. With unethical evangelism, on the other hand, ego-centric motives such as personal benefit and reward, personal reassurance resulting from being able to convert another person to one’s own position, personal domination over another person, and personal satisfaction about growth of one’s own church, become dominant.

Another stand-alone criterion having to do with identity is fairly self-explanatory.

Identity criterion
Ethical evangelism will take into account and show some respect for the communal identity of the person being evangelized. Evangelism which completely disregards the dignity of the individual as rooted in his or her social (or religious) attachments is immoral.

The following two criteria try to capture what is right about the liberal virtues of tolerance and pluralism. It is important here to note how these criteria differ from traditional understandings of tolerance and pluralism. I am quite deliberately distancing myself from notions of tolerance and pluralism that assume a relativistic understanding of truth. Tolerance has to do with putting up with something that you don’t like. To preclude all criticism of beliefs is in fact to be intolerant. What is important is to respect persons even though one disagrees with the beliefs they hold. And one must also protect the right of others to share their beliefs even though one disagrees with them.

Tolerance criterion
Ethical evangelism treats persons holding beliefs differing from that of the evangelist with love and respect. While it does not preclude fair criticism of other religious or irreligious beliefs, it treats the same with respect, and avoids hostile attitudes or the use of insulting and abusive language against other religions and worldviews.

Golden Rule
Ethical evangelism operates under the assumption that others have the right to share their faith as well. It is immoral to assume or to work towards a monopoly of the evangelism enterprise.

I conclude my analysis of criteria to distinguish between ethical and unethical evangelism with a criterion that is particularly important given the passion for evangelism among evangelicals.

Results criterion
Results, success in persuasion, or church growth, while welcomed, should not be seen as
primary goals in evangelism. A pre-occupation with results, success, or church growth, when evangelizing, is unethical.

Evangelism and Integral Mission
There has been some discussion among Micah Network members about the relation between evangelism (understood as preaching/proclaiming the good news) and Christian aid/relief/development and working for justice (or social action). The oft-quoted definition of ‘integral mission” from the 2001 “Micah Network Declaration on Integral Mission” suggests that there is a close link between evangelism and social action.

It is not simply that evangelism and social involvement are to be done alongside each other. Rather in integral mission our proclamation has social consequences as we call people to love and repentance in all areas of life. And our social involvement has evangelistic consequences as we bear witness to the transforming grace of Jesus Christ.(7)

But does this mean that Christian social action and verbal proclamation of the gospel, always occur “at the same time?” Some members of the Micah Network have argued that this is a misinterpretation of integral mission, and have called for further nuancing of the declaration so as to avoid such misinterpretation.(8) There would seem to be some confusion with regard to the relation between evangelism and social action. Further, there are repeated demands by governments and government agencies that evangelism and social involvement be separated. In fact faith-based non-governmental development organizations (FBNGDOs) have accommodated such a separation by calling on workers in the field to abstain from explicit evangelism.

Clearly, it is possible to distinguish between aid/relief/development and verbal evangelism/proclamation, both at a conceptual and at a practical level. At the same time, each must be seen as a legitimate expression of the mission of God. Jesus called his disciples both to preach the good news and to heal the sick (Luke 9 & 10). Paul in his description of the “cosmic Christ” talks both about “reconciling” to himself “all things,” and about reconciling individuals to Jesus Christ (Col. 1:19, 22). As followers of Jesus Christ, we are therefore bound to say that in some sense, the ideal is that Christians and the church are engaged in both social action and evangelism. While each penetrates the other, yet in their core meaning, they can be distinguished, and thus there is a need to ensure that overall and in the long run, the church maintains a balance between these two aspects of Christian mission.

Sometimes circumstances are such that we as Christians will find ourselves preoccupied with social action. This should be seen as a perfectly legitimate expression of the mission of the church. We boldly engage in this somewhat one-sided approach to Christian mission because Christ calls the church to be involved in feeding the hungry, and overcoming poverty and exploitation. We also realize that even while we are engaged primarily in social action, our work cannot help but further the cause of evangelism, because the two can’t be entirely separated. Recipients of our aid will realize (over time) that we are doing this for the sake of Christ. Indeed, when asked why we are engaged in the same we will be honest in explaining our motivation. The truthfulness criterion considered above also applies to Christian aid and development.

At the same time, we must allow for the possibility that we as Christians will sometimes find ourselves focusing primarily on evangelism or verbal proclamation, because this too is an expression of obedience to God and the imitation of Jesus Christ. Again we realize that even while we are engaged primarily in verbal proclamation of the gospel, we will still be calling people to love and repentance in all areas of life, and thus our verbal proclamation will have social consequences.

