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Moral Persuasion


Techniques General persuasion > More methods > Moral Persuasion

Description | Example | Discussion | See also



Moral persuasion is based on the principle that there are a set of commonly agreed values or morals which everyone should obey, even if these are not written down or even particularly clear.

The general approach is to either criticize a person for taking an immoral action or making suggestions for action based on a particular moral.

When a person takes an immoral action, even if it is not a serious infraction, the moralist approach is to display outrage and demand significant reparations.

To make a moral suggestion, invoke a specific moral by mentioning it and then say that a particular course of action is required. Moral action can also be implied by simply saying that something must be done.


You just ignored her. That's terrible! Go and apologize immediately.

The president clearly does not care about his people. We must take action to depose him now.

Please help your mother clean up. It's your mess, you should be helping.


Values are general rules we adopt for helping with making decisions. These are often adopted from general social norms. Morals are stricter forms of values and are often related to the way we treat other people. Acting against morals is called immoral.

A way that moral persuasions may be identified is that they typically include modal logic of necessity, with words such as 'should', 'must', 'ought' and so on (referencing the past, this becomes 'should have', etc). Moral arguments are often assumed to supersede logic and even law, as social norms take precedence. This may be backed up with assumptive language that acts as if acting morally must obviously take priority.

The strict nature of morals means they may be invoked in persuasion as constraints that must never be broken. As such, we may indulge in moralizing as a means of persuasive speech as we invoke morals, explicitly or implicitly, as essential acts.

Morality is a method of social control that is widely used by groups and societies to regulate how their members act. Morals are not always written down -- instead they are shared through stories and positive/negative action when they are followed/broken. Key reasons people comply with moral persuasion hence is one of:

  1. The implied threat of social exclusion and punishment for transgressing a moral.
  2. The implied reward of social approval and esteem for enacting a moral (especially when the action can be personally harmful).

Criticizing immoral acts allows the moralizer to act as judge, jury and executioner, accusing a person of immorality and demanding reparations without even allowing the person to explain or excuse themselves. This position of power is so attractive, we can easily be seduced by it as we actively seek out even minor transgressions we can criticize.

A problem with moral persuasion is that it only works when everyone involved has the same morals. When one person uses a moral to persuade that another either does not follow or has an opposing moral, then conflict may well ensue. This is particularly true if the morals involved are strongly held, and even more so if a moral is held that those who do not agree must be converted or punished.

See also

Values, Conformance Principle, Social Compliance principle


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