Columbia Society for Comparative Philosophy lecture by Hagop Sarkissian: “On Wielding Moral Sway: Influence and Manipulation in Social Networks”, Friday November 14 @5:30pm


Welcomes: HAGOP SARKISSIAN (Baruch College)

Please join at Columbia University’s Religion Department on FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 14 at 5:30PM for his lecture entitled:

“On Wielding Moral Sway: Influence and Manipulation in Social Networks”

ABSTRACT: Many of us value our independence, yet none of us is an independent actor in any profound sense. Rather, we are deeply affected by others in our local and extended networks in subtle yet significant ways. What’s more, we return the favor–influencing the trajectory of others’ lives (whether we intend to or not). These facts, recently articulated in the behavioral and health sciences, raise certain questions. Do we have (previously unacknowledged) responsibilities to others if we do, in fact, continually exercise such influence on them—even if at a distance? Should we shape and mind our influence? If so, do we risk being paternalistic, even manipulative? From our perspective today, rooting out patterns of influence and then wielding them toward specific goals might seem unsavory. Nevertheless, I will argue that such strategies may make perfect sense once we become a) vividly aware of the predictable patterns of such resonant influence, and b) convinced that escaping such influence is a foolish enterprise. And whereas we are only recently coming to grips with this phenomenon, several early Confucian texts seem to take it as a fundamental orientation, which motivated an ethics centered on the notions of self-regulation, sway, and harmony. Indeed, wielding moral sway is, from this perspective, a hallmark of the virtuous person. I argue that classical Confucianism, while a tradition of thought quite distant from us, nonetheless contains important resources for understanding how we can better resonate with others and, in turn, how we can turn such resonance into human harmony.

5:30-7:30 pm
Rm. 101, 80 Claremont Ave, Columbia University


Friday, December 5 – Timothy Connolly (East Stroudsburg University)



5 replies on “Columbia Society for Comparative Philosophy lecture by Hagop Sarkissian: “On Wielding Moral Sway: Influence and Manipulation in Social Networks”, Friday November 14 @5:30pm”

  1. Hagop, interesting topic! Having written on the relations between Confucian ethics and social media myself, I would be interested in hearing your talk. Any chance it will be recorded?

    • Thanks for your interest! We try to put up audio whenever possible, though there is usually a time lag from the presentation date. To clarify, though, my talk will be on social networks and the way that individuals influence others through them, and does not discuss social media in particular. (Of course, social media can be a source of influence, but I have nothing to say at this point regarding channels of influence, but simply influence itself.)

      Your research sounds interesting, though. Perhaps you can direct us to a representative piece?

    • Perhaps I am reading too much into the abstract, I thought part of what you referred to there is the interperson effects of social media (e.g. facebook) on individuals’ emotional state.

      Steve had kindly posted my questions on this topic in the blog a long time ago: and the paper was subsequently published in Dao (

  2. Who wouldn’t be interested in a copy of this, or at least audio? (I can’t find where on the site audio is normally posted in recent years.) The project seems to me interesting and important in the extreme. A really big deal.

    Also I think this is the right way to convince Western philosophers that they ought to pay more attention to Chinese philosophy: describe (in mainstream philosophy journals) specific things from the Chinese tradition that are of great philosophical interest.

    Just a few thoughts here …

    1. Helping consequentialism

    Hagop alludes to the point that early Confucianism recognizes different kinds of ways in which one person can influence another morally. My conduct can be imitated, or reciprocated; or I can give or withhold food security, information, etc. (Think of how subordinates commonly withhold discomfiting or unflattering information from superiors.)

    There’s a particular way that imitative influence (what’s a better term?) might be of special interest to ongoing debates in Western abstract moral theory. I’m thinking of the question, “How and how far can a fundamentally consequentialist view account for the validity of mid-level moral rules?”

    Schematic simplification: Suppose maxims were seriously contagious. That is, for all maxims X, in acting on maxim X, I thereby make it much more probable that others will act on X. If that were true, then the pracitical difference between act utilitarianism and rule utilitarianism would be much smaller than we sometimes think. The reduction, or smallness, of the difference would have two sources worth separate notice: (a) the strength of the causal connection between what I do now and what others do later, and (b) the qualitative similarity between that cause and that effect, which incrementally increases the intelligibility and hence the knowability of that effect from my deliberative standpoint. For a consquentialism that has any sympathy with the idea that an action is morally good in proportion as the reasonably expectable consequences are better, point (b) adds its own special fillip to the moral value of actions in accord with good rules.

    (Most of my published papers pursue supports for this line of thought, or analogs of it.)

    What features of actions or omissions might tend to get copied: their inner maxims? More superficial features?

    2. Influence: why not?

    If the West hasn’t taken moral influence seriously enough, why not?

    One reason might be the belief that God delivers immense yet just recompense for our moral goodness or evil. This belief has seemed to require some sort of radical freedom. But I’m not sure how prevalent the belief has actually been.

    Another reason might be a worry that aiming to influence is corrupting.

    In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said,

    You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

    Beware of practising your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (NRSV – Mt. 5:14-16, 6:1-6)

    One surely sympathizes with both thoughts.

    How is the concern of the second thought reflected in the Chinese tradition?

    Different kinds of corruption might be feared from efforts at moral influence. One is the temptation to personal prestige, or glory and status. Another is the temptation to be so concerned about the instrumental use of appearances – about “wielding them toward specific goals” – that one loses sincerity, or even dissembles. (Or if you like, dissembles too much.)

    3. Last and least: senses of “independent”

    Hagop writes, “none of us is an independent actor in any profound sense.”

    I expect he just means that none of us is utterly causally independent of all other people, and of course I agree.

    But maybe that’s an extreme rather than a profound sense … Maybe at least some of us are independent actors in one or more profound senses.

    Given the premise that there are various senses of “independent,” presumably they vary on some dimensions. What dimensions?

    1. – – – Independent of what aspect of other people? For example, there is independence from their physical force, or from intentional coercive threats. (One is independent of coercive threats when there aren’t any, and sometimes when there are.)

    2. – – – What aspect of me or my activity is independent (of this or that aspect of other people)? For example, if Smith has no contractual, institutional, or moral authority over me – in the sense that her fiat cannot give me duties or obligations – that’s a kind of independence, yes?

    3. – – – Independent in what, er, context? What I’m thinking of in particular is Kant’s idea that at the “practical standpoint” we are – we should regard ourselves as being – independent. I’m not sure exactly what to make of that.

    Some of these kinds of independence may be important, and may be valuable paradigms for subtler kinds of independence, so it seems to me offhand likely that there are profound kinds of independence that at least some of us have.

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