Monday 14 December 2020

Persuasion v. Manipulation in the Pandemic

Posted by Keith Tidman

Persuasion and manipulation to steer public behaviour are more than just special cases of each other. Manipulation, in particular, risks short-circuiting rational deliberation and free agency. So, where is the line drawn between these two ways of appealing to the public to act in a certain way, to ‘adopt the right behaviour’, especially during the current coronavirus pandemic? And where does the ‘common good’ fit into choices?


Consider two related aspects of the current pandemic: mask-wearing and being vaccinated. Based on research, such as that reported on in Nature (‘Face masks: what the data say’, Oct. 2020), mask-wearing is shown to diminish the spread of virus-loaded airborne particles to others, as well as to diminish one’s own exposure to others’ exhaled viruses. 

Many governments, scientists, medical professionals, and public-policy specialists argue that people therefore ought to wear masks, to help mitigate the contagion. A manifestly utilitarian policy position, but one rooted in controversy nonetheless. In the following, I explain why.


In some locales, mask-wearing is mandated and backed by sanctions; in other cases, officials seek willing compliance, in the spirit of communitarianism. Implicit in all this is the ethics-based notion of the ‘common good’. That we owe fellow citizens something, in a sense of community-mindedness. And of course, many philosophers have discussed this ‘common good’; indeed, the subject has proven a major thread through Western political and ethical philosophy, dating to ancient thinkers like Plato and Aristotle.

In The Republic, Plato records Socrates as saying that the greatest social good is the ‘cohesion and unity’ that stems from shared feelings of pleasure and pain that result when all members of a society are glad or sorry for the same successes and failures. And Aristotle argues in The Politics, for example, that the concept of community represented by the city-state of his time was ‘established for the sake of some good’, which overarches all other goods.

Two thousand years later, Jean-Jacques Rousseau asserted that citizens’ voluntary, collective commitment — that is, the ‘general will’ or common good of the community — was superior to each person’s ‘private will’. And prominent among recent thinkers to have explored the ‘common good’ is the political philosopher John Rawls, who has defined the common good as ‘certain general conditions that are . . . equally to everyone’s advantage’ (Theory of Justice, 1971).


In line with seeking the ‘common good’, many people conclude that being urged to wear a mask falls under the heading of civic-minded persuasion that’s commonsensical. Other people see an overly heavy hand in such measures, which they argue deprives individuals of the right — constitutional, civil, or otherwise — to freely make decisions and take action, or choose not to act. Free agency itself also being a common good, an intrinsic good. For some concerned citizens, compelled mask-wearing smacks of a dictate, falling under the heading of manipulation. Seen, by them, as the loss of agency and autonomous choice.


The readying of coronavirus vaccines, including early rollout, has led to its own controversies around choice. Health officials advising the public to roll up their sleeves for the vaccine has run into its own buzzsaw from some quarters. Pragmatic concerns persist: how fast the vaccines were developed and tested, their longer-term efficacy and safety, prioritisation of recipients, assessment of risk across diverse demographics and communities, cloudy public-messaging narratives, cracks in the supply chain, and the perceived politicising of regulatory oversight.

As a result of these concerns, nontrivial numbers of people remain leery, distrusting authority and harbouring qualms. As recent Pew, Gallup, and other polling on these matters unsurprisingly shows, some people might assiduously refuse ever to be vaccinated, or at least resist until greater clarity is shed on what they view as confusing noise or until early results roll in that might reassure. The trend lines will be watched.


All the while, officials point to vaccines as key to reaching a high enough level of population immunity to reduce the virus’s threat. Resulting in less contagion and fewer deaths, while allowing besieged economies to reopen with the business, social, and health benefits that entails. For all sorts of reasons — cultural, political, personal — some citizens see officials’ urgings regarding vaccinations as benign, well-intentioned persuasion, while others see it as guileful manipulation. One might consider where the Rawlsian common good fits in, and how the concept sways local, national, and international policy decision-making bearing on vaccine uptake.


People are surely entitled to persuade, even intensely. Perhaps on the basis of ethics or social norms or simple honesty: matters of integrity. But they may not be entitled to resort to deception or coercion, even to correct purportedly ‘wrongful’ decisions and behaviours. The worry being that whereas persuasion innocuously induces human behaviour broadly for the common good, coercive manipulation invalidates consent, corrupting the baseline morality of the very process itself. To that point, corrupt means taint ends.


Influence and persuasion do not themselves rise to the moral censure of coercive or deceptive manipulation. The word ‘manipulation’, which took on pejorative baggage in the eighteen hundreds, has special usages. Often unscrupulous in purpose, such as to gain unjust advantage. Meantime, persuasion may allow for abridged assumptions, facts, and intentions, to align with community expectations and with hoped-for behavioural outcomes to uphold the common good. A calculation that considers the veracity, sufficiency, and integrity of narratives designed to influence public choices, informed by the behavioural science behind effective public health communications. A subtler way, perhaps, to look at the two-dimensional axes of persuasion versus manipulation.


