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  • Writer's pictureRobin Koerner

How Facts Get Chosen and Minds Get Changed

Updated: Apr 27, 2022

One of my recent articles, “The Mistake You Make in Every Political Argument” (Mistake) made the claim that most political arguments that seem to turn on a disagreement over moral values actually hinge on a disagreement about empirical facts.

Mistake was shared by thousands of people of all political persuasions because they saw power in its diagnosis of, and prescription for, our incessant talking past each other when it comes to politics.

That article was always intended to be the first of two. This is the second, and it answers the core question left unanswered by Mistake. (If you’ve not read Mistake, please do so before reading on from here!)

That question left unanswered was, “If our political positions are based on the facts that we choose, then how do we choose those facts?”

This article will answer that question, and in so doing, deal with an instinctive objection to the case in Mistake, which loosely put, is “… but surely, people do have different morals, and they cause political disagreement too”.

In fact, both claims are true. Most political arguments hinge on factual disagreements AND people’s different morals cause them to have different political views.

But the two claims depend on each other in a counter-intuitive way: our morals determine our political views mostly by determining which facts we subconsciously choose.

Mistake explained that we choose our own facts and that the key to resolving a political argument (and many other arguments with moral content) is to discover how your opponent’s facts differ from yours.

But it didn’t explain why your opponent chooses his facts while you choose yours, which is what this article will do. When you understand that “why”, you will also know the how of changing someone’s facts. In other words, I’m going to give you a specialized tool for hacking the process of political judgment formation.

In one sentence, here’s the principle that makes the tool work:

In domains with moral consequences, such as politics, people believe the facts that, if acted upon, yield outcomes that are consistent with their moral intuitions.

These moral intuitions cover a wide range, and can be experienced as anxiety, disgust, revulsion, anger, shock, guilt, fear, delight, elation or being moved to tears, for example.  They can be as powerful as any other direct perception, but cannot always be articulated unambiguously or objectively in a way every other person would get.

The moral intuitions of different people may be more or less sensitive to different kinds of human experience. Some react more strongly to harm; some to injustice; some to oppression; some to disloyalty etc., as brilliantly described by Jonathan Haidt in his important book, “The Righteous Mind”.

Experiments prove that our immediate moral intuitive reactions to an occurrence or proposition do not come after we consciously determine whether it is good or bad. Rather, they precede it. In other words, moral intuitions are pre-conscious. Like other internal experiences, such as hunger or terror, they are there before conscious thought – and so affect that thought. And, as confirmed by extensive experiments across cultures, people can experience moral shock or disgust at an action or idea – going as far as insisting it is wrong – even if they cannot subsequently provide any reason for their view, based on their consciously held moral values.

A Moral Scientific Method?

These “immediate moral intuitive reactions”, or “moral intuitions”, might also be called moral instincts. But they are decidedly not the same thing as a consciously held “moral system”, “moral axioms”, “moral premises” or “moral values”.

In fact, moral intuitions relate to a moral system or axioms much as physical observations relate to physical theories.

If your values are your “moral theory”, then your intuitions are your “moral data”.

In the physical sciences, physical theories (physical principles) are modified to fit data (physical observations) – and not the other way around, because the data don’t care about theories.

Figure 1. In science, the results of actions are tested against observations and theories are changed if the predictions are factually wrong.

When a scientist examines an issue, he predicts an outcome by applying general physical principles (laws of nature) to relevant facts. If the physical world acts contrary to his prediction, as revealed to him by observation (physical data), then he knows there is something wrong. If he is sure of his initial facts, then the wrongness of his prediction causes him to revise his physical premises. (Fig. 1)

Analogously, in politics and other moral domains, a person predicts a morally favorable outcome by applying his values (moral principles) to relevant facts. If the outcome is contrary to his prediction, as revealed to him by moral intuition (moral data), then he knows there is something wrong.[1]

Figure 2. In politics, the results of actions are tested against moral intuitions and empirical beliefs changed if the outcomes feel morally wrong.

But there is a critical difference between the physical and moral realms. Whereas in physical science, physical premises are revised in response to contradicting physical observations, in moral or political science, it is not just the moral premises that get revised in response to contradicting moral intuitions: more often and more importantly, it’s the believed empirical facts about the world that change. (Fig. 2)

That sounds counter-intuitive when written in the abstract, but you already know it instinctively.

How so? Because in nearly every case, when you are engaged in a moral or political argument, almost every move you make involves pointing out facts to your opponent. You do so because, as Mistake demonstrated, some part of your subconscious knows that your disagreement hinges on different beliefs about things in the world – rather than on moral premises.

To start with, of course, you have to point out the facts on which your position rests because you can’t make your argument without laying them out. But beyond that, when you find your opponent disagrees with you, you almost always present more facts that reinforce the relevance of the moral premise that you are bringing to bear on the question. Why? Because facts determine what moral values govern the issue or – in cases where multiple moral values clearly bear on the issue but pull in different directions – which value takes priority.

How do you choose, and what makes you instinctively share, the facts that you use in an argument?

