Ethical Considerations in the Art of Persuasion

Being the social animals of the world, humans have always been communicating throughout their entire lives. Throughout history, even before the development of language and speech, people had utilized gestures in order to communicate. Communicating enables humans to express their thoughts and feelings, share knowledge, and build up the relationships between individuals. As Bhasker (2013) cited that Allen Louis says, “Communication is the sum of all the things a person does when he wants to create an understanding in the mind of another” (p. 123). While communicating, it is essential to have ethics and respect between individuals and that they keep relationships between individuals to be peaceful, respectful and build up trust among individuals and society. Among the diverse methods of communication, persuasion accompanied by the usage of psychological techniques, seems to be the one that is likely to have raised questions in terms of ethical considerations. As psychological techniques are predominantly used for persuasive communication, considerations of ethics should not be taken lightly in this context as it is crucial in our society.

One of the essential elements in ensuring a successful persuasive communication lies in the usage of psychological techniques in persuading. If these techniques are used wisely, responsibly and ethically, persuasion can bring many advantages as in resolving conflicts between two conflicting parties and help build a consensus accepted by both. Nowadays, communication has become easier and quicker through the use of social media. At the same time many ethical concerns have emerged, particularly when it comes to persuasive contexts. Although psychological techniques contribute to a successful persuasion, it can also be the main problem of ethics in that process of persuasion. The three appeals in rhetoric, as mentioned by Aristotle (2018), can be considered as forms of psychological strategy which can be used for successful persuasion. In order for persuasion to succeed, one must know their audience. Knowing the audience favors by enabling the speaker to decide on which type of appeal is to be used in their argument. According to Aristotle (2018), there are three forms of appeals: ethos, pathos and logos, that are used in different contexts. Firstly, ‘ethos’ means to persuade through character or authority of the speaker (Aristotle, 2018, p. 6). The background knowledge and the credibility of the person making the claim seem to unconsciously have psychological effects on us, the audience, in deciding whether to accept that fact or not. One of the examples in history of the successful usage of ethos for persuasion is the speech ‘I have a dream’ given by Martin Luther King Jr. at the Lincoln Memorial, Washington D.C. back in 1963. King being a respected and influential leader, his authority and credibility has ethos effects on his audience (Von Burg, n.d., para 6). Evoking emotions is another form of persuasion and is called ‘pathos’. As Gallo mentions in his article that “According to Aristotle, persuasion cannot occur in the absence of emotions” (para 11). Pathos in the form of storytelling contributes to a higher chance of successful persuasion as the audience are influenced by their emotions triggered by the story. Having the feelings of relation with the narration of the story enables the audience to empathize with the speaker’s message and thus, a form of psychological technique which is frequently used in persuasion. Lastly, Aristotle (2018) mentions the effect of using logical reasoning and evidence in persuasion which is ‘logos’. People are more likely to believe the evidence, such as data and statistics, as these elements serve to support the argument in a reasonable way (Gallo, 2019, para 10). 

Despite the usage of rhetoric being effective and practical in persuasion, it can also raise issues in terms of ethical considerations. Misusing rhetoric for the purpose of achieving an objective is prone to being considered unethical as it goes beyond ‘persuading’ and results in ‘manipulating’ the target audience. Ethos, an appeal to the credibility of authority, can raise ethical challenges when the authority misuses their identity to convey misinformation by making use of the audience’s trust upon them. As mentioned by Licata & Mercy (2015) , lay people have the tendency to be biased in receiving information by trusting the authority of the speaker regardless of the validity of the information that is being given and the persuasive speakers tend to use this psychological trick in their persuasive speech. Another apparent misuse of psychological practice can be seen when pathos is being used unethically. Intentionally evoking intense emotions in the audience can result in a form of emotional manipulation, which can be considered unethical in the subject of persuasive communication. Lastly, despite the proven facts and data, logos can still have ways to be unethical. Selectively using the data and facts for the purpose of benefiting a particular claim of an argument and not informing the audience about the other relevant facts on that topic can raise ethical questions. 

Now in modern times, with the vast expansion and the fast speed of the internet, social media has become a powerful platform, for many purposes as in business, politics and even religions, that enables persuasion to be conducted easily either with or without having ethical considerations. Spreading of misinformation, contents that trigger empathy or manipulate emotions, and intensively persuasive advertisements using incorrect data are some of the examples of unethical persuasions that can be done through social media. In the field of business, in order to persuade the customers to purchase their products, companies tend to advertise exaggeratedly through false advertising. This can be in the form of using either ethos or pathos. An advertisement of a famous actress using a particular skincare product persuades the audience through the use of ethos. This type of advertisement also evokes the feeling of empathy in their audience by giving information that this product can solve the problems they might have with their skin. Misinformation on the data and statistics regarding the effectiveness of this product also serves as a method of unethical persuasion. Similarly, in politics, spreading false information through disproportionate misuse of one’s authority, making use of the emotions of the people and releasing information with misleading or hidden data in order to have the people siding with a particular political figure are thought to be unethical in society as they tend to be manipulating rather than simply persuading. 