The seed bedding of these issues is that people live in social relationships, not as fragmented, isolated, socially disinterested individuals. They live in the completeness of what it means to be citizens. They live within relationships that define the Rawlsian common good. A concept that helps us parse persuasion and manipulation in the framework of inducing societal behaviour: like the real-world cases of mask-wearing and vaccinations, as the global community counterattacks this lethal pandemic.



Andrew Porter said...

I agree with the 'many people' you mention in this sentence: "In line with seeking the ‘common good’, many people conclude that being urged to wear a mask falls under the heading of civic-minded persuasion that’s commonsensical." And it is incumbent on persuasion, from within oneself or from external sources, to be honest, reasonable, and knowledgeable about what the common good is. One of the biggest challenges of the era we are entering, it seems, is to develop an eagerness for and facility with 'the common good' within citizens (through education, public service campaigns, and leadership concerned to serve the long-term common good) and, from those in power, to persuade with the requisite wisdom, caring, and 7-generations thinking that may, on issues like the climate and other huge crises, make the common good the real focus of different strata of society.

Keith said...

Thank you, Andrew, for your thoughtful comment.

As you say, there are many arenas in which the ‘common good’ has a proper place. Probably as many ‘places’ as there are social and political struggles humanity is engaged with at any moment in time. The yell-it-from-the-rooftop divisiveness that’s plagued us over recent years hasn’t helped. Articulating the common good has gotten harder, not easier.

My essay tries to explore some of that contentious reality in the context of individual and group behaviors tackling a lethal pandemic. To see, understand, and be empathetic with others’ stakes has sadly come in short supply. Wherein lies reality? What seems obvious, even easy, to some people seems murky, even thorny, to others.

You rightly cite climate change as another among innumerable examples of where an understanding of the common good is essential, given the potentially existential consequences of our continuing to get it wrong. If only a ‘vaccine’ were the fix — to inoculate the environment against bad decisions and actions!

As for the climate-change challenges, one wonders not just where the ‘common good’ lies, but also how nations ought to chip in to protect the so-called ‘commons’ — those resources shared among all the world’s nations. And one wonders how we might ensure their sustainability into the longer-term future. That is, the discerning ‘seven-generations’ thinking that you refer to.

As you advise, the task at hand entails ‘be[ing] honest, reasonable, and knowledgeable about what the common good is’. The words trip off the tongue. Yet truth be told, it’s a monumental commission, whether collaring a lethal pandemic or some other of life’s consequential tests.

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

Thank you, Keith. You have a solid ally in Niccolò Machiavelli, who wrote that states which are in good order will put the common good above selfish pursuits.

Yet what is the common good? We have deeply, deeply embedded value systems that may overpower the common good. I think of some who follow an ancient Xhosa proverb about pandemics, not the government. Others obsess with death, with Worldometer referring to death 36 times on one page. And may the people have a better sense for the common good than their leaders? A committee of young statisticians assembled here, yet the traditional leaders were excluded. And how does one assess the larger common good? The World Food programme just stated that a quarter of a billion people are 'marching towards starvation'. Your post does not apparently notice this, unless 'besieged economies' is an expression of compassion. Might Pi be quoted in ten years as an example of genocidal callousness?

All in all, we seem to have a crisis of civilisation, overcome by pluralism, where common sense does not prevail to determine the common good.

Keith said...

Yes, Thomas, the expression ‘besieged economies’ embraces the panoply of economic hardships that the word’s nations have endured, and continue to endure, as a result of the deadly pandemic. Including the ‘march towards starvation’ you cite. When governments suffer, the result shows up as the stuff of economists: hard-bit statistics, like effects upon gross domestic product, measures of inequality, unemployment, bankruptcies, home foreclosures, failed small businesses, lost access to healthcare, scarcity of certain resources, and so forth. But, of course, those statistics are really much more: they represent people’s lived hardships.

Although to very different degrees, those 'lived hardships' predictably differ between developed and developing nations, as well as from one economic model to another. And, as I think you’re suggesting, from one ‘embedded values system’ to another, which manifests itself in an assortment of ways. I suspect there’s nothing surprising in any of those observations. In all respects — whether it’s the killer pandemic itself or societies’ and individuals’ behaviours to mitigate the pandemic’s ravages — ultimately it’s of course people who end up bearing the scars derived from the hardships.

