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How to Persuade the Other Party - Dilbert Blog

How to Persuade the Other Party

An interesting article in The Atlantic talks about studies showing that liberals think in terms of fairness while conservatives think in terms of morality. So if you want to persuade someone on the other team, you need to speak in their language. We almost never do that. That’s why you rarely see people change their opinions. 

As I often say, fairness is a concept invented so children and idiots can participate in debates. Fairness is a subjective illusion. It isn’t a rule of physics, and it isn’t an objective quality of the universe. We just think it is.

On the conservative side, morality is usually seen as coming from God. I’m not a believer, so I see morality as a set of rationalizations for our biological impulses. Luckily, we evolved with some instincts for taking care of each other. 

The Persuasion Filter says that both fairness and morality are different forms of magical thinking. And according to that filter on reality, you can’t change the mind of a liberal or a conservative with your logic and your reason. Magical thinking is immune to both.

If your aim is to persuade, you have to speak the language of the other. Talking about fairness to a conservative, or morality to a liberal, fails at the starting gate. The other side just can’t hear what you are saying.

Let me run through some examples. These haven’t been A/B tested, so don’t assume they are persuasive. But they do follow proper form. 

Bad argument from a conservative to a liberal:

Abortion is wrong because it takes a human life. (morality)

Good argument from a conservative to a liberal:

Is it fair that you got to grow from a fetus to a full life while so many others do not? Who gets to choose who lives and who dies? (fairness)

I’m not saying the “good” argument would necessarily work. I’m just saying it follows form.

Flipping it around…

Bad argument from a liberal to a conservative:

Climate change is enriching the energy companies at the expense of everyone else. (fairness)

Good argument from a liberal to a conservative:

God created this world and asked us to look after it. We will be judged in the afterlife if we accidentally ruin it for the sake of temporary profit. (morality)

I realize my examples are not strong, but they help explain the concept. The only way you can judge the power of the arguments is by testing them.

Logic, morality, and fairness are three different approaches to persuasion. But there is a fourth way to persuade that involves ignoring both fairness and morality without giving up logic. You can take most debates out of the weeds of fairness and morality to what I call the High Ground, where everyone already agrees. 

For example, on the topic of abortion rights there is no way to reach agreement if we are squabbling about morality and fairness. But we might agree that the Federal government should stay out of the abortion business – both pro or con – and leave those types of decisions to the individual and the states.

In the olden days of Roe Vs. Wade, states could ban abortion and get away with it. In 2017 it would be economic suicide. Big employers would stay away because it would be hard to attract talent. Tourists would stay away in protest. Social media would turn the state into a wasteland. No governor can survive a drop in employment that is both state-specific and caused by government action.

Liberals can argue that it is only fair for women to have control over their own bodies. Conservatives can argue that morality means protecting every “life” as they define it. There is no room for compromise with that framing. But both sides might agree on three High Ground concepts:

1. The Federal government (and their Supreme Court puppets) should get out of the business of deciding on women’s reproductive rights. It is neither fair nor moral for them to be involved.

2. It would be economic suicide for a state to ban abortion in 2017.

3. The question of who pays for what is a separate issue.

For new readers of this blog, my view on abortion is that the most credible laws in that area are the ones that have the support of the most women. I choose to delegate my opinion on this topic to women because they have the most skin in the game and I have no special insight to improve the quality of the decisions. I also respect the principle that the people who contribute the most should get some extra rights. (The question of who pays for what is separate.)

If you are waiting for your kids to be dropped off by the school bus, you might love using the WhenHub app that my startup makes because you’ll know exactly where they are. That is both fair and moral. And logical.