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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).