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Moral Suasion

Moral Suasion


Moral suasion is a discursive strategy that references a set of principles to pressure individuals, groups, or nation-states to change their policies. Moral suasion strategies have been used by various actors and organizations for diverse purposes throughout history. It tacitly assumes that most (but not all) humans are reasonable, flexible, and have capacities for conceiving an agreed-upon sense of justice. It therefore takes a rather progressive view of human history, in that barriers to human freedom can be broken down through persuasive dialogue that uses universal principles as the basis for its truth claims. Moral suasion is a nonviolent form of influence, and therefore the groups and organizations that use it have themselves prohibited the use of violence to further their political goals. For instance, the King Center, a nonprofit organization founded by Coretta Scott King, lists moral suasion in its Glossary of Nonviolence. Moral suasion strategies historically have been and continue to be used by a myriad of organizations.

In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries certain U.S. abolitionist organizations used moral suasion to seek an end to slavery. Abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison (1805-1879) used this strategy in their published writings and public speeches. These groups based their discourse in a faith in (what they viewed as) universal values of human equality and freedom. The scholar Tunde Adeleke wrote that moral suasion reflected the enduring character and impact of the Enlightenment. Late eighteenth-century Enlightenment culture prioritized rationalism, secularism and a utilitarian conception of government (Adeleke 1998, p. 128).

Certain U.S. civil rights organizations, beginning especially in the 1950s and 1960s, used moral suasion for purposes similar to those of the abolitionists: Leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr., along with both secular and religious organizations, sought to bring about desegregation in the U.S. South. These movements combined moral suasion with other tactics, such as nonviolent resistance and civil disobedience, to secure the rights of African Americans during this time.

Economists have recently used the term moral suasion to reference the tactic used by financial authorities (such as the Federal Reserve and the International Monetary Fund) to pressure financial institutions to adhere to monetary or fiscal guidelines. It is driven morally by the assumption that these guidelines will improve the economic well-being of a regional, national, or international society, including their individual members.

Most recently, humanitarian nongovernmental organizations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have used moral suasion to criticize global human rights abuses and to pressure the international community to systematically act to stop these abuses. These groups legitimate their moral language by referring to conventions that have been ratified by a majority of the international community (e.g., the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, and the Geneva Convention), but they also seek to effect action from influential nation-states by referencing those nation-states traditions of human rights: The moral arguing here is mainly about identity politics, that is, Western governments and their societies are reminded of their own values as liberal democracies and of the need to act upon them in their foreign policies (Risse and Ropp 1999, p. 251).

SEE ALSO Civil Disobedience; Desegregation; Enlightenment; Gandhi, Mohandas K.; Human Rights; King, Martin Luther, Jr.; Passive Resistance; Persuasion; Slavery


Adeleke, Tunde. 1998. Afro-Americans and Moral Suasion: The Debate in the 1830s. The Journal of Negro History 83 (2): 127-142.

King Center. 2004. Glossary of Nonviolence.

Risse, Thomas, and Stephen C. Ropp. 1999. International Human Rights Norms and Domestic Change: Conclusions. In The Power of Human Rights, ed. Thomas Risse, Stephen Ropp, and Kathryn Sikkink, 234-278. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Brent J. Steele

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