“Ethics and Persuasion” Prepare a 1000-1500-word paper (do not include title and reference pages in your word count), formatted according to APA style, that details the importance of ethical behavior and its significance in persuasion. Define at least 2 ethical theories in your paper and identify and describe the impact that ethical practices have on persuasion. Your paper must include at least three outside scholarly sources to support your opinions. You should choose an effective example to clearly illustrate your viewpoints such as a current event issue or personal experience. The Ethics and Persuasion paper Must be 1000 to 1500 words in length (do not include title and references pages in your word count) and formatted according to APA style. Must include a separate title page with the following: Title of paper Student’s name Course name and number Instructor’s name Date submitted Must use at least 3 scholarly sources.- Textbook and 1 article included. Please choose a third source.
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Ethics of Persuasion
After reading this chapter, you should be able to:
Evaluate the ethicality of a persuasion appeal using the four criteria of a persuasion attempt.
Define the different theoretical approaches to ethics.
Discuss and apply the teleological approach to ethics.
Discuss and apply the deontological approach to ethics.
Understand the limitations and criticisms of teleological and deontological ethics.
Explain how an ethical approach to persuasion can inform a belief system.
Appraise real-world persuasion appeals using various ethical perspectives.
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Evaluating Persuasion Ethics
Maple syrup producers are upset that one brand is using the word natural to promote its
syrup (CBSNews, 2010). See http://www.necn.com/news/new-england/_NECN__Log_Cabin
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires that any product labeled as natural
must only comprise plant-based ingredients (Hornbeck, 2010). All of the ingredients in the
Log Cabin® table syrup are indeed plant-based (after the manufacturer removed caramel
coloring and a couple of other ingredients), so the product can therefore be labeled natural
(Curran, 2010). However, the maple syrup producers argue that natural implies purity, that
the syrup in the bottle is pure maple syrup, which is more costly to produce. Due to FDA
regulations, Log Cabin is prohibited from using the word pure, but they can use natural. See
So, Pinnacle Foods, the manufacturer of Log Cabin, is abiding by the law in its product labeling, but are the labeling and packaging ethical? Is Pinnacle Foods responsible for consumers’ confusion?
When is an act ethical? Is an attempt to persuade someone ever ethical? How do we assess
what’s ethical or not? What goes into our beliefs about right and wrong?
The relationship of ethics to persuasion has always been a complex issue that sparks controversy. Given the interplay of self-interests, subjective experiences, and a variety of possible
outcomes, it’s no wonder the two share a volatile relationship.
As you encounter a variety of approaches to persuasion, you should have tools for evaluating the extent to which an approach is ethical. In this chapter, we will consider two popular
systems of ethics to set a foundation for analyzing the ethicality of different persuasion techniques. Some of the techniques you will learn in this book vary with regard to their ethicality,
and even their legality. So, we must consider the ethics of persuasion attempts before we
examine the persuasion theories and how they might be applied.
3.1 Evaluating Persuasion Ethics
Think back to the defining elements of persuasion in Chapter 1. A persuasion attempt
involves 1) a conscious intent to persuade, 2) the communication of a message, 3) the message receiver’s free will, and 4) an impact on the receiver’s attitudes. Each element of a
persuasion attempt can be evaluated in terms of its ethicality. The definition of persuasion
provides a useful framework for analyzing the overall ethicality of a persuasion attempt.
So, let’s think more about the ethics of persuasion as it relates to our definition of persuasion.
When we think of ethics generally, and our ethics personally, it’s easy to see it all in black
and white terms. However, it often gets more complicated when we consider the multitude
of competing interests, perspectives, and consequences that life presents us with. So, to better understand the complexity of the relationship between persuasion and ethics, let’s break
persuasion attempts into their component parts and look at how we can evaluate the ethical
nature of each on its own terms.
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Evaluating Persuasion Ethics
First, we can examine the conscious intent of the persuader. For a persuasion attempt to be
ethical, is it necessary for the persuader to have the right motive?
