Axioms of Rhetorical Reasoning (9 Feb 17)

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Kind of jazzed about how God is granting grace to articulate to my high school students (via Wittenberg Academy) the “how and why” of excelling in “shared moral inquiry.”  Comments, please . . .

Understanding this excerpt from a paper I wrote long ago, derived from my doctoral dissertation, along with the discussion forum below, will complete your understanding of casuistry, and we will be ready to tackle the Jehovah’s Witness and Blood Transfusion Case, then write an ethics consultation about it.  (That paper is due end of February.)

Read these paragraphs (from “Toward a Rhetorical Ethics,“) then follow the directions below . . .

George Kennedy makes precisely this distinction [between the techne of rhetoric and rhetorical reasoning] when he writes that the work of rhetoric, in Aristotle’s view,

[I]s ‘to discover [theoresai] the available means of persuasion’ (1.1.1355b25-6). It is thus a theoretical activity and discovers knowledge. This knowledge, which includes words, arguments, and topics, is then used by the orator as the material cause of a speech. There is thus a theoretical art of rhetoric standing behind or above the productive art of speech-making (emphasis mine). 

Rhetorical reason is the theoretical activity that constitutes a faculty of discovery (dunamis to theoresai) which guides inquiry into the heart of the case.  . . .  this essay focuses on [four] implications of rhetorical reason so conceived . . .: (1) That shared inquiry is more desirable than individual inquiry in the moral realm because (2) shared inquiry provides for the rigor appropriate to the moral realm. (3) That understanding the role of special topics in rhetorical reasoning contributes to topical doctrine in a long anticipated fashion, and that (4) Rhetorical reason so conceived clarifies the domain of rhetoric. Rhetoricians will readily note that questions of communal applications of rhetorical invention, of rigor conceived in other than hypothetico-deductive terms and of applications for special topics entail practical concerns at the heart of the restoration of rhetorical invention.

My conceptualization of rhetorical reasoning is supported by interpreting the reasoning processes implied in the talk of a medical ethics committee who met to resolve an actual moral dilemma.  The means for interpreting that talk are suggested by Albert Jonsen and Stephen Toulmin’s The Abuse of Casuistry.   Jonsen and Toulmin advocate the rehabilitation and revival of casuistical inquiry as a means of resolving moral dilemmas in medical practice.   In their historical treatment of the roots of casuistry, Jonsen and Toulmin discuss the rich contribution of classical rhetoric to casuistry; that casuistry is essentially rhetorical reason applied to moral dilemmas, and that rhetorical reasoning may be understood in terms of the combined function of topics, stasis, maxims and phronesis.

In their discovery role, topoi serve a twofold narrowing function: (1) They guide inquiry by prompting questions. (2) They set parameters by (along with phronesis) ascribing degrees of relevance to the issues encountered during the course of inquiry. The special topic “cordons off” one aspect of the moral dilemma into a manageable part, and then, by the function of those subtopics which arise naturally from the issues indigenous to the case, it prompts questions that help delineate which issues are most relevant with regard to the need to render a reasonable judgment. Special topics are issues that guide inquiry; they prompt questions in order to “hunt out relevant issues” as it were.   Special topics function in rhetorical reason by perpetually raising the question: Out of this parade of particulars, which are relevant and which are not? As the relevant issues are brought in closer proximity, the various relations that obtain between competing issues become clearer; exigencies arise which prompt ques­tions. Issues in question are stasis points.

As the various points of stasis are treated, the crux of the matter comes into view. Stasis plays a relatively passive role in rhetorical reason in the sense that it is the target at which inquiry aims. That is so because the topics quide the inquiry and phronesis informs the actual judgment regarding whose interpretation of the question at stake is most reliable. Maxims are important in rhetorical reason because arguments about conflicting interpretations of what is at stake often end when a maxim is hit upon.

Maxims provide focus in moral inquiry by (1) signalling the close of a line of questioning, or (2) alerting those involved that the line from specificity to abstractness is about to be crossed. In any given moral inquiry there exists a line from specificity to abstractness, and if it is crossed too often, the group’s principle charge (rendering a reasonable judgment in the case at hand*) may be jeopardized.

