In this case study I have used excerpts from a conversation among friends in support of my contention that the so-called crisis of post-modernity does not preclude the possibility of reasonable adjudication of ethical disputes.
Proposed here has been an emancipatory, dialogic, reconstructive rhetoric, one that concedes MacIntyre's claim that "the aspirations of modernity to a universality freed from all particularity is an illusion," but that nevertheless holds promise for the advancement of consideration of ethical disputes by particular discourse communities. Here I have turned to White's jurisprudential model of rhetoric for an understanding of what such talk can mean, but I have proposed that we might better look to the friendship circle than to the legal tribunal for exemplars of such talk. The friendship circle, I have argued, permits greater freedom of expression, in a more supportive climate, inviting participants to co-create the relevant narrative. Underscored throughout has been the importance of narrative as a way of integrating the component parts of a case; of readings of narrative accounts that will balance suspicion with empathic understanding; of reactions to narrative accounts that combine criticism with supportiveness; and, finally, of dialogue, viewed here as a conversational form that is inherently rhetorical in the sense of involving argumentation, criticism, attempted persuasion, and the like, in defense of one's views, but that nevertheless can function as an instrument of discovery and of reasoned judgment.
Assumed throughout this study has been the need to attend to the contexts of arguments and counterarguments about the ethics of past actions and not simply abstract from the arguments with a view toward formulaically applying a general rule of conduct to a case. The point is not to debunk such ancient precepts as the Golden Rule, or such modernist principles as the Kantian imperative, but rather to suggest that their meaning and relevance are always context-dependent. So too are the actions argued about as well the arguments themselves. Hence the importance of situating discourse about past actions within larger narrative structures and of assessing any given utterance in the context of the ongoing stream of conversation. White (1984:6-7) makes this point as regards the case of one person touching another and the other objecting:
What can possibly be said by the two people about this event, the one in remonstrance, the other in justification? In what sorts of argument might they engage, making what claims or appeals, accepting what modes of reasoning? Suppose the event took place in each of the following situations: on a street corner in the black ghetto; at a university faculty meeting; in the vestibule of a church; at a labor union meeting; in a police station, one person being an officer, the other not; in a law school classroom; on a baseball field. One can quickly see how differently the arguments might go and can even imagine participating, more of less expertly, in them.... In each case the conversation would have its own shape and texture, its own kind of life; it would define a set of possibilities for asserting and maintaining meaning, for carrying on a collective life.
White's example illustrates not only the need for context-situated argumentation about the ethics of past actions but also the possibility that once actions are appropriately situated, discussants will be able to converse reasonably and conclude rationally with respect to them.
From time to time I have pointed to exemplary instances of such talk: for example, the dialogue between Frank and Laura in Excerpt F; the Laingian analysis in Excerpt G; the movement in Excerpt H toward finding Frank "guilty of a lesser charge."
However, the foregoing line of argument also raises difficult questions about the validity of case analyses and assessments. If, for example, the meanings of actions and of arguments about actions are context-dependent, then how much faith can we possibly have in the largely text-based interpretations offered in this case study? How especially can we place trust in these interpretations when we know so little about what transpired nonverbally?
There is, I must acknowledge, good reason for skepticism about the interpretations offered here because we are dealing with an incomplete record. Indeed, every text-centered analysis of the transcript of a recorded conversation ought to carry a warning label on the front of the package: This analysis has relied almost exclusively on the transcribed record of a taped conversation. It has been largely oblivious to nuances of gesture and inflection in the conversation, and to any but the most general features of the immediate or larger context surrounding it. Its interpretations and conclusions are therefore suspect and may be dangerously misleading.