You use facts to which you have a strong moral intuitive response. That response “tells” you that those facts are relevant to the issue because they determine which of your moral values apply and justify your position on the issue. You unconsciously assume that sharing those facts will induce the same moral intuitions in the person you’re arguing with.

In other words, you’re instinctively marshaling facts in an attempt to induce in your opponent the moral intuitions that brought you to the position that you are arguing for.

The fundamental psychological reality that you’re exploiting when you do this is our need to eliminate cognitive dissonance.

You’re trading facts (E.g. “Of course a fetus is human! What else could it be?” vs. “Four cells isn’t a human being.” “Guns don’t kill people. People do.” vs. “Countries with fewer guns have fewer homicides”) to generate in your opponent an uncomfortable moral intuitive inconsistency, and therefore a cognitive dissonance, with her own position.

The need to eliminate cognitive dissonance is the emotional mechanism by which our views are made increasingly consistent with each other and with our experiences in the world. In other words, it is the evolved mechanism by which we make our beliefs more true, favoring survival.

Hume’s Guillotine Is Broken – and It’s Upside Down

David Hume, the Scottish philosopher noted that moral values (“what is right”) cannot be derived from empirical facts (“what is so”). This insight is called “Hume’s Guillotine”.

Nevertheless, our moral intuitive systems derive “what is right” from “what is so” all the time – because neurologically, we are “wired” for our pre-conscious moral intuitive responses to turn our experiences of “what is so” into beliefs about “what is right”.

These intuitive moral reactions are, therefore, how in practice we derive an “ought” from an “is” without being able to do so logically. They are the wrench that our brains put in Hume’s guillotine.

Sometimes, a moral instinct can be consciously justified after it is experienced, with reference to a consciously held, internally consistent, clearly articulated moral system. But often, it is not.

Moreover, like scientists who dishonestly ignore physical data that don’t fit their pet theory, people can ignore or suppress a moral instinct because it is at odds with a consciously held ideology, out of a sincere belief in that ideology or an ego-investment in it.

But whether we ignore them or not; and whether they fit our current ideology, moral intuitions are the data that we use to test, and hopefully correct, our moral understanding of the world, just as scientists use physical data to test, and hopefully correct, their physical understanding of the world.

These moral intuitive data don’t just inform our policy positions by determining our moral values directly: more importantly, they determine which parts of our value system apply to which issues by causing us to believe certain facts about them, and to define them in one way or another. That is primarily how our moral intuitions cause us to judge right from wrong – especially when it comes to complex political issues. And the more complex the issue, the more room there is for disagreement about which empirical facts are true, reliable and relevant.

Figure 3. Moral intuitions affect our moral and political positions by determining both our moral premises and our empirical beliefs about the physical world. Our political disagreements are more often driven by differences in empirical beliefs (e.g. “a fetus is a person” – very contentious) than moral premises (e.g. “murder is wrong” – not contentious), which tend to vary much less among people within a particular culture.

In Mistake, I considered the issue of abortion as an example. So let’s apply Fig. 3 to that issue for Laurie, who is pro-life, and for Charlie, who is pro-choice (both of whom featured in Mistake).


Figure 4


Figure 5

Laurie and Charlie have many moral intuitions that cause them both to believe that murder is wrong and that the state may not violate individual bodily autonomy.  Yet, they have different moral intuitive reactions to the idea of abortion.

Laurie’s moral intuitions against abortion mean that her belief about what abortion, and therefore what a fetus, is must make V2 (force should not be used to violate individual liberty) inapplicable and V1 (force should be used to prevent murder) applicable.

Charlie’s moral intuitions in accepting abortion means that his belief about what abortion, and therefore what a fetus, is must make V1 inapplicable and V2 applicable.

For each of them, it is their factual beliefs that determine which of the values (V1, V2) is operative, so these are ultimately responsible for the disagreement between Laurie and Charlie’s positions on abortion.

And it has to be that way, because there is no intuition about abortion that would cause either Charlie or Laurie to accept murder or violations of individual autonomy.

Accordingly, neither Laurie’s nor Charlie’s case calls either of these moral values into question. Rather, it is the applicability of these values to the issue of abortion, determined by factual beliefs, that separates them.

Not only, then, do we derive an “ought” from an “is” via our moral intuitions: we derive an “is” from an “ought”. Hume’s guillotine isn’t just broken: it’s both broken and upside down!

Inducing Intuition and Changing Minds

That is an interesting assertion, you may say, but how would we use all this to change someone’s mind about an issue? Or at the very least, how do we use it to have productive conversations in which two people on different sides of an issue can usefully assimilate what the other person is trying to say? With respect to both political progress and individual growth, that would be a massive improvement on our normal way of arguing in politics, which results in both parties’ coming away even more convinced of the other’s wrong-headedness or immorality than when they started.

Reorganizing physical data (facts about the world) or moral data (moral intuitions) that your opponent has already heard and considered has no chance of changing your opponent’s mind in a political argument because your opponent has already decided that those data are consistent with the position he holds.