Let’s say someone intends to persuade young adults to begin smoking tobacco. However, the
persuasion attempt backfires and the persuader made the young adults less likely to smoke.
Was this persuasion episode ethical? The intent was wrong, but the outcome was beneficial
to the young adults. The question is this: Is the persuader’s intent an important part of determining whether a persuasion attempt was ethical?
Let’s flip the valence of the intent and outcome and see what happens. Media literacy is a
movement to show children how the media, especially advertising media, can influence children’s choices. By learning the primary techniques that advertisers use, children can become
more skeptical of advertisements and, hopefully, less persuaded by advertisements that target them. Suppose a media literacy expert visits a high school with the intent to discourage
children from consuming energy drinks. To help children become savvy consumers of the
advertising appeals, the expert shows the advertising appeals that manufacturers use. Suppose, however, that after the presentation the children had a stronger desire to consume the
energy drinks, which was the opposite effect of what the media literacy expert had intended.
Was the persuasion attempt ethical? The persuader had good intentions, but the outcome
was harmful to the children’s health.
In other words, do motives matter? As you will see later in the chapter, the persuader’s intent
matters more under deontological ethics than under teleological ethics.
Second, we can look at the message being delivered. We can evaluate the ethical nature of a
persuasion attempt by examining the content of the message, whether it is a single message
or an extended multipronged campaign. We can look at the source of the message and what
that implies, the transparency of the communicator, and the characteristics of the message’s
Most people would agree that persuasive messages should not include false information (i.e.,
lies), but information can be framed in a way that encourages the consumer to draw a conclusion that really has no merit. For example, some coffee roasters boast that their coffee is
mountain grown. This is true, but it implies that their coffee is better than coffee that is not
mountain grown. In fact, the coffee tree must be planted on a slope for drainage because the
plant is susceptible to root rot. It also grows best at certain elevations, typically in a mountain
range. So, virtually all coffee is mountain grown.
As you saw at the beginning of this chapter, many government bodies influence what can be
included in a persuasive message. The U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC), for example, has
guidelines on what constitutes deceptive advertising, and periodically companies are fined
for making deceptive or unsubstantiated claims. As you know, though, what is legal might not
necessarily be ethical.
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Evaluating Persuasion Ethics
Some messages, for example, include what is known as a fear appeal. Fear can be a powerful motivating force, and you will find persuasive messages that rely on a fear appeal.
The ethicality of using a fear appeal comes under fire often, however. For example, some
political action committees use fear appeals during an election season, warning of dire
outcomes if a policy or candidate is not supported. But should public health officials use
a fear appeal in encouraging women to check for breast cancer? Should fear be used to
discourage minors from smoking tobacco? Is it ethical to use fear if the motives are well
intentioned? Or if the desired outcome is noble? As you can begin to see, it can be difficult
to separate the intent, the message, and the outcome when analyzing the ethicality of a
Third, we can examine the involvement of the persuasion target’s free will. When a person’s
free will is not fully honored, that person can feel resentful. Further, when a person’s free will
is not respected in a persuasion attempt, then you have an instance of coercion, and not persuasion. As we noted in Chapter 1, persuasion and coercion lie on a continuum in which persuasion fully involves a person’s independent will, and coercion does not involve a person’s
free will at all. So, this element, the target’s free will, is a key issue for evaluating the ethical
nature of a persuasion attempt.
The exercise of free will also involves the use of power. Society tends to support the use
of safeguards to protect vulnerable populations, such as children and the mentally disabled. Support for safeguards arises from the belief that these populations do not have the
resources, or power, necessary to protect themselves. Children as consumers have been
referred to as “soft-headed, non-discerning neophytes” that are bombarded with marketing
images (Grimm, 2005, p. 107). Because vulnerable populations lack the power they need to
maintain their autonomous will, persuasion attempts that target them are often considered
to be unethical.
