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We know — based on evidence from the Aid Attitudes Tracker study — that moral sentiments are a key factor that drives individuals’ engagement with global poverty. In a recent AAT survey, we took the opportunity to investigate this further, and looked at a more specific question: of the many moral arguments to fight poverty at home and abroad, which are the most and least convincing for the UK public?

We were keen to know which kind of moral arguments people choose as a “good reason” to fight poverty at home, in poor countries or both. To do this we presented respondents with a set of 13 moral-based arguments derived from different philosophical schools of thoughts: these range from “we don’t have a responsibility to address poverty” to the broadest moral claim of responsibility of “it is the right thing to do”.

For example we include the Rawlsian notion of a social lottery that “it’s a matter of luck wether someone is born rich or poor”, “religious faith calls on us to reduce suffering” from moral theology, and the argument “human beings have a right not to suffer” from a human rights perspective. We asked participants to pick any of the statements which they thought best applies to ending poverty at home in the United Kingdom, in poor countries abroad or in both cases. The full range of statements that we tested include:

  • “[fighting poverty] is the right thing to do”
  • “it increases economic growth”
  • “human beings have a right not to suffer”
  • “it is against the law”
  • “the economy is unfair”
  • “it’s a matter of luck wether someone is born rich or poor”
  • “we should help if we can”
  • “it affects us all”
  • “we have more in common than divides us”
  • “religious faith calls on us to reduce suffering”
  • “we don’t have a responsibility to address it”
  • “there is nothing that can be done about it”
  • “each person is responsible for their own situation”

Surprisingly (or, maybe, neatly) the three arguments that respondents said best apply to fighting poverty at home, also apply to fighting poverty abroad or to both. As show in the graph below, the three best arguments are:

  • “[fighting poverty] is the right thing to do”
  •  “human beings have a right not to suffer”
  • “we should help if we can”.

Other arguments work better in different contexts. For example, 34% of respondents think that “it affects us all” is a good reason to fight poverty in the UK, whereas only 18% think this applies to fighting poverty in poor countries.

Second, we decided to dig a little deeper on the relative strength of the various moral arguments to fight poverty in poor countries through a choice experiment. Here we asked respondents to choose between two randomly selected statements and indicate which they found more persuasive of the two, and then again, and again. We wanted to do this to see if moral reasons that are convincing on their own merits, look more or less persuasive when compared directly with other reasons (much like it would happen when a donor is confronted with a choice between two appeals which both use a moral argument in asking for a donation).

Here we find that the British public clearly think there are better and worse morality-based arguments to fight global poverty. The argument, “human beings have a right not to suffer” is, on average, 35% more likely to be chosen against every other appeal, while the argument “religious faith calls on us to reduce suffering” is almost 20% less likely to be chosen. The arguments “we should help if we can”, “we have more in common that divides us” and “it is the right thing to do”, were also seen as persuasive by respondents, and on average, 10-15% more likely to be chosen against every other appeal.

 

Finally, we looked at whether the winning arguments are more or less effective with specific segments of the population, and found one argument that works as a silver bullet – that is, it work with all segments of the British public. This argument, “human beings have a right not to suffer”, is persuasive for all sub-groups, but especially with women, individuals concerned about global poverty or those who voted for Labour or the Liberal Democrats.

And, while some arguments clearly don’t work across groups, they can still be effective with some segments: for example, the religious morality argument, the second least persuasive argument in our ranking, is effective for individuals who identify as Catholics, Protestants and those who attend religious services frequently. Two further statements, “we should help if we can” and “we have more in common than divides us” are particularly convincing for young, disengaged audiences, but could be less effective for individuals with lower levels of education.

Communication strategists therefore have the choice of either using the wider arguments which we’ve shown to be persuasive for the whole population, or can choose to tailor-make specific campaigns aimed at specific segments or audience groups.

Cover picture: Statue of Justice – The Old Bailey by Ronnie Macdonald
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About the author(s)

Paolo Morini

Aid Attitudes Tracker researcher at University College London. When I'm not planning experiments or analysing data I'm most likely thinking about carbohydrates, prosecco or swimming.

Jennifer vanHeerde-Hudson

Jennifer Hudson is Associate Professor in Political Behaviour at University College London. She is part of the Aid Attitudes Tracker (AAT) research team and Director of the UCL Q-Step Centre.

David Hudson

David Hudson is Professor of Politics and Development at the University of Birmingham. He is part of the Aid Attitudes Tracker team and the Director of the Developmental Leadership Program.

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