Making a case out of information that an opponent has already considered has as much chance of changing her mind as would simply reordering a bunch of physical data that support a theory have of causing a scientist to give up on one theory and adopt a new one. Obviously, a Newtonian physicist would need to be exposed to some physical data that do not fit the Newtonian theory of gravity before he’d consider giving it up and embracing Einstein’s theory of relativity. Similarly, to be persuasive, you need to give your opponent data that cannot be assimilated in her present position if you are to change her mind. And as we have seen, when it comes to moral domains like politics, those data are pre-conscious moral intuitive reactions.

To change an opponent’s mind, then, you need to give her a new moral intuition – or to be more precise, a moral intuitive reaction to a fact, an idea or even an imagining, that she has not had before. Such a reaction is a directly experienced form of data that has the potential (logically and psychologically) to shake someone’s current political position on an issue.

To be clear, causing someone to have a new moral intuitive reaction that isn’t consistent with his current position on an issue is clearly not always sufficient to get him to jettison a current belief. However, it is necessary: no one will change a deeply held view without a new moral intuitive reaction to something.

Don’t take my word for it. Test that statement against your own experience. Think of a time when you formed or changed your view about an important moral or political question – either in an instant or over a long time. Try to recall how you felt about the issue – the moral intuitions – before and after the adoption of the new position. Could you imagine having the new view with the old intuition, or the old view with the new intuition?  In almost every case, the answer is “no”.

Generating cognitive dissonance by generating a moral intuition at odds with a currently held view in a way that has potential to change that view can be done in two broad methods, both of which do as Denis Diderot, the C18 French philosopher, described:

In order to shake a hypothesis, it is sometimes not necessary to do anything more than push it as far as it will go.

The first method could be called “falsification” because it seeks directly to produce in your opponent a new, negative moral intuition about his current position and so present moral intuitive data that, if accepted, falsify his current view. The second could be called “undercutting” because it seeks to eliminate a moral intuition that your opponent has in favor of his current position.

Falsification: Falsification involves applying your opponent’s consciously held and asserted facts and values to the world in ways he’s not considered before, or to parts of the world he’s not applied them to before. The purpose is to identify actions or positions that his current facts and values would require him, logically, to accept but that generate in him a negative, and therefore contradictory, moral intuition.

Undercutting: Undercutting involves bringing to the fore a fact or idea that your opponent is likely to agree with because it is consistent with values or facts he already believes, but that, when accepted, undermines a moral intuition that drives your opponent’s current position.

In every case, remember, the ultimate target is to change the factual belief on which you and your opponent differ (and that you have identified using the method in Mistake. If you’ve still not read it, read it now!).

Two Paradigms, Divided by a Common Morality

In Mistake, I used the issue of abortion to illustrate how to get to the bottom of a disagreement in a way that offers opportunity for genuine understanding and, potentially, persuasion.

People’s divergent moral intuitions are much more likely to lead to a difference of position on abortion because they result in different beliefs as to whether an embryo is (a matter of fact) a persons, than because they cause some people to think that it’s ok to intentionally kill innocent persons (which some pro-lifers wrongly accuse pro-choicers of believing) or that it’s ok that for the state to interfere with bodily autonomy (which some pro-choicers wrongly accuse pro-lifers of believing).

One of the most gratifying proofs of the core idea in Mistake was that almost all of the commenters that didn’t like its description of the disagreement between Laurie (pro-life) and Charlie (pro-choice) argued for the obvious unreasonableness of the pro-choice side by making (explicitly or implicitly) factual assertions. None (of the dozens that I read) had an issue with Charlie’s moral premise (about autonomy): rather, they denied its applicability to the issue on factual grounds that the embryo is “obviously” a human being – providing a perfect example of the very point I was making.

Their comments thus nicely illustrated how moral intuitions drive factual beliefs, which determine the moral premises that apply to an issue, and thereby the “right” position on that issue.

To understand how moral intuitions drive primarily factual, rather than moral, beliefs, ask yourself how many times have you have heard a pro-life person try to persuade a pro-choice person by actually making an argument against murder. Probably never. You have, however, definitely heard pro-life people tell pro-choicers that abortion is murder – and their explanations are almost entirely factual.  Laurie isn’t arguing about the rightness or wrongness of murder per se, because Charlie is never arguing for the acceptability of abortion by arguing that murder is somehow less bad than Laurie thinks it is. Rather, Charlie is arguing that abortion isn’t murder because an embryo isn’t a person in any sense that could actually be murdered.

So let’s go all the way, and use the example of abortion to examine why some people believe, as a matter of fact, that an embryo is a human being while some believe, as a matter of fact, that it is not. That means we need to examine the moral intuitions at play.[2]

First, a disclaimer. I am not saying that any of the following intuitions are logical refutations of the opposing position. I am also not trying to make a pro-choice case.  I don’t need to convince anyone of any position on abortion, because what I think about this moral issue, or any other, is irrelevant to the point of this article, which is entirely epistemological.  The purpose is merely to lay out a wide range of moral intuitions that people have in response to the killing of a human (used advisedly) embryo and/or fetus, with the purpose of showing why they cause good, reasonable people to have different factual beliefs, which then cause them to take very different positions on moral issues.

