The Morality of Persuasive Communication
Following on the heels of my last post, about whether persuasive communication is a good thing or a bad thing, I’d like to recommend an article to you, from a compendium of articles, this one written by David Weinberger, an innovative thinker, former internet consultant to the Howard Dean campaign, and currently a Fellow at the prestigious Harvard Berkman Center for Internet & Society,
As he put it in a message to me: “Since the point of my essay in the Turow collection is that there are ways to assess the moral nature of technology (beyond saying that it depends on who’s using it for what), I’ll be interested to see if my chapter makes any progress in your thinking.”
The part of this article that I find useful in this post is his insight into three fundamental cognitions that give rise to the possibility of morality: That our actions have consequences in the lives of others, and their actions have consequences in our lives; that the consequences of our actions are meaningful and matter to others; and that the impact of what we do in the lives of others ought to matter to us, because it matters to them.
He offers some moral principles that derive from these ideas: “It’s good to consider the interests of others; it’s good to try to understand others and what matters to them; it’s good to let that understanding move us.”
I recommend reading his article because his writing is really good! I read the article twice, first to get the gist of it, and second to notice the impact of it on my thinking. He asked me if what he wrote might make progress in my thinking about the morality of technology, and that led me to wonder: What would constitute evidence if it had?
If I were to say that, overall, the Internet is ‘good’ because it connects us as human beings to each other, opens up expansive and creative options and possibilities beyond our immediate view, helps us to recognize that we are part of a larger world, and to care about that larger world, would that be evidence of progress? No. I held these views already, and I do think these are good things. And evidence of morality.
But I cannot help but balance this good with the corresponding potential for evil that the web makes possible. The loss of privacy for example, where companies and governments can spy on us, get into our space when we enter the shared space. The way that anything you say can and probably will be used against you if someone has a mind to do so. The way technology can be used to build connections between people of ill intent, like terrorists and fanatics. The way it can be used to balkanize us, as we stick with people we agree with and filter out conflicting results and any other source of cognitive dissonance that might disturb our already fettered and cluttered minds.
Now, applying this same approach to persuasive communication, the good of it is evident to me. Persuasive communication allows for the possibility of a positive change through the successful transfer of a good idea, or product or service from persuader to persuadee. Persuasive communication thus opens up creative options, and has the potential to engage people at a different level than merely surface – at the place where their motivations intersect with our own. And persuasive communication allows us to transfer our care about the world, as it is and as we’d like it to be, to others, thus multiplying our effectiveness and our reach.
But I am often asked about the dangers of persuasion, and the negative connotations people have about being manipulated. And these dangers are very real. It doesn’t even take a bad person to make a bad thing happen using persuasive communication.
For example, people make well intentioned promises in a compelling way, and sweep people up in their wake, only to cause them serious financial harm or emotional loss when they fail to deliver what they wished they could. And that’s from a well intentioned person! (As the saying goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions!)
And what of a person of bad intent, what damage can that person do? They can persuade an unthinking or fuzzy thinking person into blindly following a course that takes them down a slippery slope from which there is no return possible. They can persuade a group to do the same. Is this not, in fact, exactly what happens when persuasion is used by religious fanatics to build support for hateful causes? And we can’t overlook the con, the hustle, the gaming of others, when persuasion is used by unscrupulous people who know exactly what they are up to, and are willing to say anything in order to achieve personal gain, with no regard to the cost to others.
That’s why I, as a matter of good conscience and a desire to have a moral impact with my work on this subject, consistently and persistently promote the value of critical thinking as our sole defense against the evil, unscrupulous or even well intentioned purveyor of damaging outcomes. And while we all have much work to do before we can think the thought that we’re thinking clearly, still, I believe that the teaching and learning of persuasion also serves to inoculate us against the bad outcomes, mitigate the impact of persuasion in our own lives, while empowering us to do good, to do as best we can to bring about positive change.
Your turn: I’d love to hear your critical thoughts about the uses and abuses of persuasive communication. What experiences have you had of both?