Systems of Belief and Kinds of Audiences


A world-view is a collection of beliefs and values that affect how a person interprets events, evidence, and arguments. It also determines your audience’s starting assumptions. As an arguer, it’s absolutely vital to understand your target audience’s world-view if you hope to persuade them. Also, recognizing the beliefs and values that make up your own world-view raises the possibility of recognizing biases that can distort your own reasoning.

Sidgwick’s insight was that in order to get your audience to accept your conclusion you must begin with premises they accept. We can think of convincing an audience of a conclusion the way we think of passengers to a destination on a bus. You can never get them to the destination if they never get on the bus! Similarly, you can’t lead an audience to a conclusion if they never accept the starting premises. Finding shared premises with your audience means understanding the beliefs and values that make up their world-view.

We can think of audiences two different ways: (1) According to clusters of shared values and (2) according to how receptive we anticipate them to be. When we think of audience according to the first way, audiences can either be general or specific. The second way of conceiving of audiences divides them into three categories: sympathetic, open, or hostile. Knowing the nature of your audience should affect how you construct your argument.

Arguers and Systems of Belief

When determining what position to take on an issue, most people think that they begin by carefully collecting evidence and considering reasons, and then seeing where they lead. As much as many of us would like to think we are objective thinkers, we often are not. Hume famously argued that “reason is slave to the passions.” The general idea is this: We begin with a position that we are emotionally attached to then we collect evidence and arguments to support what we already want to be true. Hume’s model of human reasoning contradicts how most people think they reason. There is a wealth of psychological research showing that Hume was right about most people, most of the time (except me!).

Mommy, Where do Beliefs Come from?

As we go through our early life, we uncritically and passively acquire a loosely interconnected “web” of beliefs based on life experiences. How we experience the world and the types of experiences we have depend heavily on things out of our control. Typical elements that form our system of belief include: race, culture, socio-economic class, attractiveness, gender, education, family life, religion/non-religion, nationality, geography, and so on.

A system of belief can have an extremely strong effect on how we interpret the world. For example, in social media we can see just how strong the interpretive effect of political systems of belief can be. On this site you can view Democrat vs Republican side by side interpretations of the same personalities and events. (Links to an external site.)

If you didn’t know beforehand that they were talking about the same things, you might think each group was talking about people and events on completely different planets!

Often, before our ability to reason develops, we accumulate many beliefs that become central to our identity. To have them shown to be false would be to admit that something important to our identity is false. Having our identity come under scrutiny is often an emotionally painful experience and so we vigorously protect the beliefs that form the core of our identity—often ignoring contravening reasons and evidence. Think about the last time someone either in person or on social media told you that you were wrong about something you cared deeply about. Was your immediate response to carefully consider their argument or was it to defend your position?

This tendency to protect core beliefs is why it can be so hard to change people’s minds. When you present people with supporting facts and evidence suggesting that they’re wrong, most people actually dig into their position even deeper to defend it! This tendency is so common (and well-studied), it has a name: psychologists call it the backfire effect. (Links to an external site.)

Short Clip Explaining the Backfire Effect:



Systems of Belief and Critical Thinking

So, why does this all matter? Because when it comes to arguments about things that are really important to us, our arguments are often driven by emotion rather than even-handed evaluation of reasons and evidence. So, on such issues, instead of entering the debate with the attitude, “well, let’s look at the reasons and evidence for both positions and evaluate which is best,” we typically enter a debate with a pre-existing particular position. We then use arguments and Google to find evidence to defend the position that we already held—no matter the relative quality of argument for the other position.

On issues we find important, we are emotionally attached to a conclusion before any real critical thought begins. From that conclusion, we use the tools of argumentation, reason, logic to arrive where we already began! Our reason is slave to the passions; i.e., our reason serves to justify the position we already hold. Or, to paraphrase Hume again, “man is not the rational animal but the rationalizing animal.”

Now, to be clear, there’s nothing wrong with holding a position on an issue and defending it; however, it’s important is to be aware of how our web of beliefs and emotions influence our ability to effectively argue for a position or evaluate the reasons and evidence for it. We’ll explore this more deeply next lesson.

An important rule of thumb: The stronger your emotions are about a position, the weaker your reasons and arguments for it are likely to be! In other words, when you read an article that supports your view be extremely skeptical of the argument! This is not to say your conclusion is false, but rather the particular reasons that you use to defend it are likely to be weak.

An Example of How Word-view Affects Arguments

As critical thinkers we need to pay close attention to how a person’s web of beliefs influences the assumptions they make; that is, the sorts of things they take for granted without any supporting evidence. For example, in the abortion debate opponents of abortion will often take it for granted that a fetus is a person. This assumption stems from many facts about their personal history. Such facts might include: race, religiosity and religion (or lack of), gender, sex, education, career, and socio-economic class.

