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Duffy, John. Virtue Ethics in Writing Classrooms. Jan. CE. Posted 02/20/2017.

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Duffy, John. “The Good Writer: Virtue Ethics and the Teaching of Writing.” College English 79.3 (2017): 229-50. Print.

John Duffy argues that compositionists should embrace a form of the moral philosophy called virtue ethics as a basis for the teaching of writing.

He proposes that the ethical is as much a dimension of good writing as the “rhetorical, the linguistic, or the aesthetic” (229). Ethical decisions, he writes, are inherent in building a relationship with an audience, a major task undertaken by all writers . When a writing teacher encourages students to evaluate sources for their reliability or to examine counterarguments, Duffy contends, he or she is actually asking students to make ethical choices (230). Each choice is a partial answer to the question, “What kind of person do I want to be?”, which to Duffy is primarily an ethical question. Learning to make such choices, he argues, is how a student becomes a “good writer” (230).

Traditionally, Duffy writes, ethical systems were seen as either deontological—governed by a priori rules and principles—or consequentialist, dependent on the outcomes of actions (230). More recently, scholars have turned to “postmodern ethics” as an alternative. Duffy contends that “none of these frameworks . . . provides an adequate account of how writers define themselves ethically” (230).

The contrasting system of virtue ethics, he argues, is “both old and new,” dating at least to Aristotle and expounded explicitly in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics (230). Duffy quotes a definition by Rosalind Hursthouse: “a virtuous person is a morally good, excellent, or admirable person who acts and reacts well, rightly, as she should—she gets things right” (231). This concept, Duffy believes, can be translated into “rhetorical virtues,” or “discursive practices” that become “rationales for making ethical decisions in the writing class” (231).

According to Duffy, scholars who have turned to the virtue ethics as alternatives to deontology and consequentialism have noted that the traditional moral theories have become “unintelligible” or “incoherent” for a number of reasons, for example their grounding in pronouncements of God or their tendency to cobble together disparate theories with “incommensurable moral claims” (232). A neo-Aristotelian ethics, in contrast, focuses on a larger sense of how to live, with a supreme happiness, eudaimonia, as a culmination in that it is not a context-specific happiness such as one might experience after an instant of good fortune but rather a sense of “living well throughout the course of a lifetime” (233).

For Aristotle, Duffy maintains, achieving such a practice of happiness depends on fulfilling a telos—a purpose or “function”—with the “distinctively human function” being “rationality, the ability of humans to exercise reason” (234), in particular using “phronesis, or practical wisdom” to arrive at “the right course of action in a specific set of circumstances” (234).

Much current thinking about virtue ethics, Duffy states, applies such reasoning to specific fields, such as medicine, education, or law (235). The kind of virtue that can be enacted ethically in such situations, Duffy stresses, is learned through “instruction, practice, and habit”; it is not innate (235). “Rhetorical virtues,” then, become “discursive practices of virtue,” for example, expressions of “honesty, accountability, [and] generosity” (235).

Duffy addresses three specific objections to the concept of virtue: “its associations with an exclusively Christian doctrine, with right-wing ideology and with the historical oppression of women” (235). Despite its history as a component of Christian thinking, he contends, the idea of virtue appears in other contexts such as classical Greek culture and in other religions. Moreover, important virtues such as “open-mindedness, tolerance, and humility” do not rely on a religious endorsement to be valid (236). According to Duffy, the equation of virtue ethics with “character education,” which shifts responsibility for oppression to individual deficiencies rather than to systemic causes, is a political “appropriation” of the concept; a “virtue ethics framework” can be separated from such uses and even used to counter them (236).

Finally, Duffy counters the connection of the word “virtue” to an oppressive depiction of virtuous women as those who meet gendered domestic ideals with examples of feminist scholars who have presented “feminist virtue theor[ies]” to show that “the history of a term is not necessarily predictive of its future” (237). He points to the historical trajectory of the word “rhetoric” as a parallel example of a term that has carried many meanings throughout its evolution (237).

Duffy offers practical, theoretical, and cultural reasons to incorporate the concept of virtue into writing classrooms. He argues that compositionists already teach rhetorical virtues when they teach argument, in which the making of claims, the provision of evidence, and the openness to counterarguments create contexts of mutual trust and accountability between writers and audiences (238). For Duffy, teaching writing falls under Alisdair McIntyre’s definition of “practices,” that is, “coherent and complex forms of socially cooperative human activity” (qtd. in Duffy 239); virtues arise as practitioners work toward “excellence” (239). Duffy contends that writing teachers share “a loosely defined set of practices” that have been subjected to the open critique necessary to the “ongoing project” (241) of developing an ethics (239).

Theoretically, he argues, deontology cannot supply a sound rhetorical ethics because of its dependence on received wisdom; rhetoric is most necessary, he writes, when such a priori pronouncements cannot offer a clear path (240). Consequentialism fails because ethical writing will not always achieve its goals (241). Culturally, rhetorical ethics should offer a corrective to today’s corrosive public discourse; postmodern ethics, which has guided many in composition studies, has, in Duffy’s view, offered important challenges to the oppression and injustice committed in the name of “universality” and “foundation” (243), but the “skepticism and critique” that it supports must be augmented with “the language of the virtues” which can “address the possibilities of opening dialogues, finding affinities, acknowledging interdependencies, and talking to those strangers we most fear and mistrust” (244).

The practice of rhetorical ethics, Duffy concludes, must be developed locally to serve the specific contexts students encounter; citing John Gage, he encourages classroom practice that locates students in situations in which they must “exercise practical wisdom, or phronesis” (244). Acknowledging that the kind of rhetorical ethics inherent in rational argument may not always be adequate or may fail when no common ground is possible, Duffy argues that students can learn from exemplars “[h[ow . . . a good writer [would] resist such conditions” (245). Even if other forms of communication are needed, Duffy contends, composition should honor the contribution of “rhetorical virtues” like those found in ethical argumentation to the definition of a “good writer” committed to the goal of “creating [a] better world” (246).

Author: vanderso

I'm a recently retired associate professor of English in Southern Indiana. I've been teaching writing for twenty-five years, but I feel I have much to learn about how people really learn to write. In this blog, I'll be sharing research and thoughts and hopefully gathering information from others about the process of learning to write.

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