I’m also not trying to say that one side of the argument is better or more persuasive than the other. Rather, I wish to demonstrate how a person’s moral intuitions bear honestly on the empirical elements of a complicated moral question, to the point that;

a) your opponent’s moral inferiority is not the most likely explanation of your difference with her;

b) your opponent’s belief on a moral question can be as caring,  clear, and reasonable as yours, even though both positions cannot be correct simultaneously; and

c) any attempt to change your opponent’s mind demands a respectful engagement with her moral intuitions and the facts that they cause her to believe, even though they are not just obviously wrong to you, but self-evidently so.

A Very Pregnant Example of Moral Intuitions

People like Laurie (pro-life) may have moral intuitions that are experienced as, among other things, visceral sensations of disgust at pictures of an aborted fetus, which may look exactly like another whose life is being saved in an incubator in the next room. A video – or even a description – of an abortion may elicit revulsion to the point of nausea. That is why, of course, anti-abortion campaigners use those pictures and descriptions, which are visual and empirical facts that elicit in many people an extremely negative moral intuitive response that shakes one out of moral indifference.  A related moral intuition would be disgust at the indifference of a doctor or mother who could kill a person (as Laurie sees the fetus) without being angst-riven.

Laurie’s moral intuitions make sense to her because – and cause her to believe that – the following facts are the ones that matter. A fetus, even an embryo, is human in having human DNA, full human potential, and the impossibility of becoming anything other than human.

All of these facts are true. For Laurie, they are also associated with overwhelming moral intuitions such as those described above. Moreover, for Laurie, these intuitively powerful facts are supported by another one: if you can’t draw a clear line between two things, such as between an embryo and a human being, then that is prima facie evidence that there is no line between them – and that they are the same thing.

And the pro-life position gets even stronger (logically and morally) when it points out the inconsistency of allowing fetuses of any age or characteristics to be intentionally killed (which they indisputably are) while at the same time, millions of people may be fighting with all the moral, emotional and financial force they can muster to save the lives of other fetuses of the same age or the same characteristics.

These moral intuitions that lead to the embryo-is-a-person position are likely reinforced by a justified moral skepticism about people, like Charlie, who take an opposite view. For if the “life-is-human-at-conception” is even possibly correct, then a lack of willingness to acknowledge that fact and thus err on the side of caution when it comes to killing fetuses – for what in almost every case is “merely” a more convenient life of the would-be mother – genuinely brings into question the morality of people like Charlie. For that reason in particular, Laurie can sincerely, and with utter clarity of conviction, feel that Charlie’s error on abortion is indeed moral, rather than factual.

Inasmuch as Laurie’s and Charlie’s beliefs lead them to a different view on an obviously moral question (concerning behavior and policy around abortion), they do, technically, have a moral difference, which is felt by each with a keenness proportional to the sense of clarity and certainty that comes with the moral intuitions at play.

But a moral difference cannot be demonstrated to be a moral error except by going to the facts and all the moral intuitions that are associated with them.

Just as a scientist may not have all of the data to determine the correct position on an important question and so must collaborate to acquire and share all relevant data to be able to chose one theory over another, so must a person who wants the correct position on a moral question collaborate to acquire and share all relevant data to take the correct position on a moral or political question.  Those data are their own and others’ moral intuitions and the facts that those intuitions cause them to feel are relevant to the issue.

So let’s consider the intuitions that cause people like Charlie from feeling differently from Laurie about abortion, because they prevent him from believing what Laurie believes about embryos.

First (undercutting), while we intuitively understand that an acorn is of the oak species, it isn’t an oak tree. In normal use, we don’t question the intent of those who regard acorns and oak trees as thoroughly different things, even though the one has the potential to become the other – and only the other. By analogy, for people like Charlie, while an embryo is of the human species, it isn’t a human being (person).

In short, “an acorn/embryo is oak/human”, and “an acorn/embryo is not an oak tree/person” are two reasonable, factual claims. For Laurie, the first has more moral pull; for Charlie, the second does.

Second (undercutting), Charlie might point out that we only know what a thing is by the characteristics it has, and our definitions of most things reflect that. There are many characteristics of human beings that embryos cannot exhibit, because they simply don’t have the complexity or “components” to do so.  Indeed, to Charlie, every argument that he has heard from a pro-life person for reducing the number of weeks before an embryo can be legally aborted that is based on some characteristics of the fetus (such as viability, having a pulse, its ability to feel pain) is self-defeating because it supports his own moral intuition on abortion. Such an argument only makes sense, after all, if our moral obligations to human well-being arise not from DNA or “potential”, but the actual characteristics – human characteristics – of the life in question. And if Charlie is right on that, then saying that an embryo is fully human is more of a contradiction than saying that it has the equivalent moral value to any other four, eight or 16-celled organism, for example.

Third (undercutting), with respect to the intuition that says that if one can’t draw a clear line between two things, then one of them is not in fact distinct from the other, there is the Sorites paradox. This is a philosophical problem that is thousands of years old and was born of such a clash of intuitions in the philosophical space as we are concerned with in the moral space.