Two last asides, if I may: First I would agree that filling in the particulars of what constitutes the ‘common good’ is indeed a tall order, which is why the ‘debate’ has gone on for millennia. I suggest that nailing down the ‘common good’ has proved remarkably mercurial. But I don’t think that should deter people; our trying to get to the common good remains, I suspect, an essential part of community life. Second and last, I’m not sure how you’re using the expression ‘genocidal callousness’ here. It curiously shows up at the end of your comment. That said, let me note that the only times I’ve heard the expression, or its variants, crop up over the last eleven months of the pandemic are in a unique context. Specifically, when someone has advocated that the coronavirus be allowed to run its course, unchecked by, say, vaccines and behavioural measures or whatever else. As explained by public-health specialists, the result of this strategy would be the virus predictably killing many more millions of people globally, offering surely a harder, nastier way toward ‘herd immunity’. Perhaps, to borrow your term, even a ‘genocidal’ way to global herd immunity?

Martin Cohen said...

Yes, isn't a lot smuggled in to the debate under that deceptive phrase "the common good"? Because isn't the real issue in social justice about competing interests, divergent interests? Those under age 40 have it seems as near as zero risk from the pandemic as makes no odds (even if, yes, some people are killed each day by objects falling out of the sky) while those over 75 face a significant risk. The huge interest-based corporations rake in vast profits from the 'lockdown' policies being followed, while the small, family businesses, the migrant workers face bleak futures. So I think we have to start by challenging this notion of the "common good" as a myth.

Keith said...

I would agree, Martin, that not all notions of the ‘common good’ apply universally to all circumstances. Clearly different cultures, for instance, consequentially bear on these matters. However, I believe the common good does apply to many circumstances, and that the ‘common good’ isn’t just a myth. As only one of many examples, it seems to me that much of what falls under the rubric of ‘justice’ intersects with the ‘common good’. Laws proscribing murder, robbing, stealing, assault and battery, child abuse, rape, arson, and so forth are founded on societal expectations drawn from notions of the ‘common good’. Another example might fall under the rubric of ‘constitutional rights’. These rights are usually spelled out nation by nation, depending on their histories and social order and experiences, but under many systems of government, rights of free speech, assembly, press, religion, petition of the government, due process/fair trials, among others, are regarded, I would offer, as ‘common goods’.

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

The common good depends on what the good-making characteristic is. The trouble is, no good-making characteristic can be supported by fact, according to the fact-value distinction. In reality good is determined by cultural values, which may mean the same as things 'smuggled in'.

Martin Cohen said...

Yes, we have to be careful. not to use terms that already contains judgements about right and wrong to illustrate that some things are, well, 'right' and others, well, 'wrong'. Robbing someone is commonly accepted as wrong - but taxing them is not. In a war, a lot of values are reversed. We praise people for both 'seizing peroperty' and for killing in wartime.

Keith said...

Yes, Martin, war makes for an interesting case. Are individual wars more, or less, ‘just’ than others, and what makes them so? As you say, war sometimes upturns notions of the ‘common good’ — including, awkwardly, matters of ‘good’ body counts (of the enemy) and ‘bad’ body counts (of one’s own forces). In war, values may prove malleable, not uncommonly for brazenly and shamelessly self-serving purposes. For example, war brings out egregious cases of double standards — better known as hypocrisy. Hegemony is an example. A nation might roundly criticise another nation for using war to abscond with and hold onto territory previously owned by another. Yet that same nation might conveniently pivot in its breathless righteousness in order to justify (rationalise) its own land grab, done at the tip of a spear.

John Triplett said...

Keith et al, excellent discussion of "common good behavior, persuasion vs manipulation".
However, as a medically trained individual, I must beg to disagree that the issues of pandemic viral transmission prevention should be left to either persuasion or manipulation. Due to the obvious public health common good results from wearing masks, social distancing and vaccine inoculations, laws should be enacted either locally of nationally to mandate usage of these modalities.
I realize that this appears to be a ridgid position to take but there are multiple examples of laws enacted to mandate just such public health common good; drivers license requirement, seat belts usage requirement, speeding limits, no-fault liability insurance, visual acuity checks, auto inspections for functionality of the vehicle, laws against cell phone distraction, pedestrian traffic laws, stop light laws just to name a few associated only with driving an auto on public roads; laws requiring immunizations for children attending schools; gun carry and usage laws; even requirements for syphilis and HIV testing for marriage; tuberculosis and HIV testing for visa issuance; weight restrictions for elevator transport; garbage and trash disposal laws; swimming pool fencing and usage laws with life guards; no smoking laws for certain locations; no eating and drinking on public transportation. I'm sure you can think of others at use in ours and other civilized societies all for public common good. Medical personnel are mandated to have influenza immunizations in most modern US medical facilities.
I refuse to accept that the need and hopefully legally mandated requirements to mask up and be immunized in the face of a pandemic is an affront to one's civil liberties. These are life and death public health issues for a society.

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