Persuade—but don’t forget kindness

Sick burns, takedowns, and anti-intellectualism are all part of the culture now. They aren’t enough, according to Ryan Holliday, writing on Medium:

As we’ve become more polarized and more algorithmically sorted, we care a lot less about the people who think differently than us and put little effort into persuading them. That’s because persuasion is no longer the goal—it’s signaling. And with signaling, it’s vehemence that matters, not quality.

The constraints of social media also reduce the space for any nuance or qualification you might be inclined to offer; 140 characters or even 240 does not leave much room for humility or kindness. And the desire for viral sharing heightens the need for aggressive, simplistic arguments.


Can we work on persuading others–relying on empathy, smarts (sure, but not exclusively) and appeals to our common humanity? This version of civic discourse is kind, not combative.

It’s no less direct, and still aims to privilege “our truth”–using a different tack than we see daily on Twitter and cable news and throughout the comment sections.

The Athenian Model of International Relations 



The way that a diplomat looks at the world matters. Civilizations and, today, nation-states, have differing views on the way the world works. A Chinese approach to diplomacy takes a different time-horizon than many Western countries, who tend to be focused on the short-term.

But what happens when you see the world as a business deal, or a zero-sum negotiation? What are the moral implications? Writing in the New York Times, columnist David Brooks draws a line between the values that shape our worldview–with an eye toward a few of the U.S. administration’s leading figures.

Good leaders like Lincoln, Churchill, Roosevelt and Reagan understand the selfish elements that drive human behavior, but they have another foot in the realm of the moral motivations. They seek to inspire faithfulness by showing good character. They try to motivate action by pointing toward great ideals.
Realist leaders like Trump, McMaster and Cohn seek to dismiss this whole moral realm. By behaving with naked selfishness toward others, they poison the common realm and they force others to behave with naked selfishness toward them.
By treating the world simply as an arena for competitive advantage, Trump, McMaster and Cohn sever relationships, destroy reciprocity, erode trust and eviscerate the sense of sympathy, friendship and loyalty that all nations need when times get tough.

via David Brooks in The New York Times, The Axis of Selfishness

Protesting Protest

Protest can be good (See Morocco, for starters). They can also be ridiculous–and college campuses seem to lead the pack–as we forget that college is a developmental time when most of us need some space to be stupid. But, as Thomas Friedman explains, there is a dark side:

That we are becoming more morally aroused “is generally a good thing,” argued Seidman. Institutionalized racism in police departments, or in college fraternities, is real and had been tolerated for way too long. That it’s being called out is a sign of a society’s health “and re-engagement.”But when moral arousal manifests as moral outrage, he added, “it can either inspire or repress a serious conversation or the truth.”

Source: The Age of Protest – The New York Times

Quoting Dov Sideman of LRN, protest and the subsequent outreach can lead to action–that may cause harm, “as opposed to a virtuous cycle of dialogue and the hard work of forging real understanding and enduring agreements.”

What is the relationship between protest and forging a real discussion versus shutting down conversations?

The Ethics of Lying

Is Plato right? Is there such thing as the “noble lie“? The philosopher Sissela Bok created a “test of publicity” to determine if its ok to lie: would it survive the appeal for justification to reasonable persons?

Gerald Dworkin, emeritus professor at UC Davis argues that “there ought to be a strong presumption in favor of honesty” but that it can be overridden more frequently than we anticipate.

He cites the following as permissible lies–and asks for feedback as to why we might disagree. Try it:

1. A man lies to his wife about where they are going in order to get her to a place where a surprise birthday party has been organized.

2. A young child is rescued from a plane crash in a very weakened state. His parents have been killed in the crash but he is unaware of this. He asks about his parents and the attending physician says they are O.K. He intends to tell the truth once the child is stronger.

3. Your father suffers from severe dementia and is in a nursing home. When it is time for you to leave he becomes extremely agitated and often has to be restrained. On the occasions when you have said you would be back tomorrow he was quite peaceful about your leaving. You tell him now every time you leave that you will be back tomorrow knowing that in a very short time after you leave he will have forgotten what you said.

4. A woman’s husband drowned in a car accident when the car plunged off a bridge into a body of water. It was clear from the physical evidence that he desperately tried to get out of the car and died a dreadful death. At the hospital where his body was brought his wife asked the physician in attendance what kind of death her husband suffered. He replied, “He died immediately from the impact of the crash. He did not suffer.”

5. In an effort to enforce rules against racial discrimination “testers” were sent out to rent a house. First, an African-American couple claiming to be married with two children and an income that was sufficient to pay the rent would try to rent a house. If they were told that the house was not available, a white tester couple with the same family and economic profile would be sent. If they were offered the rental there would be persuasive evidence of racial discrimination.

6. In November of 1962, during the Cuban Missile crisis, President Kennedy gave a conference. When asked whether he had discussed any matters other than Cuban missiles with the Soviets he absolutely denied it. In fact, he had promised that the United States would remove missiles from Turkey.

7. A woman interviewing for a job in a small philosophy department is asked if she intends to have children. Believing that if she says (politely) it’s none of their business she will not get the job, she lies and says she does not intend to have a family.

8. In order to test whether arthroscopic surgery improved the conditions of patients’ knees a study was done in which half the patients were told the procedure was being done but it was not. Little cuts were made in the knees, the doctors talked as if it were being done, sounds were produced as if the operation were being done. The patients were under light anesthesia. It turned out that the same percentage of patients reported pain relief and increased mobility in the real and sham operations. The patients were informed in advance that they either would receive a real or a sham operation.