Some proponents of the right to choose might even agree with anti-abortionists that a fetus is in some ways a person. But for them, the desires of the adult woman carrying the fetus outweigh those of the fetus. Again, having this position will likely have much to do with a person’s world-view. Determining whether a woman’s right to choose outweighs the hypothetical desires of a fetus isn’t a scientific issue. We can’t get someone in a lab coat can put all of the fetus’s hypothetical desires into a beaker and put all the pregnant woman’s desires into another then measure them on a scale. To demonstrate that one set of desires has more moral weight than the other requires argument—and that argument must begin from common premises if opposing sides are to have any hope of agreement.

For many people in this debate, the answer to this question will depend heavily upon the different elements that helped to build that individual’s web of beliefs. Their position will likely not come out of having spent month studying the academic literature on the issue or carefully evaluating the arguments on all sides. They likely began with a position as a result of their religiosity, gender, race, nationality, socio-economic class, etc… Only later–realizing not everyone agrees with them–did they start to consider reasons and evidence for their position. And even then they often only consider reasons in evidence in favor of their position.

The fact that people in opposing positions might not share much common ground on a particular emotionally charged issue underscores the need to seek and begin with common ground as a starting point. Without it, no reasonable discussion can ever take place.

How to Win an Argument Using Sidgwick’s Insight

Based on a person’s web of beliefs we can sometimes (probabilistically) “reverse engineer” some of the elements that influenced their web of beliefs and also identify what many of their unstated assumptions are. Understanding the beliefs and values that make up your audience’s worldview can be an important step in deciding how to engage with the arguer.

If your goal is to show our opponent why his argument is problematic or persuade him of our point of view, you must be able search for and identify common ground from which you can build to your conclusion rather than his. Beginning from different basic assumptions almost guaranties no progress will ever likely be made.

Sidgwick’s Insight: A key to bringing someone to your point of view is to find common assumptions (premises) and show how your conclusion, rather than your opponent’s follow from these assumptions.

Ami’s/Psychological Insight: There is a growing body of research in psychology showing that people either reject or disbelieve facts if they conflict with their core existing beliefs. In short, trying to bring someone around to your point of view by citing facts often accomplishes nothing at best, but more likely results in further entrenchment (recall the backfire effect). Because of the counter-intuitive ineffectiveness of using factual evidence as a debate strategy, it’s often a more successful strategy to begin your argument by appealing to shared values rather than appealing to facts.

Arguments, World-views, and the Audience

Obviously, facts about the person making the argument are important but as critical thinkers and good arguers it’s also important to consider our audience’s world view.

There are two general ways to “chop up” the concept of ‘audience’:

(a) according to clusters of values and beliefs and
(b) according to anticipated receptivity to our argument.

Clusters of Values: Specific vs Universal Audiences

When we consider an audience as a group that shares common beliefs and values we call this a specific audience. Some examples would be Catholics, university faculty, Democrats, hockey fans, the NRA, the ACLU, Hispanics, tourists, people that live in a particular neighborhood, philosophers, and so on. There are often specific audiences within larger specific audiences. For example, Republicans are a sub-group of American, and ‘Ron-Paul Republican’ is a sub-group of Republicans. Wherever there are ‘clumps’ of values, there are specific audiences.

A universal audience is more of an abstract concept than an actual flesh and blood audience. While it’s debatable that there is a set of (non-trivial) values and beliefs that unite everyone, you should think of a universal audience as “the common person.” As an arguer addressing a universal audience, you’d want to begin with assumptions/values/beliefs that just about any rational person could agree to (E.g., pizza makes us happy).

Why Specific/Universal Audience Matters to Argument
Suppose you are a Ron-Paul-lovin’, Ayn-Rand-worshipping, pick-up-truck-drivin’ Libertarian and you want to rationally explain to a Karl Marx-lovin’, Grateful Dead-listenin’, group-hug hippy Liberal why there should be no restrictions on the right to bear arms. It might do you some good to consider something about your audience’s values and basic assumptions. Much of what you might say about gun rights would take for granted things that those damn hippies would object to!

So, what should you do? Well, what you’d want to do is construct an argument that makes an effort to respond to your audiences convictions and concerns. If you begin with premises/assumptions/values that you share with the hippies, then you stand a chance of creating an argument that they will at least consider.

Conversely, if you begin your reasoning with beliefs and values that bear no relation to those of your audience, they won’t even try to follow your reasoning because you are beginning with premises they reject. If the passengers never get on the bus you’ll never get them to your conclusion.