It asks the question “When do grains of sand, being piled on each other, form a heap?” One grain clearly isn’t a heap. A million grains is, so when does adding grains cause the heap to come into existence? And if there is no point at which it comes into existence, can it actually exist, differing in any way from a non-heap?

Wherever you choose to draw that line between non-heap and heap is largely arbitrary and therefore unjustifiable. On the other hand, if you say that the inability to draw that line means that there is no line so there are no heaps, the existence of heaps of sand clearly refutes you. Again, when it comes to abortion, this proves nothing, but it is relevant to why some people intuitively resist the pro-life claim that since the “only clear line that can be drawn between human and non-human is at conception”, that conception is the only reasonable place to draw that line.

Fourth (undercutting), while we are on the subject of continuums, many scientists see all of life as existing on a spectrum of complexity and there seems to be a correlation between the complexity of a life-form and the human moral instinct to protect it – or at the very least to not wantonly destroy it. The spectrum of life runs from adult human (if we arbitrarily use that as the upper end) down through other animals and amphibians to bacteria and even, by some reasonable definitions, to viruses and then self-organizing crystals.  Is a single human cell really more similar, physically or morally, to a human being than it is to a bacterium?  And related to that question is another question, about which different people have different intuitions: is a similarity in the physical characteristics of different things any basis for attributing a similarity in moral characteristics?

Fifth (falsification) and perhaps more powerful than any of the above, is a compelling thought experiment.

Imagine you are in a laboratory at a fertility clinic and it catches fire. You have time to grab only a newly born baby in an incubator by one door as you leave the burning room, or a Petri dish with two two-cell embryos in it, as you leave by the other door. Which would you instinctively do?

Most people, including many pro-lifers like Laurie, would go for the baby (one human life) and not the Petri dish (two human lives, if you believe life is fully human at conception). Now that is important, because it is a very clear, unmediated moral intuition and, therefore, moral data point. Whereas Laurie’s consciously held pro-life moral values and/or belief about what a human is tell her one thing, her moral instinct or intuition says another.

Sixth (falsification), depending on Laurie’s other political, moral or even religious views, she may feel comfortable with taking human life as collateral damage with a justification that involves another moral principle, such as in a war. Perhaps she can also accept taking embryonic “human life” for the purposes of in vitro fertilization (which creates more embryos than needed in the certain knowledge that some will be destroyed). Acceptance of either of these contradicts the moral premise against taking innocent human life allied with the empirical one that a life is fully human at conception – unless we allow that other beliefs about the world might affect the scope of application of that moral premise … which goes fundamentally to Charlie’s point.

For this reason, the “what about in cases of rape?” question isn’t just a cheap shot from the pro-choice side. It is, rather, the most common attempt to elicit cognitive dissonance from a moral intuition. Any hesitation that Laurie might have to punish for murder a rape victim (or her doctor) who aborts a resulting fetus, is evidence that the claim that “a two-celled embryo is as human as you or me” doesn’t capture all there is one needs to know in assessing the morality of abortion and, therefore, the nature of the thing being aborted (since the immorality of doing deliberate harm to one person to help another is assumed by both sides).

Seventh (falsification), Charlie might ask Laurie what punishment would be appropriate for any woman who had an abortion. Any discomfort that Laurie might have in putting a women in prison for at least as long as she’d get for manslaughter is exactly the kind of moral intuitive data point that, again, weighs against the claim that “a two-celled embryo is the moral equivalent of a human adult”.

Eighth (undercutting), many people who believe that “human personhood begins at conception” are religious, and in America, that mostly means Christian.

Central to the Christian paradigm is the idea that human beings are, or have, souls that live beyond the death of our bodies. For most pro-life Christians, the humanity of an embryo, its moral value, and its worthiness of protection, are all by virtue of its having a soul.  However, biologists have known for decades that the large majority (up to 75%) of fertilized embryos are expelled by the pregnant woman’s body before the woman ever discovers she’s pregnant (within one menstrual cycle). For a Christian, then, this must mean that most of the souls in heaven are actually unborn babies – not because of abortions, but because God set it up that way – creating the majority of the human race never to live outside their mother’s bodies, but just to be conceived and then go straight to heaven. (If you’re a certain flavor of Catholic, you can have them go through Limbo.)

To many Christians who know the science, there is something about this state of affairs that is intuitively absurd. Can that really be how God works? Wouldn’t it be weirdly wasteful? Wouldn’t the Church, or the Bible, have mentioned something about it – given that we’re talking about most of the souls that we will be meeting, hopefully, in heaven?

Moreover, doesn’t the very idea jar with the deep sense of beauty that God’s creation elicits in so many people? Can an abortion of a four-celled embryo with an abortion pill be murder in exactly the sense that Laurie means it, even though it’s “standard practice” for God – more common in fact than having human beings die of old age!?

Now, again, pointing this out doesn’t prove anything, but it is a great example of eliciting in someone a new moral intuition (or we might say a theological intuition in this case), to weaken a factual belief.