Christian aid workers therefore need to acknowledge the legitimacy of those Christians who are engaged primarily in evangelism, and Christians committed to evangelism need to acknowledge the legitimacy of those Christians who are engaged primarily in social action. At the same time, both groups will recognize that it is impossible to entirely separate aid from evangelism. Hence, the notion of integral mission. I want to move on now to consider some unique dimensions of the ethics of evangelism within the context of relief and development.

Ethics of Integral Mission
Steve Bradbury, in a recent chapter on “The Micah Mandate,” suggests that The Micah Declaration lacks any acknowledgement of the sensitivities and ethics of evangelism in contexts of human vulnerability and dependence. He suggests that this may be due to the brevity of the declaration, or perhaps because of its original purpose and intended audience. He then identifies a problem that needs to be addressed.

All development and humanitarian programs necessarily involve transactions between people of greater or lesser dependence on the one side, and those who are the conduit for essential resources or services on the other. Within the context of these transactional relationships there is an inevitable imbalance of power, regardless of how much care is exercised and regardless of the humility or otherwise of the development or aid workers.(9)

So how does one address this imbalance of power? One of my criteria relating to coercion attempts to answer this question.

Social coercion criterion
While acknowledging that some degree of power and control is inescapable in evangelism (and Christian aid and development), excessive expressions of power, or the exploiting of power-imbalances when evangelising is unethical.

Clearly there is again some vagueness in this criterion. This is simply unavoidable. What can be done to overcome excessive levels of power-imbalance? I concur with Bradbury that FBNGDOs should be working in partnerships with local churches.(10)

Closely related to the problem of power-imbalance is the problem of exploiting vulnerability when engaged in Christian relief and development. Humanitarian aid cannot but create some psychological pressure and inducement to convert. Indeed, any Christian kindness, even ordinary friendship, has this “problem.” But is there really a problem here? We are human beings influenced by all kinds of factors, and it is impossible to isolate completely one aspect of our nature from another. Humanitarian aid provided by Christians (or atheists), will create some psychological pressure and inducement to convert to Christianity (or atheism). A degree of psychological pressure or inducement to convert is inescapable in humanitarian efforts. I think it is therefore important for Christian aid agencies and workers to admit this. Again, we need to be truthful about what we are doing. At the same time, there comes a point where it is clear that the inducements to convert are carried to an extreme. My next criterion of ethical evangelism identifies the extreme and then goes on to respond to less obvious cases of inducements to convert.

Inducement criterion
Evangelism accompanied by material enticement such as money, gifts, or privileges, is unethical. In situations where providing medical care, humanitarian aid, or education is in some way linked with evangelism, the greater the need, the more sensitive the person(s) engaged in social aid/development must be to the danger of exploiting that need, and thus inducing to convert. In situations where physical needs are overwhelming, evangelism should be kept entirely separate from the activity of responding to these physical needs. A further requirement is a high standard of transparency. Persons engaged in social aid/development must make it clear that they are not trading medical or humanitarian aid for conversion. There is no quid pro quo. The person being evangelized must therefore be given a clear sense that it is perfectly acceptable for him or her to accept aid, or medical help, and yet refuse any persuasive appeals to convert.

Here is an example of what I consider to be unethical integral mission. Christian groups who combined relief efforts and evangelism in response to the tsunami disaster in Asia in December of 2004 came under severe criticism in the media. I believe this criticism was justified. To evangelize in the context of extreme physical needs is simply inappropriate. It involves an exploitation of extreme vulnerability and therefore is unethical (Thiessen 2011, p. 167).

I conclude with a few comments on the Micah Network Statement on “Proselytism.”(11) While I am largely in agreement with this Statement, I do have some problems with its “unequivocal” affirmation of the Code of Conduct for the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and NGO’s in Disaster Relief, which says that “aid will not be used to further a particular political or religious standpoint” (Section #3). I believe a qualification needs to be made here. The giving of aid cannot help but make the recipient sympathetic to the religious or political standpoint of the aid-giver. The real issue therefore is one of exploiting aid in order to bring about political or religious conversion. The additional sentences of the relevant part of the Code of Conduct being referred to spells this out: “Humanitarian aid will be given according to the need of individuals, families and communities. Notwithstanding the right of Non Governmental Humanitarian Agencies to espouse particular political or religious opinions, we affirm that assistance will not be dependent on the adherence of the recipients to those opinions. We will not tie the promise, delivery or distribution of assistance to embracing or acceptance of a particular political or religious creed.” This I can heartily endorse.

