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Kraemer, Don J. Ethics, Morality, and Justice. CCC, June 2017. Posted 07/16/2017.

Kraemer, Don J. “The Good, the Right, and the Decent: Ethical Dispositions, the Moral Viewpoint, and Just Pedagogy.” College Composition and Communication 68.4 (2017): 603-28. Print.

Don J. Kraemer argues that scholars in composition studies conflate the terms “ethical” and “moral.” He contends that distinguishing between these concepts through examining the ethical-moral interface as ‘a topic” (607; emphasis original) can provide a heuristic opportunity that can enhance compositionists’ efforts to work with diverse student views and values.

A starting point for Kraemer is Joseph Harris’s 2015 article, “Reasoning at the Point of a Gun,” in which Harris records discussion with grad students about a first-year student writing in opposition to gun control (603-04). Kraemer reports that Harris’s concerns included both urging the student “to inhabit, at least for a moment, a point of view you disagree with” and, at the same time, “find[ing] a way to help him develop the argument he wants to make” (qtd. in Kraemer 605, 604).

Kraemer presents these goals as representing the confrontation between the moral and the ethical. He also quotes Patricia Bizzell’s 2009 “Composition Studies Saves the World!”, maintaining that her reference to her “personal morality” (qtd. in Kraemer 605) actually describes “an ethics” (604-05).

To explore the distinctions between these concepts, Kraemer draws on a “kantian” approach in which, “ethically, we evaluate our actions in terms of the good, morally in terms of the right or obligatory” (606; emphasis original). He argues that we all belong to varied communities that may or may not share the same range of values or goods, that values can conflict even for individuals, and that these conflicts become “moral conflicts” in that we use moral reasoning to assess and judge them (605-06).

A further distinction Kraemer invokes to illuminate the moral-ethical interface is the difference between “what one is to be” and “what one is to do” (James Porter, qtd. in Kraemer 606-07). Kraemer categorizes questions about the kind of person an individual would like to be as ethical in that they deal with individual aspirations and values, the individual’s “good,” while questions about actions are questions about “what is the right thing to do,” that is, “the right thing for one, for anyone to do” (607) and therefore moral; emphasis original). For Kraemer, what individuals aspire to may or may not accord with the universal right thing supplied by morality (607).

Kraemer argues that when morality and ethics confront each other, as they must, we use morality to assess and reason about our ethical choices. In this process, the ethical good, which may accrue to groups and communities as well as individuals and which may be specific to particular circumstances, is not overridden by the moral, universal judgment but is taken into account. When, in Kant’s words, “human morality” and “human happiness” come together in “union and harmony,” the result is the “highest possible good in the world” (qtd. in Kraemer 607). “This,” Kraemer writes, “is the just” (607).

An important component of the just in Kraemer’s formulation is that it takes into account what doing the right thing will cost the individual actor or the community in which a particular version of the good is invoked. The heuristic value of the moral-ethical distinction, in this view, is that it sustains the “inventive tension” (615) between what we owe others (the moral) and what we see as important to achieve, to succeed at (the ethical) (611).

This view of ethics provides Kraemer with the argument that an ethically directed writer might value the rewards, both tangible and psychic, of doing a particular kind of writing well, even if that kind of writing does not commit the individual to making the highest use of his time by acting specifically to benefit others (610, 619); in fact, an individual’s practice of the good as she sees it in her writing may “may add to a reader’s labors, if not also offend that person, or worse” (615). Yet morality does not disappear; it involves the question “as to who benefits and who bears the cost” of an individual or group’s ethical choices (611). When these two kinds of stances “face each other,” we approach “the just” (611).

Kraemer develops his argument through a reading of John Duffy’s “Ethical Dispositions: A Discourse for Rhetoric and Composition.” Bringing this text into conversation with Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and Chaïm Perelman and Lucie Olbrechts-Tyteca’s The New Rhetoric: A Treatise on Argumentation, Kraemer traces what he sees as Duffy’s movement between the ethical and the moral, arguing that keeping these terms separate allows a more fruitful understanding of the dilemma faced by writing teachers as they work to support students’ individual goals while also fostering a set of dispositions claimed by rhetoric and composition as foundational to the field’s mission.

For example, Kraemer examines Duffy’s statement that asking students to respond to counterarguments in their texts fosters “the dispositions of tolerance, generosity, and self-awareness” (qtd.. in Kraemer 616). For Kraemer, this exhortation to students “seems unnecessarily unilateral” (616). If listening to others respectfully signals care for their ends and “that person’s life as an end in itself,” then we are obligated to “inquir[e] how his ends, taken as policy, would affect us—as well as any of the people we have the luck (good or bad) not to be” (617). In other words, this obligation requires us to expend the same rigor in examining our own position as that of others.

Kraemer provides an example of how such discussions in Duffy might more usefully reflect this interplay between morality and ethics:

It has indeed been the moral side of the discussion that has been voiced. . . . Giving voice to ethical virtue can take as little as adding, to the sentence that follows, “and to themselves”: “To teach these particular practices is therefore to teach students to read, speak and write in ways that express their commitments to other human beings [and to themselves] (Duffy 224; bracketed material added). (618)

Kraemer addresses the problem of morality when it is imagined as and critiqued as a rigid universal code. He agrees with Duffy that a moral code adopted from the perspective of one group to the exclusion of others fails as a source of reasoning about the just. However, he contends that “writing pedagogy will be better informed . . . if morality is not dispensed with as a preexisting standard only” (612). Dismissing its attention to what might constitute the good for everyone and embracing only values attached to specific local contexts diminishes the power morality has to call ethics to account.

Apropos of the “‘perfect’ justice” that may result from too rigid an application of the universal, Kraemer turns to Aristotle’s idea of “decency,” which “corrects” laws that fail to establish the just universality they intend (620). Decency derives from the “practical wisdom” in play when morality “judg[es] in situations with that situation’s particulars in mind” (620).

Applied to the writing classroom, such decency, in Kraemer’s view, honors both individual decisions about “what a course well taught might mean” and claims about what such a course “might do for all students” (621). The tension between these goals is where Kraemer argues that we approach justice, a willingness, despite our individual ethics, to “try to establish terms with one another that everyone can agree are reasonable and fair” (621).


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

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).