Recognizing whether an audience is universal or specific isn’t just important because audiences have different values. Audiences can have different levels of knowledge too. If you are a biotech scientist giving a talk on your latest research, your arguments and explanations will be different depending on whether you’re presenting to other professional scientists or to the general public. When presenting to your fellow scientists you can assume a lot of background information and can use technical language. If you’re speaking to the general public you’ll want to avoid assuming your audience is up to date on the latest in molecular biology. You’ll also want to explain things in simple everyday language.

Key point: A good argument is sensitive to the values/beliefs/convictions/background knowledge of the intended audience. A good arguer will modify their argument in these respects to conform to those of the intended audience.

Three Types of Audiences Based on Receptivity

Generally we can distinguish between three types of audience based on (anticipated) degree of receptivity to the argument.

A sympathetic audience probably already agrees with many of the values connected to the conclusion of the argument. For example, if I’m arguing against abortion to a group of evangelical christians, I probably don’t have to spend much time arguing for the premise that a fetus is a person with rights.

An open audience does not share our position but is open to considering it. Such audiences generally don’t have values so disparate from those of the arguer. We don’t have to search too hard to find common ground in values and beliefs from which we may begin to reason toward our argument.

A hostile audience does not share our position or many of our values and beliefs and is not open to considering it. For obvious reasons this is the toughest type of audience to argue with. When common beliefs and values are scarce, it is difficult to find a starting point from which to begin. Some political debates can appear this way because some groups value individual autonomy much more greatly than collective needs. When differences are so fundamental, it’s hard to know where to begin.

Also, with a hostile audience, because the differences in beliefs and values are so fundamental, they are also central to that group’s identity. Relinquishing those values might mean leaving the group, something to which most are adverse. The emotional component makes arguing with a hostile audience even more difficult because heightened emotions often shut us off to reason.

The Dark Side of Knowing Your Audience: Manipulation and Exploitation
While it is very helpful to take into account your audiences’ beliefs and values, we should be cautious not to exploit them. We see this happen all the time with cults, psychics, medical quackery, and of course, politics. An unscrupulous cult leader, “psychic”, or politician can appeal to an audience’s values for reasons of exploitation or manipulation.

Recall from previous lessons that most of our values and beliefs are acquired uncritically as a result of how we experience the world. Because of their uncritical origins, we are often eager to assent with anyone who shares our beliefs/values. Right?

Now look into my eyes and give me all your money!

However, while you might be able to persuade a particular audience with an argument that appeals to specific values, once you try to apply that same argument to a broader audience, you will surely encounter resistance!


The main lesson here is that it is important to identify and take into account the values and beliefs of your audience in how you construct your argument. The most effective arguments begin with the values and beliefs shared by the specific audience at which the argument is targeted. Once they’ve accepted your premises–using reason, reasons, and evidence–you lead them down the garden path into the waiting jaws of your conclusion.

A caveat is that, while your argument should be tailored to a specific audience, it should not rely so heavily on the beliefs and values of that audience such that a more general audience wouldn’t take the argument seriously.

How to be a Philosopher

A true philosopher seeks truth above all else—or at least (non-foolish) consistency. Understanding systems of belief allows us to better persuade an audience. However, we can also use this information on ourselves to critically evaluate our own beliefs.

It would be foolish to think that, magically, we are the only ones without ideological blind spots and unexamined assumptions! Introspecting on how our own gender, culture, religion/non-religion, family, education, career, peer group, etc… shape the way we experience the world (and in turn our beliefs and assumptions about it) is a valuable exercise. Doing so allows us to see where we have uncritically accepted certain beliefs.

Here you can learn about everybody’s favorite topic: Yourself! Find out the basic values that found your worldview here! (Links to an external site.)



A. What is Sidgwick’s Insight?

B. (a) When we present an argument to a hostile audience, how should we begin our argument? (b) What is the name of the psychological effect of digging into one’s position when confronted with facts and evidence against the view?

C. Pick one of the following issues: Gun Rights/Restrictions, Vegetarianism, Cash Welfare Payments, Supporting Trump as President, the Death Penalty.

On most of these issues, if people have a position they are emotionally entangled in it. One important lesson we’ve learned is that when we present an argument to a hostile audience we must begin our argument with a shared value rather than with facts

Say which position you take on your issue of choice then say which value you could appeal to that you’d share with an audience hostile to your view. Next explain in a sentence or two how the shared value is consistent with your position on the issue. Be prepared to discuss your answer in recitation. 

D. (optional): Discover the foundational values of your worldview with this self-test: Link