The exercise of a person’s free will also involves an awareness that one is the target of a
persuasion attempt. A persuasion attempt may not be ethical if the target is unaware of the
attempt. If the target is unaware that she is the target of a persuasion attempt, she may be
less able to defend against it. In Europe, for example, television programs that feature product
placements must include a symbol at the end of the program and list the products that were
incorporated into the program. This requirement is designed to make the viewer aware of the
products that were included in the program for promotional purposes.
Beyond the respect for a person’s free will is the larger issue of personhood. A person’s will
is an important component of one’s personhood, and respect for persons, more broadly, is an
important ethical criterion. Personhood encompasses a person’s will, but it also includes that
person’s autonomy, identity, and power.
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Evaluating Persuasion Ethics
Finally, we can evaluate the ethicality of a persuasion attempt by looking at the outcome on a
target’s attitudes and behavior. That is, does the persuasion attempt lead to a desirable outcome? For example, does a smoking cessation campaign get people to stop smoking? Does a
civic engagement campaign get people to participate in an election or a town hall? Does an
advertising campaign get children to consume more fatty or sugary foods?
Because of a respect for personhood, we can also expand this question of outcome to include
the impact or influence on the target’s well-being, fulfillment, happiness, and so on. An important question is the impact of the persuasion attempt on happiness, either the happiness of
an individual, or the happiness and well-being of a larger group. In other words, the outcome
of a persuasion attempt can include more than the impact on a person’s specific attitudes
and behavior; it can include the impact on the personhood and well-being of that individual
or even of a larger social group. As far as individuals, some ad campaigns are designed to
exploit a person’s vulnerability or insecurity (PRNewswire, 2013). You can easily think of
magazine covers that address people’s insecurities regarding weight, aging, relationships,
and so on. While they sell the magazine issue, they do so by heightening a person’s insecurity. Other persuasion attempts can have detrimental outcomes for a group of people. For
example, some advertisements rely on ethnic stereotypes (Taylor, Landreth, & Bang, 2005)
and in so doing, the advertisements can reinforce stereotypical beliefs. Further, some persuasive efforts can lead to addictive behavior, whether to alcohol, tobacco, gambling, and so on,
all of which can have detrimental effects, not just for an individual, but for that individual’s
family or community.
Persuasion in Focus: Food Choices and Free Will
The concept of free will involves assumptions about people being autonomous, rational,
and not operating under social, mental, or physical constraints. How might these factors
impact one’s free will, though? To think through this, let’s consider how we assign responsibility for the obesity epidemic. Americans tend to believe that individuals are responsible for their food intake and therefore should be held responsible for their weight gain
(Levitsky & Pacanowski, 2011). However nutritionist David Levitsky and psychologist
Carly Pacanowski have argued that absolute free will in relation to food consumption is a
myth. They wrote,
Food choice is an illusion. We choose the food we eat based on our history of
experiences with that food and all the environmental forces that impinge on us
at that moment: what the food looks like, what others around us are eating, what
we think others consider a normal portion to eat, the price of that food, the ease
of obtaining food, the speed of obtaining the food, how much time we have to eat,
and many other factors which have yet to be discovered. (Levitsky & Pacanowski,
2011, p. 137)
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Theoretical Approaches to Ethics
Persuasion in Focus: Food Choices and Free Will (continued)
Since the 1980s, the average portion sizes in restaurants have grown along with the
obesity rate. This has socialized people into thinking that larger portions are the “norm”
and therefore rationally desirable. Levitsky and Pacanowski also pointed out that we have
much more access to high-fat food, both in restaurants and in packaged snack foods. The
researchers claim that our exposure to a wide variety of food advertisements, especially
on television, primes us to want to eat and focuses our attention on unhealthy options,
which is a mental constraint. Further, people usually are unaware that this is happening—
yet another mental constraint. So, while we still have “free will” in this area, we are often
constrained by the choices available (physical), lack of knowledge (rational), and norms
about what is considered to be desirable food (social).
When we blame individuals for being obese, we assume absolute free will. However, instead
of blaming individuals and their free will, the researchers suggested the best way to address
the issue is through holding the food industry and the government responsible for obesity
as well. They’d like to see restrictions on all food marketing, reduced portion sizes in
restaurants and at home, and/or taxing sugary, high-fat foods. This would put limits on
the “free will” of restaurant owners, consumers, and food companies.