Psychological techniques in persuasion do not limit to the rhetorical appeals of ethos, pathos and logos. There are different practices of psychology that are proven to be beneficial in persuading. One of the examples is that, in a court, a lawyer needs to persuade the jury into trusting that his client is right and this is a form of persuasion. Giving out a good impression with actions such as court behavior and dressing properly in order to enhance credibility through physical appearance are necessary elements as they bring advantages in persuading unconsciously. The proper use of language, posture and necessary hand gestures also benefit the lawyer in portraying a convincing character (Corderman, 1980, p. 6). Although giving good impressions help in building an effective persuasion, the exaggeration of the impression given to the audience can raise ethical issues in the form of conveying misinformation. The audience might assume that the speaker is credible through the impressions that he gives but the truth might be that he has no knowledge on the topic that he is arguing. Another example is the use of visual attractions. Cherry (2023) writes that visual attraction with words and images also has an impact on successful persuasion. Using a great amount of positive words and images subconsciously plays a part in persuasion. The author writes that “Loaded words and evocative images can create emotional responses that go beyond what the literal meaning” (Cherry, 2023, para. 11). Visual elements, although being useful tools in persuasive communication, can also give rise to ethical questions when the images or words displayed are either misleading or prone to evoking intense emotions in the audience.  Another example of the techniques that can be used in persuading but not ethically accepted is the application of social proof. This is a form of psychological manipulation which makes the audience assume that if a lot of people are believing in something, it is true (What Is Social Proof? Definition by Dynamic Yield, n.d.). This approach has similarities with ethos and the difference lies in the fact that ethos is based on the authority of the speaker while social proof relies on a crowd of people. In the realm of social media, social proof can be easily falsified by the use of fake social media accounts and this is considered unethical in terms of persuasion. 

Even though issues around ethics in persuasive communications can be pointed out on the spot, a complete understanding of what is ethical remains a huge challenge. As Hashimoto (1985) has mentioned, “Yet while I would agree that people ought to be ethical – fair, honest, and sincere – I would argue that no one really knows what “fair,” “honest,” or “sincere” really means” (pp. 46-47). Honesty and transparency seem to play an important role in keeping the process of persuasion ethical. Persuading the audience by being honest means to provide accurate information without bias or exaggeration and hiding any part of the information. Honesty establishes credibility and enables the audience to make decisions based on reliable information. It also builds up long-term trust between the speaker and the audience. The second essential part of ethical persuasion is to be transparent about the motives and even the whole process of persuasion itself. Being transparent goes far beyond being honest in the way that the audience is informed of not only the background source of the information but also the reason why this information is being used in this persuasive speech. Evaluating an argument relies on credibility of the information given and being transparent about the motives behind this argument or persuasion. As Hashimoto (1985) writes, “Yet if recognizing ‘intentions’ is important to evaluating persuasive discourse, students ought to know how readers can recognize intention” (p. 48). Thus, the key difference between honesty and transparency lies in the fact that honesty is the accuracy of the information presented while transparency explores the working of the whole persuasion process. However, both of them are necessary in considering ethics in persuasive communication.

Understanding the significance of ethical considerations in psychological persuasion is important in our world today as creating a harmonious relationship with others relies on being ethical during the process of communicating. The methods of persuasion, with the application of psychological techniques, such as making impressions, visual aids and social proof, impact on our reasonings and decision making to some extent. Having the knowledge on the ethical usage of psychological practices in establishing an impactful persuasion enables individuals to apply suitable methods for them in persuading or convincing others and gain ability to evaluate others’ arguments without being manipulated through unethical means. Mastering the usage of the various forms of rhetoric ethically in different contexts is a key in constructing a valid argument. With the vast and fast-paced world of the internet, persuasions are occurring almost everywhere. Analyzing the possible factors used in persuasion against us makes sure that our decisions are not influenced by harmful and unhealthy persuasions. Being aware and mindful of the techniques used during communications that seem to be persuasive can be advantageous to countering being persuaded unethically. 

Ethics play an essential role in guiding our choices and decisions for keeping peace within the society and thus ethical principles in persuasive communications are not just an individual virtue but also a societal requirement. When people take a note of ethical considerations in using psychological techniques, they are fostering a communication full of trust and positivity and creating a peaceful and harmonious world, free from manipulation and deception against each other. Knowing the purpose and source of persuasion allows individuals to make decisions of their own will, rather than being influenced by the psychological factors and this act of ethical communication guides them in building a unified and principled world. 


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