Respectful Persuasion Is a Relay Race, not a Solo Sprint – 3 Keys to Putting It in Practice
Immanuel Kant’s ideas about respect are still important today, in a world where social media and echo chambers make manipulation easy.
The 2024 presidential election is still a year and a half away, but it can feel much closer: President Joe Biden has made his reelection bid official, presumed candidates are giving out-of-state speeches, pundits are already weighing in on nomination hopefuls, and social media is, as ever, a mess of people trying to persuade strangers to back their favorite. All for good reason: Even a little political persuasion in the next year could change the course of history.
I’m a philosopher who studies and teaches the ethics of persuasion. My students are eager to find ways to persuade their friends, family and neighbors about political issues such as climate change and abortion. Moreover, many of them want to persuade with integrity: They want to engage the people they’re talking with respectfully, instead of using the manipulative tricks they regularly see in politics and marketing. But what is respectful persuasion, and what distinguishes it from disrespectful manipulation?
There’s no simple formula for respectful persuasion. However, some philosophers see crucial hints in the work of 18th-century philosopher Immanuel Kant, whose theory of respect has guided many ethicists and policymakers for the past two centuries.
Drawing on Kant’s work, and that of other philosophers inspired by him, I think we can isolate three key components of respectful persuasion. This isn’t just an academic exercise. My students and I have found that these factors increase the chances of deep, meaningful conversation.
1. Giving reasons
Broadly speaking, reasons are considerations that rationally support some belief or action, including both empirical evidence and abstract arguments. For example, astronauts’ pictures of a round Earth rationally support the belief that the Earth is round. When we sincerely give someone reasons, we show respect for their rationality: their ability to recognize good reasons.
By contrast, a hallmark of manipulation is bypassing rationality, such as repeatedly exposing people to false statements to make them appear true – something that psychologists call the “illusory truth effect.”
Manipulation can be effective, but psychologists have found that persuasion using reasons is more durable than nonrational persuasion such as repetition-based tricks. For example, someone who comes to believe in climate change based on the scientific evidence probably will not be as easily swayed later on by repeated exposure to climate skepticism. The rational support that good reasons provide for a belief can make that belief more stable.
2. Being open to learning
Giving reasons is not difficult by itself. The second component of respectful persuasion, however, is much more challenging: being open to receiving the other side’s reasons – a form of intellectual humility. This is especially hard for persuaders, since they have to give up some of the time they would have used to make their case.
Kant expressed this core idea nicely. Even someone encountering a person whose opinion seems obviously wrong, Kant wrote, has “a duty … to suppose that his judgment must yet contain some truth and to seek this out.” This isn’t merely a suggestion to listen to people one wants to persuade. Instead, respect demands actively seeking out truth in what the other person says.
In fact, some studies suggest that intellectual humility makes people better able to evaluate the strength of arguments. This means that intellectually humble people may be more likely to recognize that a persuader’s arguments are actually better than their own, and have to reconsider their views – which can pose a real risk to someone’s self-esteem.
But being open to other people’s reasons also increases the chance of their being open to yours – a form of reciprocity in which you take turns learning from each other. Decades of psychological research have shown that, especially in two-person exchanges, people value reciprocity in communication and see it as a way of treating each other fairly.
In other words, if you show openness to learning from someone else, rather than just lecturing, it may seem fair to them to be open to you too.
That is why faking this kind of respect can be a powerful manipulative tool. A psychologically savvy canvasser, for instance, can manipulate swing voters by pretending to be open to learning about their own opinions. But this carries its own risk, since people who discover they have been manipulated may resent it.
3. Live and let live
Kant’s central principle of respect is that one should “not degrade any other as a mere means” to one’s ends. This requires people to rein in their own self-love out of consideration for others. In popular culture, this might be summed up in the idea of “live and let live”: Other things being equal, we shouldn’t interfere in other people’s lives.
Overlooking this principle can make persuasion disrespectful in a variety of ways, even when the persuader has good intentions. The philosopher George Tsai argues that this happens in cases of unsolicited advice: Imagine, he writes, that while your date goes to the restroom, an eavesdropping stranger tells you that she thinks you could do better. Even if the stranger is right, it’s simply none of her business.
Another example of how interference can make persuasion disrespectful is that changing someone’s mind can harm their dignity and disrupt their connection to their community. For example, say that you persuade a relative who lives in a small ranching community to become vegan. That change might lead to their being ostracized by people they rely on.
Because persuasion can affect other people’s lives in many ways, this third component of respect is the most difficult to adhere to. Sometimes, people may be justified in interfering in other people’s lives, such as if lives are at stake or in particularly close relationships – but those are special circumstances.
One conversation at a time
In class, my students attempt to persuade one another four times, using a range of formats: five minutes vs. a whole week; in person vs. over Zoom. At the end, they score one another on effectiveness and respectfulness.
My students are smart, informed and passionate, and the class offers them a positive, carefully structured environment. Despite all that, they almost never succeed in persuading one another – at least not when it comes to politics.
Something interesting happens, though, when they let respect guide their conversations. Instead of launching into lectures, they start seeing each exchange as an opportunity to learn from each other – perhaps as an opportunity to leave their partner thinking about something in a new way, without fully persuading them.
If you approach our conversation as a chance to exchange ideas, without trying to change my mind, you may lay a cornerstone of trust. That, in turn, could make me more receptive to similar viewpoints in the future – even if I’m speaking with other people. Truly respectful political persuasion might best be seen as an extended team effort, not a one-time, one-person task.