Maxims operate as an alarm; keeping the inquiry on task. That is, because practical inquiry differs from philosophic inquiry, commonly held assumptions sometimes rest at the starting place of a given argument. Maxims lie very close to the point at which discovery ends and argumentation begins; they signal that point, in fact. Maxims are decisive; to challenge a maxim in the context of practical inquiry would show a lack of prudence. 

Maxims are decisive in moral inquiry by virtue of the power exerted by dialectic on mental operations of this sort.

George Kennedy writes that, for Aristotle, the functions of rhetoric and dialectic, “are parallel movements, virtually identical in con­tent; both deal with matters which are common subjects of knowledge among men; neither falls within any distinct science.”  The domain of rhetoric, as Cicero established, is the realm of the particular case; dialectic operates in the domain of the general proposition. The point at which a given inquiry discovers a general proposition stated in maximal form may be understood as a dialectical moment. Contradictions (or conflicting interpretations) are clearly illuminated, and the inquiry progresses only when one of the contradictories is embraced and the other rejected.

A spouse might, for example, decide to discontinue life support for her husband whom, she concluded would prefer not to live in his present state because, being terminally ill, ventilator dependent and heavily drugged is, in fact, more like “existing” than “living.” The wife’s decision in our example is grounded squarely on a dialectical distinction. Again, dialectic and rhetoric are parallel faculties that operate in different domains. The reasoning process illustrated by means of the example is utterly dialectical, however, the concern is not with securing the truth of a general proposition, but with establishing which maxim is most reasonably applied to the instant case. Although the example functions dialectically, the domain is rhetorical: by virtue of its concern with good action on behalf of a particular patient it is more accurately viewed as a rhetorical operation.   The above also illustrates that the maxim, “One ought not be forced to continue in a situation that is more like existing than living,” is decisive because, to contradict it is clearly not in the patient’s best interest. That care givers ought always act in their patient’s best interest is an unchallenged principle in biomedicine.  (The difficulty comes in determining, in the given dilemma, what is in the patient’s best interest!) The above helps illustrate two things:

(1) How dialectical and rhetorical inquiry are related, and

(2) Why maxims are decisive in practical inquiry.

Maxims are properly granted presumptive truth in practical inquiry; philosophic inquiry, on the other hand, begins with the critique of premises. In other words, the degree of disputation one encounters in philo­sophical discourse is inappropriate to practical discourse. In this sense one could say that philosophic inquiry begins where practical inquiry leaves off. Or, as John Henry Freese puts it: “Maxims are to enthymemes as premises are to syllogisms.”   Maxims, topoi and stases all help guide the inquiry toward its mark, but these alone are insufficient to guarantee success. The procedures of rhetorical reasoning discussed above guide moral inquiry; phronesis provides the movement.

If there is any hope of rendering moral judgments in a timely fashion, and without lapsing into arbitrariness, one must take a methodical approach to managing the particulars and stay close to the case until the crux of the matter comes into view and the correct judgment is relatively clear. Rhetorical reasoning provides the method; practical wisdom drives rhetorical reason in a variety of ways: Whenever parties involved in the inquiry bring to bear on the instant case past experiences, analogous cases, legal precedents, or even intuition. In order to be considered reasonable, a given judgment must acquire its moral force by the operation of practical wisdom. As practical wisdom brings together the combined moral force of all the probabilities that converge at the heart of a dilemma, moral certitude builds.

* Note added 2/9/17:  where the aim is action, not contemplation of principles!


Now you have all the “working parts” needed to understand Tallmon on rhetorical reasoning.  If you now proceed to the “Two Axioms” discussion forum, I will spell out for you what are the Two Axioms of Practical Reasoning one can infer from all the above!
  • (This is from the “Two Axioms” forum . . .)

When one combines all the various considerations discussed in the article [excerpt] you just read, it is clear that, in the actual practice of shared moral inquiry, in which a group attempts to do the right thing, on behalf of another, where the right thing is debatable, one ought to observe these two axioms:

(1) One ought not expect or assert more precision than the nature of the question admits.

and another like it,

(2) One ought not expect or assert more certainty than the nature of the case admits.

If you think about it, people run into difficulties when they approach a general question with too much specificity, and vice versa.  Think about it: If you are asked a specific question and give a general answer, people look at you funny!  By the same token, if you are asked a question that is very tentative, and you answer as though God himself has spoken to you on the matter, you are headed for the looney bin!!  Am I right?

February 9th 2017 |

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