The morality of persuasion

NOTE HXA7241 2013-06-30T10:38Z

Is persuasion moral? Only, it seems, in a strictly limited sense. And that leads to an informational problem of how to know when it is.

Persuasion seems to have an essential nugget of coercion. So it looks immoral in a similar way to lying – it fails universalisation. If everyone is free to manipulate everyone else, everyone loses their own control of themselves – in which case, how can they manipulate someone else? There is a contradiction.

But surely any communication must be assumed to have an effect, to change behaviour – otherwise the idea of communication is empty and meaningless. So disallowing changing people's choice would disallow all communication.

So there is a problem: the reason to reject persuasion looks pretty much the same reason to have communication at all . . .


The answer seems to be in this: we must look to the persuasion's content. Is the purpose of the persuasion moral?

The problem was that everyone's will is by definition independent, and so in a sense always in conflict with others. But of course if you happen to all will the same thing, there is no conflict.

A moral injunction (from a cooperatarian view) is by definition something that everyone can will with no conflict (it universalises). So if the content of any persuasion is itself moral and everyone persuaded everyone else to it, there would be no contradiction.

So you are allowed – it is moral – to persuade others, but only if what you are persuading them to is itself moral.


That substantially does not seem to match the normal conception of persuasion. The persuader excercises persuasion to get what they want. The immoral part – the perspective of individual gain – is its foremost character.

But there is still some limited sense of persuasion – that which lacks the self-focus, and hence universalises – that can be moral.


Moral persuasion need not be only telling someone to do a specific thing; there could be general forms of moral persuasion. For example, conveying information: if B's persuasion consists of giving only (genuine) information to A, it would be moral since true information or facts – by their objectivity – would universalise.

But could not all persuasion be cast into this form: as merely informative ‘expressions’ of what individuals want? B is never really persuading A – one might argue – but merely expressing their view, and A's job is to take into account this simple fact, weigh it with others, and make a free decision accordingly.

The manipulation and coercion in persuasion have suspiciously disappeared – hidden in the term ‘expression’. This opens a loophole to game the system: you can get what you want, if you are powerful/skillful enough, yet still appear to be following the rules.


The fundamental question is still: ‘does it universalise?’, but the ‘persuasion-is-merely-expression’ argument weakens our judgement. It makes us focus on the rules and ignore the actual results. Yet for moral evaluation the results seem perhaps the most important factor. (This is what is wrong with Nozick.)

The problem is being unable to know the results. But that is it – it is a problem. A problem is not something we just ignore, or justify looking away from. The task is to make informational ways of transmitting the results of our actions back to the decisions for them.

(The ultimate moral arbiter is evolution. Groups that act in ways that universalise act cooperatively, and they succeed. Our job is to find any rational, informational, ways to short-cut that process.)