Course Description & ReadingsCalendarDiscussion Questions Cases

Wednesday, 4:30-7:00
Magrath 6

Arthur Walzer
80 Classroom Office Building
Hours: T/Th 12:00 - 2:00, Weds. by appt.


Course Description

Rhetoric and moral philosophy have a long history of rivalry in which philosophy has gained prestige at rhetoric's expense. But Postmoderniism has put philosophy on the defensive. Postmoderns charge that the efforts from Plato to Kant to ground ethics in premises that all humans as reasonable beings must logically accept (the postulate of universality) has yielded to a sense of a situated subject or self, whose values are necessarily a reflection of a community (communitarianism). From a postmodernist perspective, the appeal to a universal human nature is not merely misguided, but is morally wrong—a method for ending discussion and oppressing dissent (Zygmunt Bauman, Postmodern Ethics , pp. 39-41.) What are the implications of this critique for an ethics of rhetoric? That question frames Rhet 8510: Perspectives on Ethics and Rhetoric: Classical, Modern, and Postmodern.

This course will treat its subject—rhetoric and ethics—from three historical perspectives and three philosophical ones. Historically, the course will move between classical and modernists texts and contexts and contemporary responses from rhetorical scholars. Philosophically, we will examine the role of rhetoric in making moral decisions, the philosophical critiques of persuasion and rhetoric's responses, and the role of ethics in judging particular rhetorical appeals. Thus the phrase “relationship between ethics and rhetoric” shifts in meaning in the course of Rhet 8510.

The course also continually moves from the interpretation of primary texts to the application of ethics in the criticism of particular instances of rhetorical discourse (the “Cases” that mark the syllabus). I hope that students leave the course with sufficient confidence to teach a course in ethics and rhetoric but also with the ability to write a critical paper on an instance of contemporary discourse from an ethical perspective. But because this is a seminar, I will regard it as successful only if it serves the individual needs of each student. I therefore am very open to alternative assignments and approaches.

The course begins with a discussion of the relationships between dialectic, knowledge, ethics, and rhetoric in Plato, especially the two dialogues on rhetoric, the Gorgias and the Phaedrus . We then examine a modern appropriation of this Platonic approach in the work of philosopher and rhetorician Richard Weaver. Week 3 and 4 examine Aristotle's notion of practical reasoning as an alternative to apodeictic reason and the modern appropriation of Aristotle in Jonsen and Toulmin's revival of casuistry. In week 4 and 5 we examine Kant's deontological ethics as the consummate modernist approach, from which his condemnation of rhetoric follows as night follows day, and constitutive rhetoric (in the work of James Boyd White) as a reconception of rhetoric that challenges Kantian assumptions. In weeks 6 and 7, we take up Richard Rorty's pragmatism as both a version of utilitarianism and an example of a postmodernist approach to ethics and epistemology. In Edward Schiappa's Defining Reality , we see the implication for postmodernist assumptions rhetoric and ethics. In weeks 9 and ten, we examine Habermas' discourse ethics, his ideal speech situation, and his critique of systematically distorted communication. In weeks 11 and 12, we take up Levinas' grounding of ethics in a phenomenology of the “Other” and its implications for rhetoric in the portrayal of the Other in rhetorical discourse. In the last three weeks of the course, students work on their seminar paper. Seminar meetings are turned over to a discussion of their plans and progress.



Books (In order of assignment)

Weaver, Richard. Rhetoric is Semonic

Jonsen and Toulmin. Abuse of Casuistry

White, James Boyd. Heracles' Bow: Essays on the Rhetoric and Poetics of Law

Schiappa, Edward. Defining Reality .

Habermas, Jürgen. Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action .

Levinas, Emmanuel. Ethics and Infinity.


On-line (In order of assignment)

Plato, Gorgias and Phaedrus.

Aristotle , Nicomachaen Ethics.

Kant, Immanuel. Fundamental Principles of a Groundwork of Morals

_____. Critique of Judgment.

Sophocles, Philoctetes.

Bentham, Introduction to Principles of Morals and Legislation

Rorty, “Introduction,” Consequences of Pragmatism.

Kennedy Tapes Inside the White House

Roger's Commission Report Challenger Disaster, chapter 5.

Columbia Accident Investigation Board, Chapter 6


Library Reserve (Not required)

Johannesen, Richard L . Ethics in Human Communication , 5th ed., Waveland P, 2001. A bibliography with bibliographic essays.

Rehrig, William . Insight and Solidarity: The Discourse Ethics of Jürgen Habermas . U of California P, 1994.

Davis, Colin. Levinas: An Introduction . Notre Dame UP, 1996.



“Abraham Lincoln and the Argument from Definition,” The Ethics of Rhetoric (Hermagoras Press: Davis, CA, 1985), pp.85-114.

Smith, Donald H. “Stories, Values, and Health Care Decisions.” In Ethical Nexus, ed. Charles Conrad, 123-48



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