This example also clearly demonstrates that moral intuitions are not truly axiomatic, existing independently of other beliefs. Like all experiences, they are experienced within a paradigm – in this case a Christian one. While this consideration is powerful within the Christian understanding of the world, it would of course be irrelevant to someone who does not believe in the existence of the soul and/or heaven.

A pro-choice Christian might go further and point out that 2 Timothy 4:1, on which the Nicene creed draws, states “Christ will judge the quick and the dead.” (Only in more recent times has that creed been revised to “the living and the dead”.) The word “quick” refers to a fetus that has moved for the first time in its mother’s womb (typically at 16 to 25 weeks).

If we believe that Christ judges souls (or people with souls), then isn’t 2 Timothy Biblical evidence for ensoulment (and therefore personhood) at quickening, rather than at conception?

None of the above examples disprove the pro-life position just as Laurie’s arguments, while utterly compelling for many, don’t disprove the pro-choice position. But for most decent, reasonable people who are utterly opposed to murder in all its forms, the intuitions that I have described above are some of the most powerful experiences that shake the claim that a human embryo is fully a human being at conception.

If I were Laurie, trying to bring Charlie around to my pro-life point of view, I would want to have considered all of these moral intuitions that may be contributing to his holding his position. Only when I can fully appreciate the intuitions that cause my opponents to choose different facts from me, can I actually speak to those facts (See Mistake) and have a chance of changing a mind. Remember that most people formulate their arguments without being fully conscious of the moral intuitions that caused them to choose their facts, on which their particular position consciously depends.

Similarly, if I were Charlie, trying to persuade Laurie to respect my pro-choice position, I would ask questions that would cause her to get the moral intuitive hits described above. I might engage her in the thought experiment about the laboratory on fire and explore her emotional responses as she considers what she would do. I would play close attention to anything that causes her to be resistant, angry, or hesitant. Anger might be a sign that she’s not ready to change her view and perhaps Charlie should change the subject entirely. Hesitancy may be a sign that Laurie is genuinely surprised and thoughtful about why she wouldn’t take the two humans in the Petri dish rather than the one in the pushchair from the burning laboratory. If she does hesitate, Charlie should ask her where she thinks that hesitancy comes from. Of course, she may well look for ways to eliminate her cognitive dissonance without moving to Charlie’s view. Perhaps, for example, she would look for problems with the “setup” of the thought experiment to justify ignoring a moral intuition that isn’t consistent with the moral view she wants to hold on to. But now we’re on the path to finding new moral data, collaborating in a true discussion that has the potential to affect a currently held position.

Again, the mechanism I’m outlining here isn’t sufficient to change minds, but it is necessary.

If I were Charlie, I might also ask Laurie what punishment she feels to be appropriate for the crime of abortion. If it’s not simply the same as for first degree murder, another path toward mutual understanding has necessarily opened up. If it is the same, perhaps Charlie could ask Laurie if she thinks the punishment should be the same for a victim of rape. Really believing that the embryo is a full person requires an affirmative answer for consistency. But most people have a strong moral instinct against punishing a woman for aborting the embryo created as a result of a rape. But why? If that embryo is obviously human, the thought of aborting it should generate much more internal moral repulsion than locking up the rape victim for what is still, to Laurie, murder…  Neither Charlie nor Laurie believes that two wrongs make a right, after all.  Perhaps Laurie suggests that the rape victim has diminished responsibility or capacity as a result of trauma? Ok. Is it the same in every case? Should we still prosecute the doctor and then take the baby and provide state-sponsored adoption? If not, why not?

This is a kind of Socratic approach for sure. There is nothing new in that. But what is new, and incredibly powerful, is the idea of using it to reveal specifically the moral intuitions that cause opponents to believe certain facts about the physical world.

This Socrates-meets-Diderot approach must replace the trading of syllogisms, which has no power whatsoever to change the mind of someone who’s operating in a different paradigm, motivated by different moral intuitions that provide the facts that entail his or her position.

In the art of persuasion, the need to eliminate cognitive dissonance is either working for you or against you.

In normal argument, this need is met by finding any way to stay within one’s current paradigm. Each opponent experiences his paradigm as internally consistent, whereas acceptance of the opponent’s would involve experiencing massive cognitive dissonance in the form of lost consistency and clarity.

In contrast, the intuition-inducing approach described here (in both falsifying and undercutting versions) causes a political or moral opponent to feel a dissonance between her own moral intuition and her consciously held position that rests on a factual belief about the world.

Moral Universes

People of different moral and political dispositions live in different moral universes.

People judge the morality of a statement or position on various axes. Jonathan Haidt has identified these axes as care vs. harm, fairness vs. unfairness, liberty vs. oppression, loyalty vs. disloyalty, respect for authority vs. disrespect for authority, and respect for the “sacred” (identity-dependent) vs. disrespect for the “sacred”.

In determining the moral rightness of an action or belief, different people weigh these dimensions differently. These weightings are not consciously set, of course, but are evident in the patterns of a person’s moral intuitions or instincts about various ideas and behaviors.

