Say what’s right and wrong about America.

The American Aspirations blog shares insights you can use to connect your cause to hopes and values that motivate people—and create communications that inspire and engage them. Sign up to learn more.

 

In American Aspirations research, interviewers met with people in their homes to talk about their hopes for their lives and their country. In a world of constant change, we found people yearning for a sense of order. Many participants said American society needs clear rules of right and wrong that guide the behavior of individuals and institutions. Interviewees respected leaders and organizations who offered clear moral principles, even if they didn’t agree with their specific views. In contrast, failing to articulate the values that guide your work can leave people less motivated to support your cause.

Psychological research shows that our attitudes and behaviors are shaped by “moral intuition:” When confronted with a story or situation, we make instant judgments about right and wrong.

For example, if you saw the recent video of an airline passenger being dragged from his seat by security personnel, you might have instantly told yourself, “That’s wrong!” That’s moral intuition.

That same moral impulse comes into play when you introduce your cause to new audiences. Are you working to end hunger? Reduce income inequality? Promote human rights? You are, no doubt, driven by the idea that hunger, income inequality and human rights abuses are morally wrong. That belief motivates you to do the work you do. To encourage the same kind of commitment among others, it’s important to articulate the moral standards behind your cause.

An American Aspirations analysis of content produced by dozens of social justice organizations found that most failed to articulate the values that guide their work. Often, goals were expressed in vague terms such as “policy equity.”

This abstract language doesn’t make a clear moral case to people who aren’t schooled in the language of social justice movements. A moral principle behind the idea of “policy equity” could be expressed this way: Government policies should redress injustices and inequalities in society; it’s wrong for government to ignore the hardships and lack of resources that many people face in America.

People are more likely to support your cause when they judge that you are on the “right” side of the issue. You can help people make these moral judgments by articulating what is “right” and “wrong.”

Throughout our history, effective social movements have been rooted in a compelling moral vision for the country. Leaders of the anti-slavery, women’s suffrage and civil rights movements called on the country to live up to its highest ideals—and pointed out how the nation was failing to do so.

When making a decision, many people place moral judgments ahead of practical considerations.

In a national survey, we asked Americans if, when they are making a tough decision, they think more about how the decision will work in the real world, or whether the decision is the right or wrong thing to do. Fifty-eight percent of Americans said they cared more that the decision was right or wrong. Thirty-eight percent said they were more concerned with how it would work in the real world.

When you are making a tough decision, which do you think about more

Practical information and arguments are important, but alone, they lack maximum motivating power. You can offer evidence showing that your policy, program or idea will work, but most people need to hear why you’re proposing it—and why they should care.

As an example of this principle in practice, the Ford Foundation supported research on how organizers can better address and discuss poverty in America. The narrative that came out of the research makes a moral statement before making the practical case that anti-poverty programs benefit our economy: “When hard-working people fall on hard times, it’s right to give them a hand up. It’s wrong to turn our backs on them.” This narrative encouraged seven out of 10 Americans to support government anti-poverty programs.

Social change is built on a strong moral foundation. Before diving into the details of a proposal, show the moral backbone: Why is it the right thing to do? What wrong does it address? If you start with why, more people will be interested in supporting what you propose and learning how it can make the world a better place.

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