So as to underscore this point, let us imagine a context in which Frank's surreptitious taping of his conversation with Laura might have been a lot easier to justify. Suppose that Frank had been very seriously considering marriage to Laura, but that there was something about her voice, something about her manner of speaking on precisely these kinds of moral issues, that was profoundly irritating to him. We may not be able to hear that voice through the transcript, and it is difficult to describe in any case, but it is instantly and painfully recognizable to Frank as Laura's "victimage" voice. There is a shrillness in Laura's voice at these times, bordering on a whine, yet it remains an eminently sensible voice. It is the voice, thinks Frank, of one who has been wronged many times over, and who as a consequence has become marvelously adept at "explaining" her victimage to her victimizers, thus reaping the advantages of apparent moral superiority. Frank believes he understands the reasons for this style of speaking, and he is sympathetic; he knows that Laura had a rough childhood and that she subsequently entered into a number of unhappy relationships with men patterned after the abuse she received as a child. He even suspects that the power to exhibit herself as the injured party may be so satisfying to Laura that she unconsciously seeks out relationships where she can powerfully play the one-down role. Still, Frank's understanding of Laura's problem has not made him any the less unhappy about her irritating voice. On more than one occasion Frank has attempted to get Laura to hear that voice, but each time he has been summarily rebuked as a typical victim-blaming patriarch. Having failed by ordinary means, Frank now seeks a taped "demonstration." He himself has profited many times from hearing himself on tape, and he knows others who have as well. If only he could make himself better understood, then perhaps he and Laura could refashion their relationship into one that is more satisfying for both.
Thus might Frank have justified his secretive taping of Laura to himself, not daring to reveal these motives even to his trusted friends lest his account occasion further conflict and possible ridicule of him as yet another vitimizer in Laura's long history of "engulfment" by possessive, controlling males. One virtue of the account is that it hangs together as narrative. Moreover, there is nothing in the transcript or in the information we have about Frank and Laura to contradict it. Quite to the contrary, the "new" information fits what we are told by system-oriented psychotherapists about such relationships (Haley, 1976; Watzlawick, Weakland & Fisch, 1974). It would be unreasonable to assume that Laura is without resources in her conflicts with Frank. By recognizing Laura's contributing role a measure of balance is added to what until now had been an overly lopsided and melodramatic image of the distribution of power in the relationship.
Thus can additional information, not available in the written record, alter one's interpretations. So plausible indeed is this reconfiguring of what transpired that it would probably deserve analytic consideration even in the absence of confirmation by Frank and perhaps even in the face of his outright denial. Surely Frank would have reason to conceal it from others and even from himself. This is not to say that these hypothetical additions to the record would fully justify Frank's taping. He would still be acting presumptuously, still assuming that he knows what is best for both of them. Perhaps given Laura's concerns he should have asked Laura to tape a future conversation without his knowledge, rather than taping Laura without her knowledge. Surely a more sensitive Frank would have anticipated Laura's objections to being taped surreptitiously in the playing out of an important and very difficult conversation.
The foregoing is but one illustration of hypothetical information which, if known, could be damaging to the analyses I provided in this case study. We could easily alter the scenario in other consequential ways, and we could imagine calling upon other voices--e.g., Freudians, feminists, Lacanians, born-again fundamentalists, etc.--to provide their interpretations of what transpired.
Perhaps, then, we ought to add to the warning label on the package: The interpretation of talk is always a precarious business. Every context has a context; the record is never complete. Even if it could be complete, it would be open to multiple interpretations. And the question of which interpretations to privilege is itself a matter of interpretation for which there are no reliable decision rules. Thus, no interpretation can ever be definitive; there is always more to be said.
I offer these maxims in the spirit of postmodernism. If they cast a shadow upon the interpretations offered in this case study, that is as it should be. Yet I don't believe they negate my general thesis or totally invalidate my interpretations.
Recall that the thesis presented is one of limited hope.
A reconstructive rhetoric does not overcome problems of uncertainty; it simply finds a place for them within a pragmatics of contingency. Thus, even the most persuasive interpretations remain "true for particular purposes; true under a given set of circumstances; true assuming the validity of taken-for-granted premises" (Simons, 1990:17). In this study I have assumed the sufficiency of the record provided while at the same illustrating the precariousness of that assumption. My own rhetoric has been self-questioning, reflexive, unstable.
