The art of persuasion

Do we need to do politics differently? How effective is engaging people from an opposing political camp in rational debate? If you disagree with me about the importance and priority of taking political action to mitigate the worst effects of climate change, how can I make you change your mind? How certain should I be that I am ‘right’ whilst you are ‘wrong’? These are some of the questions that have started to dominate my thinking since I started reading The Righteous Mind by Jonathon Haidt. Whilst only a few of the ideas he puts forward are completely new to me, his way of putting them together is both very effective, and, for me, very timely.

In opposition to the rationalist tradition in philosophy, the tradition that places our rationality, our use of logical argument, and our pursuit of objective knowledge and truth at the centre of our endeavours, the Scottish philosopher David Hume famously argued that “reason is and ought only to be the slave of the passions”. Whilst Haidt argues that our ability to reason is not quite as restrained as the relationship of slave to master implies, he does provide a wealth of research that strongly supports Hume’s position. According to Haidt, our thinking is dominated by our emotional response to events and circumstances. Reason has evolved not to help us find ‘the truth’, but to construct arguments that support how we intuitively feel. Most importantly, these arguments aim at engaging the support of our group or tribe and of bolstering our reputation within that group.

Haidt uses the metaphor of a rider and an elephant to describe the relationship between reason and emotion / intuition. The rider can, with some effort control the direction the elephant wants to go, but ultimately the elephant will go where it wants to. If it becomes scared of something it will be very difficult to control, whereas if it is lured by food, the company of fellow elephants, or even by a human worker that it trusts the rider’s task is relatively easy.

One of my first thoughts on reading this was the extent to which it supports Aristotle’s take on rhetoric – the art of persuasion. According to Aristotle there are three elements to our ability to persuade someone to see things from our point of view. One is the obvious logos (reason). The reasons we present in support of our position need to be coherent, they need to logically flow from one another, and they need, as far as possible, to correspond to the world of experience. However, for Aristotle, just as important as logos is pathos (emotion). Over two thousand years ago, in line with Hume and Haidt, he recognised the if you want to win someone over you need to emotionally engage with them. But of equal importance is a third element, ethos, your character. In the same way as an elephant can be enticed to change route by a worker it trusts, an audience will be more open to persuasion if they trust the speaker. Research has revealed the importance of reputation in the evolution of social life, social coherence, and in making an important contribution to the evolution of ethics, so it is hardly surprising that the reputation or character of a speaker is an important influence their audience.

But Haidt also points to another factor that raises questions about how we do politics. Knowledge and effective discussion making is (and has to be) a group enterprise. In philosophy, rationalists from Plato onwards have assumed that individual thinkers, through the use of their reason, could get to the truth. The claim here is that if the philosopher could only eradicate the distractions of the physical body and the emotions then the world of truth and pure knowledge would open up to them. This line of thinking assumes the primacy of reason, and its ability to penetrate eternal truths. It’s a line of thinking has been revealed to be fantasy. As Haidt so clearly articulates, in reality, throughout our history we have constructed arguments to support what we already intuitively believe – intuitions based on our emotional response to events and circumstances, together with our need to feel part of a group. This means that any individual, even a philosopher, is incapable, on their own, of making good decisions – let alone of understanding ‘the truth’ of any situation. In order to make good decisions and plans we need to have our arguments challenged. In order to even approach ‘the truth’ of any situation we need to approach it from multiple perspectives.

So, what does all this say about how we do politics? Well, for one thing, we need to ask ourselves whether our adversarial approach to national government, our having a ruling party on one side and an opposition party on the other side is a good way forward. I’m not sure whether we could easily move away from party politics, but we should certainly explore ways of not solidifying viewpoints into two opposing camps. Life if far more complex than that. Is it really a good idea, for example, to have important decisions made by a cabinet purposely selected by the Prime Minister to support his overall (and very narrow) political views? Then for members of the majority party to be whipped into supporting this view whilst members of the opposition automatically construct arguments to oppose it. I haven’t got answers to these questions, but I would like to persuade people to start discussing them.

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