How to get people to do good things: coerce, persuade—or agree

Everyone should be reading David French every Sunday. Access is free, but I pay. So should you if you can, and if you want to support sane Christian voices in the big public conversation about how Americans live together.

This Sunday’s Frenchpress post is about porn. As with most of what French says, I will say: every sentence of it seems right to me.

Here is a sentence that stands out: “When a free society encounters a social problem, its most effective response is often based in changing values, not in changing laws.”

Yes, yes, yes.

Let me add to that.

How do you get people to do things that you think are good for theme?

(1) You could coerce them. Impose an obligation on them that they do not willingly accept. Punish them when they fail to comply. This means passing laws. If most people don’t like the laws, it means subverting democracy to get the law passed. Which means making working alliances with people who are all about cheating, dirty tricks, power politics, and other attitudes, and actions that are anti democratic, perhaps even to the extent of treason and sedition.

Not every effort to use laws to enforce morality amounts to treason and sedition! Laws against murder, for example, use coercion and punishment to enforce morality, and well they should. But there is overwhelming public support, nearly unanimous, I should think, for laws against murder. The shared value is in place.

But with laws against pornography, fornication, adultery, abortion, sodomy, divorce, and other sex-related practices that traditional Christians believe to be out of alignment with God’s design for human flourishing, there is not broad, certainly not nearly unanimous, support for coercive legislation.

(2) You could try to argue them into agreement with, or at least acceptance of, your proposed behavior. This is far from the first option. It means persuasion.

To me it sounds good. I was a philosophy major in college. I was a scholastic debater in high school. During those years I was trained (not well, and I never got good at it) in evangelization. To me, “argument” is not a negative word.

But in our culture, “argument” is a negative word. Groups that disagree call each other snowflakes, and they are all right: we are all snowflakes now—or we are brawlers, or we switch back and forth between the two. We cannot endure attempts by others to persuade us, and when we try to persuade others we tend to clobber them—either just in their own minds because they are snowflakes or for real because we are brawlers, and frankly it is hard to tell for sure which is happening in a given moment, because we have lost the art. We do not know how to argue civilly, cordially. It all feels like violence. We do not know how to be persuaded, and we do not know how to persuade.

(3) So the third option—the third way, which is neither compelling by force nor persuading by argument, but also is not giving up and doing nothing—is this: rather than try to force compliance or persuade people to change their minds, discover existing agreement. This is what David French is suggesting. Find people who are already feeling a need, and affirm that need and move forward together from there. Say “yes, and. . . .” Improvise. Work together to change the culture—not in a way that outlaws and punishes the activity that you agree is harmful, but in a way that delegitimizes it, or removes incentives and rewards for it, or disables it, or that incentivizes or rewards its opposite. Find the people who are feeling harmed by porn culture, or by hook-up culture, or by abortion culture, and when you find them, stifle the urge to say “We told you so,” curb your impulse say say “Then pass my law,” even defer your desire to say “Sinner, will you love my Jesus?” and instead say: “I feel that too—can we walk together for a little way and try to think about a way to change our culture for the better?”

At the core of Christotrumpism—the false religion created when Christians become fans and slaves of Donald Trump—is the deal that he offers: if you empower me by your votes, I will empower and protect you by using the authority of the United States government to coerce and punish the people who disagree with you, especially in the matter of abortion. For my part, I think that Christians can form alliances with non-Christians to get good things done. But David French points to a far better way than Christotrumpism of doing so.

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