In that same spirit I would defend the approach taken here, within limits. We have, after all, been treated to substantial portions of the conversation--to nearly all of its verbal component. We have been enabled thereby to glimpse not just single statements or exchanges but whole chains of argument and counterargument, recurrent patterns of performance, interactions between style and substance, the interpersonal and the intellectual. Not only that, but the conversation has been among friends, persons who can be expected to be relatively open with each other. With each addition to the record we have gotten to know them better, and to gain a sense also of their lives together. Although there is much that we don't know about them, the conversation as a whole has provided a context in its own right by which to better interpret individual utterances and exchanges. And we have had the benefits of the test of narrative coherence as a check on the credibility of their accounts. My own analyses and interpretations can also be checked against the criterion of narrative coherence. And rather than privileging some single hermeneutic perspective, I have in my own way placed into conversation the voices of the moralist and the nonjudgmental psychotherapist, the professional skeptic and the willful believer, as well as the distinctive voices of Burke, White, Habermas, and MacIntyre.
What I have said about problems of interpretation of the discourse in this case applies also to questions of judgment about the conversation as a whole and to assessments of the discourse of the individual participants. Here, however, there are additional issues that need to be confronted.
Are the judgments of reasonableness and of rationality offered in this essay mere expressions of my own subjective preferences or--just as bad--mere reflections of some/all
members of the group's leanings and inclinations? Can there be an independent standard of evaluation if, as was suggested earlier, even such time-worn precepts as the Golden Rule need to be applied differently in different contexts? How can I possibly call portions of this conversation exemplary when in its last segment Frank dodges Laura's bullet, refuses to concede wrongdoing, and concludes with three self-indicting spider web metaphors?
With the case study behind us, I think we are in a better position to address the objections implicit in this line of questioning. In the spirit of postmodernism I would readily concede that the judgments of reasonableness and of rationality offered in this essay are by no means based on independent standards of evaluation. Neither, however, are they mere expressions of subjective preference. In maintaining that certain utterances or exchanges or fragments of the conversation were exemplary, I am surely reflecting my culture's values and also assuming that the members of the friendship circle as well as most of my readers share those values. There is a blatantly rhetorical appeal here, then, to shared premises. But the judgments provided are not entirely dependent upon broad cultural values. They reflect more immediately the "shape and texture" of the conversation; what White called "its own kind of life."
Based on that conversation I have attempted empathically to enter into the lives of the interactants, to become, in effect, their friends. At the same time I sought to maintain a reserve of hermeneutic distance. Thus I brought to the analysis my own dialectic of charity and suspicion. From Frank's perspective, for example, I can see how he could have come up with his engulfment, entrapment, and entanglement metaphors and not realize that they were self-incriminating. Still, I do not applaud him for these metaphors, and I would not, even if the group did. In his own way I think that Frank was attempting to confess something to the group at this point, and I congratulate him for that.
Arguably, all four members of the group learned something from the discussion, yet I don't think that ought to be the criterion by which we evaluate it. Rather, we should ask whether the members of the friendship circle, and especially Frank and Laura, ought to have learned something from it, given what transpired. What transpired was something on the order of a McKeon-esque dialogue. It had the ingredients premotive of learning, not just about this case, but about character and friendship and community more generally.
Finally, as regards the question of Frank's "guilt" or "innocence" I remain uncertain. However, it is not, as MacIntyre argues, because Frank's reasons for taping Laura and Laura's reasons for deploring it are incommensurable one with another. Were I more confident about my own narrative reconstruction of the case, I think I could render a "verdict" beyond, as they say, a reasonable doubt. That judgment would weigh in the balance the nature of the relationship, the options available to Frank and Laura, the relative costs and benefits to each of Frank's taping, Frank's state of mind at the time of the taping, and other factors too numerous to mention. Were I under pressure to provide precise reasons for my verdict in the case I'm sure that I could, but I suspect they would be only an approximation of the feelings in my gut. My strong inclination at this point is to support Laura's position. But, as with interpretation, so with judgment: there is not, and perhaps can never be, enough information for a definitive assessment.
This is the postmodern condition, but it is not entirely new. It is in fact the condition in which Western culture has characteristically turned to the discipline of rhetoric. As Allan Megill (1989:143) has argued, following a thoroughgoing survey of the available literature, "the postmodern turn appears as a 'weakening' of philosophy into rhetoric--as a turn from, say, the Aristotle of the Posterior Analytics and related works to the Aristotle of the Ethics and the Rhetoric, where the philosopher admits an element of localism and uncertainty." Says Megill (143), "Where 'opinion' is at issue and where appeal is made to community, the rhetorical tradition come clearly into play."