For example, conservatives tend to think that loyalty is a moral good per se, whereas progressives tend not to.  Moreover, the moral intuitions of conservatives tend to reveal a greater concern with the fair vs. unfair axis than with the care vs. harm axis. For progressives, it’s the other way around. Therefore, both conservatives and progressives may agree that the fact that the welfare state materially helps people in poverty (care vs. harm) is a moral good, and the fact that it incentivizes the behaviors that lead to poverty at the expense of those who are working hard (fairness vs. unfairness) is a moral bad, but the progressives are more likely to consider that the good outweighs the bad while the conservatives would say the opposite. A libertarian, meanwhile, would morally reject the welfare state on the liberty-oppression axis because the taking of property to give to another involves the initiation of force, and is therefore inherently oppressive of the individual – regardless of outcome or intent.

The claim that people disagree on political issues because they disagree about facts rather than moral premises is entirely consistent with their living in these different moral universes.

Their moral universes are not complete, consciously articulated moral systems but tendencies for some moral dimensions to dominate others. As Haidt himself shows at length in his review of multiple experiments, they operate pre-consciously at the level of moral instincts or intuition.

In other words, a person’s moral universe can be best thought of as the broad landscape of moral intuitions that he or she brings to bear on various issues.

Therefore, people don’t believe the welfare state is unfair because they consciously prioritize the fairness-unfairness axis and therefore lean conservative. Rather, they lean conservative because they in general prioritize the fairness-unfairness axis in their instinctive (pre-conscious) moral reactions to all kinds of issues, including the welfare state.

Similarly, people don’t believe the welfare state is great because they consciously prioritize the care-harm axis and therefore lean progressive. Rather, they lean progressive because they in general prioritize the care-harm axis in their instinctive (pre-conscious) moral reactions to all kinds of issues, including the welfare state.

My rhyming short-hand for this tension between left and right is “care vs. fair”. If you’re in an argument with someone across the Left/Right political divide and looking for ways to induce moral intuitions that may help shake your opponent’s facts, then you would do well to bear that rhyme in mind as a general descriptor of the difference between the centers of mass of your moral instincts and hers.

Knowing your opponent’s moral universe means knowing what kind of considerations (harm, abuse of power, oppression, injustice, betrayal etc.) are likely to elicit her strongest moral intuitions, and therefore how to use the methods above to generate the cognitive dissonance that may cause her to reconsider her view on an issue.

Guns Kill People. People Kill People. Knives Cut Food. People Cut Food.

In Mistake, I briefly considered the issue of gun rights vs. gun control as an example of how folks on different sides of loaded political issues are separated more by factual differences than a difference in values.

On that issue, one of the facts in play (and asserted by many supporters of gun rights) is that ultimately, at times of tyranny or immediate danger, the individual can only protect himself with lethal force against the government’s near-monopoly on the use of lethal force, or another individual that is threatening or using lethal force against him. Some of the facts on the other side concern the harm that is done to innocents using firearms.

The facts that are pertinent to the people on each side of the debate are, again, fundamentally determined by their moral intuitions. The instinctive moral reaction of many of the Left on this issue is horror at the loss of innocent life. The instinctive moral reaction of many of the Right on this issue is horror at the forceful stripping of a basic right to protect one’s own well-being (against both other people and the government).

Once again, with respect to consciously held values, both sides believe that loss of life and the stripping of basic rights are moral negatives. But on this issue, the sides differ on which facts are most pertinent, and the choice of pertinent facts is subconsciously motivated by the moral intuitive reactions to the outcomes that follow from each position on the issue.

Unsurprisingly, those who would limit gun rights tend to have moral instincts that are dominated by the care vs. harm dimension (shooting of innocent people is immediately perceptible abject harm) and thus tend to be on the Left, whereas those who champion those same rights have moral instincts that may be more dominated by the liberty vs. oppression dimension (limiting the people’s ability to resist tyranny backed by the government’s monopoly of force and/or removing their right to protect themselves are acts of great oppression) and thus tend to be on the Right.

Fascinatingly, these two groups intuitively react completely differently to a very simple statement, “Guns kill people”.

Notice that it is an incredibly simply factual statement – almost the simplest kind of proposition in the English language: subject-verb-object!.

Now, there is a natural, intuitive sense in which that statement is obviously true; but there is also a natural, intuitive sense in which that statement is obviously false.

One side agrees with the statement and the other denies it, but “Guns kill people” and “Guns don’t kill people” cannot both be true logically (because one is a negation of the other). So who’s right?

They both are, because both statements can be true simultaneously – if the words mean different things to the two sides that are trading the contradiction. And they do.

Imagine an exact syntactic parallel to “Guns kill people” (G), such as “Kitchen knives cut food”? (K)

In the sense that K in common usage is true, G is also true. However, someone who believes “Guns don’t kill people; people kill people,” should, to be consistent, believe, “Knives don’t cut bread. People do.”

Is that believable; is it reasonable? Absolutely.

And understanding why it is so sheds light on the difference between the ways pro-gun and anti-gun people are using the word “kill” in G.

