Human Rights Promotion (23): Moral vs Emotional Persuasion

Actions are motivated by beliefs, at least to some extent. (I’ll come back to this in a minute). It’s safe to say that many actions are driven mainly by beliefs, beliefs both about the nature of facts and about how we should act – factual and moral beliefs in other words. Unsurprisingly therefore, many actions that result in rights violations are also caused by beliefs. Certain beliefs are harmful to human rights because they result in actions that violate those rights. I’ll focus here not on harmful beliefs that are self-interested – I find those rather boring – but rather on harmful moral beliefs: rights are often violated because of the view that other people should be forced to do what the coercers believe is the “right thing”. (FGM is an example that comes to mind.)

Beliefs about how we should act are often based on beliefs about “facts” (for example the supposedly detrimental facts that result from failure to perform FGM, such as female promiscuity and bad hygiene). “Facts”, in turn, are seen through a thick interpretative layer of beliefs about morality, which is why I use the scare quotes. For example, if you oppose homosexuality for moral reasons (because “it’s wrong”), then you may tend to see homosexuality as “unnatural”, and this view is often proposed as factual. 

One way to undermine harmful moral beliefs is to attack their factual basis. We can point out the real facts (for example, that the Koran does not require FGM, or that women’s sexual morality and health do not require it). Of course, people who are for some reason intimately attached to certain beliefs will “find” other “facts” to support them. In some cases, however, challenging people’s factual beliefs can make them reject their harmful moral beliefs. At least that’s my belief.

We can also attack harmful moral beliefs directly and try to persuade people to change those beliefs irrespective of their factual basis. For example, we can stress inconsistencies or logical fallacies in ethical beliefs. We can say to racist Christians that the teachings of their God include statements about human equality and rules about neighborly love. And the naturalistic fallacy is abundant (“homosexuality is immoral because it is unnatural”; “we should not care about distant strangers because evolution has programmed us to take care of our own”, etc.). 

In short, there’s a whole lot we can say in order to undermine harmful moral beliefs and promote support and respect for human rights. Unfortunately, this will only work in some cases. Ask yourself how often you’ve modified your own moral beliefs. I myself can only come up with two examples: my views about criminal punishment and immigration. (To the extent that I’m quite ashamed of some of the older posts on this blog, to which I won’t link). When we do change our moral beliefs, it’s because we’ve become convinced that the facts on which we’ve based our moral beliefs aren’t what we thought they were (immigration isn’t harmful, capital punishment doesn’t deter, gay marriage doesn’t undermine traditional marriage etc.). When we change our moral beliefs, this is why we do it, not because we now see the moral truth of something (the truth of the rule that strangers have as many rights as we have, that criminal shouldn’t be treated as means to scare future criminals, that sexual orientation shouldn’t determine rights etc.).

So, the best means to change harmful moral beliefs is to attack the supposedly factual basis of those beliefs. However, as I’ve said, this won’t work every time or even a lot of the time, because we constantly try to marshal new facts as a basis of our moral beliefs when the old facts become discredited. If necessary we fabricate the facts. That we do this points towards a deeper problem. Maybe what really motivates us are primordial emotional reactions such as disgust, cleverly dressed up and rationalized by way of beliefs and “facts”.

There’s a great scene at the beginning of Inglourious Basterds about how we can’t justify our disgust of rats on the basis of facts that wouldn’t also justify disgust of pretty squirrels:

If indeed we’re not motivated by moral beliefs or facts, then no amount of moral reasoning or factual discussion can help us avoid rights violations resulting from post hoc rationalizations of our disgust. A more emotional kind of persuasion may be more promising. Telling people stories about the suffering of those who are seen as disgusting can conceivably remove their disgust and hence their need for harmful beliefs and biased selection or creation of “facts”. The chances of something like this succeeding have to be balanced against the “primordial” nature of a lot of our emotional reactions. “Primordial” in the sense of “very old” and “resulting from early human evolution”. That’s a steep climb. 

All this has implications for the legalistic approach to human rights promotion. To the extent that rights violations are actions that have a deep foundation in our emotions – and not all rights violations are like that – legislating them away won’t work. Other strategies have to be employed. 

There’s a good podcast about the same topic by the VeryBadWizards guys here. More about persuasion here and here. More posts in this series are here.

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