Critical Thinking Questions
—Cheri Ketchum, Ph.D.
How do you define free will? How much free will do you feel you exercise, not
only in your daily diet but also in life generally?
This issue cuts to the core of many societal debates, which pivot on how much
influence our environment exerts on our thoughts and actions. With regard
to diet, to what degree do you think it’s the responsibility of business and the
government to make choices for individual citizens?
What ethical considerations are at play here? What would you consider the most
Levitsky, D., & Pacanowski, C. R. (2011). Review article: Free will and the obesity epidemic. Public
Health Nutrition, 15(1), 126–141.
3.2 Theoretical Approaches to Ethics
The study of ethics typically relies on three classifications. Metaethics is the study of the field
of ethics itself. This paragraph about ethics is an example of metaethics. Normative ethics
focuses on systems of ethical reasoning that can be applied to a variety of situations. Normative ethics involves guidelines or principles that can guide a society’s behavior and social
relationships. Applied ethics focuses on how to approach specific ethical quandaries, such
as the appropriate role of medicine for a terminally ill person, or how to be an ecologically
responsible consumer. Although persuasion is an applied field, we will focus on how normative ethics can guide ethical persuasion choices in a variety of situations.
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There are several approaches to normative ethics, but we will focus on the two most common systems: teleological ethics and deontological ethics. The prefix “teleo” refers to ends,
so teleological ethics is the study of the ends or outcomes of a person’s actions. The most
common form of teleological ethics is utilitarian ethics, which we will discuss in a moment.
The prefix “deon” refers to duty, so deontological ethics involves the study of a person’s duty
Many other ethical systems could be considered, of course. Virtue ethics, for example, is one
approach, but we will only deal with virtue ethics in passing in this chapter. Rather than
focusing on how to engage in ethical behavior, virtue ethics emphasizes becoming an ethical
person by cultivating a set of virtues such as honesty, generosity, thrift, and so on. You would
benefit, both personally and professionally, from reading comprehensive and well-reasoned
treatments of ethics, either on your own or as part of a formal course of study.
3.3 Teleological Ethics
Teleological ethical systems focus more on the end result of a person’s actions than on the
actions themselves. A teleological approach to ethics, then, might be summarized broadly as
“the ends justify the means.”
Bill Watterson/Universal Uclick
A key issue for teleological ethical reasoning is to make sure it doesn’t merely justify the use
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Utilitarian ethics is the most widely known form of teleological ethical systems. Utilitarianism,
as espoused by philosophers John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham, holds that one should seek
the greatest good for the greatest number of people. In other words, the ethical choice is the one
that lets the greatest number of people experience the beneficial consequences of that choice.
In the utilitarian perspective, an action might hurt a few people, but if it benefits a greater
number of people, then that action is ethical. For example, let’s say your relatively wealthy
friend Alberto was considering making a contribution to a hunger-relief program in Mozambique. He said he would donate $1,000 if he knew that at least 90% of the contribution went
directly to hunger relief. You know, however, that the organization needs to use 15% of the
contribution for administrative expenses. You also know that the $1,000 would feed two
impoverished families for 1 year. In describing the program, you might exaggerate (i.e., lie
about) the program’s benefits and low administrative expenses in order to encourage your
friend to make a contribution that would benefit those families. If you justify your action by
saying, “It was for a good cause,” then you engaged in utilitarian reasoning, which focuses on
the outcome of your action.
For Mill, the goal of humanity is to experience happiness, which is the greatest good. So, ethical actions are those that lead to the greatest amount of happiness. “The ultimate end is the
greatest balance of pleasure over pain,” Mill wrote. “This being the end of human action, it
is also the end of morality, which consists of those rules that will best further the end” (Mill,
1998, p. 37). That is, because human
beings’ ultimate goal is happiness,
moral rules also must have as their
ultimate goal to maximize happiness
and minimize pain.
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