A Recontructive Rhetoric
What the foregoing suggests as applied to disputes about the ethics of past actions is a way of realistically lowering our sights, but without surrendering hope entirely for reasonable adjudication of these conflicts within discourse communities. In large measure I concur with Alasdair MacIntyre (1981:119) that "all morality is always to some degree tied to the socially local and particular and that the aspirations of the morality of modernity to a universality freed from all particularity is an illusion." MacIntyre maintains that these universalizing inclinations, together with an inability to talk through rival premises, dooms contemporary society to a crisis of endless incommensurability. The contemporary crisis stands in sharp contrast to an earlier day--here MacIntyre celebrates the virtues of ancient Athens--when ethical matters were as objectively decidable, say, as how to organize a speech or memorize a poem.
Jonsen and Toulmin (1988) present a less unified view of ancient Greek ethical thought than MacIntyre's. To Plato and many of his followers they credit a "geometrical" ethics--so named because, in aspiring to an axiomatic theory of ethics, built presumably on universal, eternal, and unchallengeable principles, they took geometry as their model. To Aristotle and the sophists, and subsequently to Cicero and to the Christian casuists, Jonsen and Toulmin credit a "rhetorical" ethics. Those who take a rhetorical view of moral reasoning see general rules and principles as bearing on limited classes of problems and cases alone. They do not assume that moral reasoning relies for its force on single chains of unbreakable deductions which link present cases back to some common starting point. Rather (they believe), this strength comes from accumulating many parallel, complementary considerations, which have to do with the current circumstances of the human individuals and communities involved and lend strength to our conclusions, not like links to a chain but like strands to a rope or roots to a tree. Meanwhile on the more general level, a "cumulative" view of practical moral reasoning goes naturally with the rejection of "axiomatic" theories of moral philosophy in favor of a more complex and pragmatic view of ethical theory (294).
It is such a rhetorical approach to ethics, adjusted to a postmodern age, that I shall be proposing in this essay. Such an approach moves between the general and the specific, and between one concrete case and another, searching for illuminating insights that can be gotten by comparing the case in question to one or more paradigmatic instances of a principle on which there is reasonable agreement, and to other instances which might constitute relevant precedents. At the same time there is an attempt at piecing together the particulars of the case, with a view toward identifying possible extenuating circumstances, including the character and mind-states of the actors. As Jonsen and Toulmin emphasize, these processes of inference-drawing depend less on formal logic than on the detection of family resemblances; in Billig's (1987) terms, they are open-palmed rather than closed-fisted.(1)
Because rhetoric builds from shared belief, the rhetorical approach to ethics should work best in homogeneous cultures; it may fail in cultures like our own if, as MacIntyre suggests, the "rival premises are such that we possess no rational way of weighing the claims against each other. For each premise employs some quite different normative or evaluative concept from the others, so that the claims made upon us are of quite different kinds." As regards the issue of society providing equal access to education, for example, the claim of equality is incommensurate with the claim of liberty.
MacIntyre may be right about our inability rationally to compare arguments for equality and for liberty in the abstract, but it is in contexts of decision and action and within particular discourse communities that questions of ethics matter most, and in these contexts we post-moderns may yet be capable of dealing with seeming incommensurabilities. Thus, given certain negotiated understandings, it should be possible to compare equality and liberty, and even to weigh them reasonably in the balance. In fact, equality and liberty are sometimes placed in opposition by rhetors and seen as mutually exclusive, but at other times they are treated as "both-ands," or they are argued for in varying proportions. For example, one may emphasize freedom in recommending that students within a designated area be permitted to transfer to the school of their choice. Another may couple enthusiasm for the decisional freedom that a transfer policy provides with the insistence that all students, rich and poor, should have equal access to the best schools in the targeted area. While economic conservatives have generally stood for freedom over equality, even the Reaganites acknowledged when they took office the need for a basic safety net below which a free market economy should not allow the less fortunate to fall. In the view of many the safety net was set far too low, and some critics offered evidence of the risks not only to the poor but to society generally of continuing as before. Their arguments were situated, pragmatic, contextual: for example, proponents of greater governmental support for poor school districts emphasized in the late eighties the need to compete more effectively with the Japanese. In an earlier era they had argued for increased economic support for education in the name of anticommunism.
In arguing the merits of a position, opposing rhetors each drew on a common stock of rhetorical topoi. These were familiar lines of argument and commonplaces, often expressed in the form of maxims or aphorisms. In justifying killing in defense of one's honor, or family, or property, for example, one rhetor might argue that that these were but extensions of the principle of self-defense and thus entitled to the same presumption of innocence as is granted to killings for the sake of personal survival. In support of this generalization, a Roman rhetor might invoke the "maxim vim vi repellere" ("force may be repulsed by force"). Of course, an opposing rhetor might argue the dissimilarities, or insist that some paradigm other than that of self-defense was more appropriate to the case.
More often than not, opposing rhetors each drew on several lines of argument in support of a case, as though to suggest that the case had merits no matter how one looked at it. Much has been made of the seemingly amoral character of the Greco-Roman topical tradition, its potential for use on either side of a controversial question. But it is hard to imagine a jurisprudential or deliberative institution without such a tradition. Likewise it has been argued that the stock of aphorisms and maxims of general use in a culture are of little value in serious matters because they can be used to "prove opposites." But, as Jonsen and Toulmin point out, many if not all of the maxims in the Christian casuistic tradition were complementary rather than mutually exclusive. There was nothing terribly incompatible, for example, between appealing to scriptural authority, to the cardinal virtues and deadly sins, and to the Church's view of human nature. As for such seemingly opposed maxims within our own culture as "look before you leap," and "nothing ventured, nothing gained," or "many hands make light work" versus "too many cooks spoil the broth," these express the dilemma-like character of many of life's choices, but they are not formal contraries. Indeed, it is possible to imagine contexts in which one member of a pair is true but the other not false, and still other contexts in which both are true (Billig et al, 1988)