I’m interested in the rhetorical part myself, but completely unqualified to even muse on it. My education was very weak in the area of writing in general, much less writing persuasively…
This is actually one of my biggest homeschooling concerns - effective writing is not taught in schools, and I’m not (currently) qualified to teach it myself, so how do I remedy David’s future schooling?
I'm not sure either, but let's speculate!
(The timing is actually great, because H. and I have recently re-aligned our plans for teaching writing to the oldest kids, to include some more direct how-do-you-form-a-coherent-argument instruction. We're not claiming to be experts in rhetoric, just in what our kids need, but we -- both instinctive argument-crafters -- are trying to figure out exactly what instruction they need, and give it to them. Example here of an engaging lesson plan that H. came up with recently.)
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The title of this post is meant to express my desire to formulate a moral rhetoric, not merely an effective rhetoric.
Rhetoric that is good, in the moral sense, must:
- seek to express arguments that are true
- seek to understand both arguments that are true and arguments that are false
- serve ends that are good, not bad
- treat persons with the respect and love that is due to persons
I'm a bit redundant here. The last is a subset of the first, since to treat persons as people, not objects -- to refuse to use a person as the means to an end -- to respect persons -- is, implicitly, to express the truth about persons.
But let's take these things one at a time.
1. Express arguments that are true.
What's the point of writing, or speaking, anything if you don't have something to say? And what's the point of saying something that isn't true? A moral rhetoric rejects lying and deceit in all its forms.
2. Understand both arguments that are true and arguments that are false.
I take it for granted that rhetoric is receptive as well as expressive; and of course, it's a skill that must be taught, and it's hard to learn how to express arguments without learning how to understand them. In a moral rhetoric, even though you must strive to express only true arguments, you must strive to understand the intended logic behind false ones as well, so that you can spot error and deceit. A moral rhetorician should be able to construct false arguments (not the same as going out and arguing them to people, and therefore not a violation of #1) for several reasons:
- first, to test true arguments and thereby sharpening them;
- second, in order to effectively counter them during a true argument;
- third, in order to express the truth of the opponent's personhood, by giving their argument the respect it is due as the product of a worthy adversary, striving in charity to understand the opposing argument in the same way that one hopes one's own argument will be understood.
3. Serve ends that are good.
Certain truths need not be expressed at all times, in all places, to all people, and in all manners. ("The right to the communication of the truth is not unconditional" -- CCC 2488.)
Boasting isn't part of a moral rhetoric. Neither is detraction, which seeks maliciously to damage another's reputation. Certain material is rightly confidential. And "everyone should observe an appropriate reserve concerning persons' private lives" (CCC 2492).
Furthermore, the efforts of rhetoric should be turned where they can do good, and not where they might do evil. True and non-confidential arguments could carefully be selected from among many possible true arguments to do evil -- for instance, intentionally to whip a mob into a frenzy of violence, or to induce policymakers to rank a certain threat greater than it is, or to draw attention away from some other thing that justice demands be acted upon. Even true rhetoric is a tool that may be wielded to harmful ends.
"The good and safety of others, respect for privacy, and the common good are sufficient reasons for being silent about what ought not be known or for making use of a discreet language. The duty to avoid scandal often commands strict discretion. No one is bound to reveal the truth to someone who does not have the right to know it." -- CCC 2489
4. Treat persons with the respect and love that they are due as persons.
Again, this is really a special case of the first injunction to express the truth: our rhetoric, if it is to be a moral rhetoric, must implicitly express the truth about the human person, by refusing to treat persons as objects.
Let me break this down into the first person, the second person, and the third person. We must treat as real human beings the person who is speaking; the persons who are spoken to (i.e., the interlocutor and the audience); and the persons who are spoken about.
Our moral rhetoric cannot concede our own humanity. We cannot, for example, consent to be treated as an object; we don't have the right to.
Our moral rhetoric must respect our audience and our opponents as persons. We must not condescend to them or assume that they lack intelligence or moral character. Here the Catechism sums up nicely our duty to even our opponents, in part by quoting yet another deviously rhetorical Jesuit:
"Respect for the reputation of persons forbids every attitude and word likely to cause them unjust injury. He becomes guilty.... of rash judgment who, even tacitly, assumes as true, without sufficient foundation,the moral fault of a neighbor. To avoid rash judgment, everyone should be careful to interpret insofar as possible his neighbor's thoughts, words, and deeds in a favorable way:
- Every good Christian ought to be more ready to give a favorable interpretation to another's statement than to condemn it. But if he cannot do so, let him ask how the other understands it. And if the latter understands it badly, let the former correct him with love. If that does not suffice, let the Christian try all suitable ways to bring the other to a correct interpretation so that he may be saved.(St. Ignatius of Loyola, Spiritual Exercises)
Our moral rhetoric must not use persons as means to a rhetorical end. Here's a sad observation about many of us who know better than to use a human being as a machine to produce output, or as a toy to produce pleasure: We remain eager to use a real human being in our speech.
We use them as a caricature in our arguments to produce rhetorical effect, or as a character in our stories to produce entertainment.
This isn't moral. When we tell a story or offer an example that includes another human being, we must always strive to do so in a way that respects that person. Would they rightly object to being used as an example? Are we telling the whole story? Are we telling the story in a way that respects their autonomy?
Recently on FB I came across a blog post that gives a good example of the immoral use, in rhetoric, of a human being as a caricature -- it will serve as a blatant example of something that we should be on our guard against.
Unfortunately, many instances of using persons as means to a rhetorical end are more subtle -- and extremely tempting, especially when we think our side is right.
So that's a start on a good rhetoric: (1) seek to argue true things, (2) seek to understand arguments both true and false, (3) serve good ends rather than bad ones, and (4) treat persons as persons.
An effective rhetoric that is also good? Will have to wait for another post. (I hope it isn't long before I think up something worthwhile to say.)