There is a final problem in the ethics of integral mission that deserves some comment. I have argued that if we look at the work of Christians and the church in terms of the big picture, and over the long haul, we should be involved in both evangelism and social activity. I have also acknowledged that there will be circumstances that might limit our engagement in evangelism. For example, FBNGDOs sometimes face government constraints and even prohibitions with regard to evangelism. How should Christians respond to such regulations and restrictions?

I agree with the Micah Network Statement on “Proselytism” that it is not possible to dissociate what we are as Christians from what we do. Therefore, in seeking official entry to serve the needy in countries that restrict Christian activity, Christians should be very open about their Christian identity and motivation. At the same time, while foreign agencies should be careful to be transparent in their official relationship with any government, it should be recognized that it is often difficult for local organizations to operate in the same way.

I also believe that it is possible for Christians to accept the restrictions placed upon them by certain governments that prohibit them from taking the initiative in sharing their faith with those they are serving. Steve Bradbury makes a useful distinction between “programmatic” evangelism and the informal sharing of deeply held “spiritual” beliefs, a distinction that has been used as a guide by TEAR Australia.(12) I would also argue that governments have no authority to stop Christians from truthfully explaining their faith when asked to do so. If someone asks Christian aid workers why they are serving, then they should be able to say that it is out of obedience to Jesus Christ and in response to his love. If government regulations of a country are such that they do not allow Christians to explain their faith when asked why they are engaging in aid and development, then I seriously question whether FBNGDOs should be engaging in aid and development in this country.

Ethical evangelism is possible. So is ethical integral mission. May we as Christians be faithful to our Lord’s calling to both evangelism and social action.(13) May we also be committed to doing both in an ethical manner.

References:
Bradbury, Steve. (2012). “The Micah Mandate: An Evangelical View.” In Mission and Development: God’s Work or Good Works, ed. Matthew Clarke, 103-122. London & New York: Continuum.

Glanzer, P. (2002). The Quest for Russia’s Soul: Evangelicals and Moral Education in Post-Communist Russia. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press.

Mill, J.S. (1978/1859). On Liberty. Indianapolis: Hackett.

Thiessen, E. J. (2011). The Ethics of Evangelism: A Philosophical Defense of Proselytizing and Persuasion. Milton Keynes, U.K., Paternoster; and Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic.
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Endnotes:
(1) In doing the research for my book, I discovered that little had been written about the ethics of evangelism. Since the publication of my book, the World Evangelical Alliance, the World Council of Churches, and the Vatican’s Pontifical Council on Inter-religious Dialogue released a major statement on the ethics of evangelism entitled, “Christian Witness in a Multi-Religious World: Recommendations for Conduct.” http://www.worldevangelicals.org/pdf/1106Christian_Witness_in_a_Multi-Religious_World.pdf (accessed April 6, 2013)
(2) See for example, http://www.micahnetwork.org/sites/default/files/doc/library/proselytism_policy_statement.pdf (accessed April 5, 2013.
(3) The ethics of evangelism is in fact specifically addressed in the New Testament. Jesus decisively rejected the use of all types of coercion in establishing his kingdom when he was tempted at the beginning of his public ministry (Matt. 4:1-11). He instructed his disciples to respect the freedom of individuals to reject the gospel message they preached (Luke 9:5). Paul too advocated sincerity of motive and truthfulness when spreading the good news (II Cor. 2:17; 4:1-2).
(4) In my book I devote three chapters to defending evangelism or proselytising against about a dozen objections (Thiessen 2011, chs. 3, 4, 5).
(5) This more positive defense of evangelism is found in Chapter 6 of my book (Thiessen, 2011).
(6) See Chapters 7 & 8 of my book (Thiessen, 2011). These criteria are summarized in Appendix #1 of my book (pp. 234-7). In this article I am offering a slightly revised version of these criteria, and am substituting “evangelism” for “proselytising” which were treated as synonyms in my book. I am well aware of the limitations of defining ethics in terms of principles, but I believe the attempt to do so still has some merit.
(7) http://www.micahnetwork.org/sites/default/files/doc/page/mn_integral_mission_declaration_en.pdf (accessed April 6, 2013)
(8) See for example, Steve Bradbury (2012, pp.112-13).
(9) Bradbury (2012, p.113).
(10) Bradbury (2012, p.118) See also http://tilz.tearfund.org/webdocs/Tilz/Topics/DRR/Publications/The%20local%20church%20%26%20its%20engagement%20with%20disasters.pdf (accessed April 5, 2013)
(11) See footnote #2 for details.
(12) Bradbury (2012, pp. 117-18).
(13) I want to thank Daniel Hillion and an anonymous reader for their helpful comments on an earlier draft of this paper.

The Ethics of Persuasion

July 20, 2010

(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.