9. I am negotiating for a car with a salesperson. He asks me what the maximum I am prepared to pay is. I say $15,000. It is actually $20,000.

10. We heap exaggerated praise on our children all the time about their earliest attempts to sing or dance or paint or write poems. For some children this encouragement leads to future practice, which in turn promotes the development–in some — of genuine achievement.

Source: Are These 10 Lies Justified? – The New York Times

The Truth About Lies, a new film

At the core of discussions about ethics is the issue of lying.  A new documentary, featuring Dan Ariely of Duke University makes the case that everyone does it.

Through the candid testimony of public figures and regular people — and also relying on expert opinions, behavioral experiments and archival footage — the film explores thorny questions like why people lie, how they do it and what is the fallout. What quickly becomes clear is that the leap from little white lies to insider trading is not that far.

“When you look at what those people did at the end, you say, ‘My goodness, I can’t imagine ever doing something like that,’ ” said Professor Ariely, who specializes in psychology and behavioral economics and who serves as a guide through the film. “But when you look at what they did at the beginning, you say, ‘I can see myself doing that.’ It is a story about a slippery slope.”

via ‘(Dis)Honesty — The Truth About Lies’ Examines How Falsehoods Sprout –

Teaching Ethics with “The Trolley Problem”

A very popular way to explore the ethics of utilitarianism involves a fat man and a trolley. Stop me if you have heard this one …

Would you pull the switch to save five people–and here is the catch–but you will kill one person?  Most people are more able to solve this problem of a speeding trolley by pulling a switch rather than “pushing a fat bystander in front of it.”

This dilemma is explored by two books, The Trolley Problem by Thomas Cathcart and Would You Kill the Fat Man? by David Edmonds, reviewed in the WSJ:

In fact, the two versions of the trolley problem, a famous thought-experiment in philosophy, elicit instinctive versions of two conflicting ethical impulses, ones elaborated by Jeremy Bentham and Immanuel Kant respectively: utilitarianism, which seeks the greatest good for the greatest number and judges actions by their consequences; and deontology, which insists, among much else, that certain rights can’t be violated under any circumstances.

This conflict is at the heart of two new books that use the trolley problem and its many permutations to explore how people make ethical judgments. For all the hairsplitting that the problem has inspired—a quantity of commentary that “makes the Talmud look like Cliffs Notes,” in the words of the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah—the moral dilemmas are profound. They are manifest in our political system, for example, when we face choices that will penalize some for the good of all, or at least of others, as is the case when we debate the legitimacy of taxation and redistribution, the justification for war, the uses of torture, or the justice of affirmative action.

via Book Review: ‘The Trolley Problem’ by Thomas Cathcart | ‘Would You Kill the Fat Man?’ by David Edmonds –

So how does this apply? On The Korbel Report (University of Denver), Alexander Bowe makes the connection between this scenario and Washington’s policy approach on Syria.  The problem of using drones is another issue, explored here. (Daily Kos) and even Michael Sandel explores these issues in his landmark book, Justice, and in this TED Talk, “What’s the right thing to do?”

This can be a useful way to explore utilitarianism–but as a few years ago John Holbo pointed out how the trolley problem is easily mocked, filled with ad absurdum elements–and even considered by some to be “the apotheosis of analytic-style absurdity.”

Booklist | Countrymen by Bo Lidegaard via the New Republic

Denmark in the Holocaust: Bo Lidegaard's

How were the Jews of Denmark able to escape and survive? Doing the right thing is more complicated that it sometimes seems.  This review of Bo Lidegaard’s book Countrymen addresses the various factors at play (including expert negotiation for the sake of lives) in Danish efforts to save its Jewish population.  We see Denmark as a country whose patriotic values were “synonymous with democracy and anti-totalitarian humanism.” The takeaway:

It is a story that reinforces an old truth: solidarity and decency depend on a dense tissue of connection among people, on long-formed habits of the heart, on resilient cultures of common citizenship, and on leaders who marshal these virtues by their example.

Another useful part of the book as Ignatieff points out is how the actual historical record reveals multiple motivations, various objectives, and a less-clear “right/wrong” line:

The story may have ended well, but it is a complex tale. The central ambiguity is that the Germans warned the Jews and let most of them escape. Lidegaard claims this was because the Danes refused to help the Germans, but the causation might also have worked in the other direction. It was when the Danes realized that the Germans were letting some Jews go that they found the courage to help the rest of their Jewish community escape. Countrymen is a fascinating study in the ambiguity of virtue.

The Danes knew long before the war that their army could not resist a German invasion. Instead of overtly criticizing Hitler, the Social Democratic governments of the 1930s sought to inoculate their populations against the racist ideology next door. It was in those ominous years that the shared identity of all Danes as democratic citizens was drummed into the political culture, just in time to render most Danes deeply resistant to the Nazi claim that there existed a “Jewish problem” in Denmark. Lidegaard’s central insight is that human solidarity in crisis depended on the prior consolidation of a decent politics, on the creation of a shared political imagination. Some Danes did harbor anti-Semitic feelings, but even they understood the Jews to be members of a political community, and so any attack on them was an attack on the Danish nation as such.

via Denmark in the Holocaust: Bo Lidegaard’s “Countrymen,” Reviewed | New Republic.