Strictly, what is meant by “guns kill people” is something like, “Guns are made to perform the physical function of killing people and are used to do so.” Similarly, “Kitchen knives are made to perform the physical function of cutting food and are used to do so.”

Like guns, knives are inert objects that do nothing without the agency of a person.

The gun-control people are using the verb (kill) in the sense of “has the function of” whereas the gun-rights people are using the verb in the sense of “acts with the purpose of”.

Normally, we use verbs in both of these (and other) senses all the time without thinking carefully about the distinction – a distinction that is practical (empirical) rather than moral.  Yet it is in this very subtle distinction that the critical factual difference exists between the two sides of this hugely consequential political argument.

Without looking for that factual distinction, the two sides can do no more than trade syllogisms and contradictory claims, certain (with good reason) of their own accuracy. In this case, “the fallacy of the assumed paradigm” causes each side to assume that the words (“kill” in this case) mean exactly the same thing to people on the other side of the issue. As described at length in Mistake, a particular word often hides a factual difference on which the disagreement hinges.

The moral premise that “killing innocent people is wrong” is shared between both sides of the gun debate, which is exactly why the two sides of the argument are stuck trading their contradictory facts (guns kill people vs. people kill people) and their corresponding syllogisms.

It is because both sides believe killing is wrong (moral claim) that an anti-gun person believes he can persuade you to be against guns with the factual claim, “guns kill people”. It is because both sides believe killing is wrong (moral claim) that a pro-gun person believe he can show that you have no need to be against guns, with the factual claim, “guns don’t kill people; people do.”

As we know, this back and forth convinces no one on either side. Rather, to have a chance of “breaking through”, we need to examine the underlying moral intuitions of our opponents.

Why are the pro-gun people inclined to believe the fact, “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people” while the anti-gun people are inclined to believe the fact, “Guns kill people.”?

As we have seen, some folks, who tend to the political Left, operate overwhelmingly on the care-harm moral axis. Others, who tend to be more Conservative, operate much more strongly on the liberty-oppression axis (and fairness-unfairness axis).

If I am more concerned with the harm, I don’t care how the harm is caused: I just want it stopped. Accordingly, I go to the most immediate and proximate cause of the effect, which is the physical cause, the gun. If my concern is stopping the harm, and there is one thing I can remove that logically prevents that particular harm (in this case gun violence), then my moral intuition causes me to believe the thing that justifies doing just that.  (This process is all pre-conscious)

If I am more concerned with individual rights, liberty or the abuse of power, then how the harm is caused is not only relevant – it’s pretty much the whole point. If we are looking at using power over innocent people to remove a right, then whether that power can legitimately be used justifiably to infringe upon that right is what the issue turns on. In that case, my moral intuition causes me to believe the thing that keeps the distinction in principle between those who cause harm to others (justifying legitimate action against them) and those who do not (whose rights therefore stand).

The point again is that the difference between you and your opponent is in the facts, but also that to understand why his facts aren’t yours, you need to identify the moral intuitions that are driving the person you are talking to.

Once you have found the factual difference (often hidden in the different uses of a word), and determined the moral intuitive motivations that explain that difference, you can lay them all out on the table. This is respectful of your opponent and enables you to speak to his actual beliefs and to his moral intuitive motivations for those beliefs – motivations that he may not even be consciously aware of.

Once you understand your opponent’s factual basis and moral intuitive reasons for their beliefs, you have the logical keys to changing his mind. Once you start showing your opponent that you understand those things perhaps even better than he understands them himself, you have a psychological key, too.

Some text books have “exercises for the reader”. In that spirit, you can test the powerful form of analysis outlined herein by identifying the factual differences between, and the motivating moral intuitions of, people on opposite sides of the following political sentiments.

“Taxation is theft”

“Greed is good”

“Black lives matter”, “All lives matter”

“Taking a knee is patriotic”, “It’s wrong to burn the flag”

“If you’ve got nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to fear”

“Marriage is between a man and a woman”

“You can choose your gender”

“White privilege”

“Hate speech is free speech”

“Man-made global warming”

“We’re not a democracy. We’re a Constitutional Republic”

I ended Mistake with a quote from John Rogers,

You don’t really understand an antagonist until you understand why he’s a protagonist in his own version of the world.

Now you know how to get into his version of the world and – should lives or liberty depend on it – how to have a real shot at changing it.

If all of this seems like an awful lot of work just to win a political argument, you could be right.

But if, instead, you consider how our country would change if the opponents in just one in ten political arguments found common ground, mutual appreciation, and increased moral respect even on hugely divisive issues, then I think you’ll agree, it’s very little work indeed.


[1] Obviously, objective reality also affects all our beliefs and predictions about the world, including our moral ones, but I’m taking that as given, since objective reality in the most fundamental sense (e.g. the laws of nature – what actually exists) does not vary among people.

[2] Obviously, what follows isn’t exhaustive. I can’t possibly know the consciences of every other person. Rather, it is illustrative and, I believe, sufficiently comprehensive that you will be able to test it from your own experience of discussions on the issue.

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