A theory of rhetorical ethics

Friday afternoon, The Heartland Institute announced that they would stop running this billboard over the Eisenhower Expressway. That’s Ted Kaczynski, who worried about man-made climate change in his manifesto before he rendered the phenomenon nonexistent by mailing bombs to scientists. The ad was to be part of a series featuring public figures who expressed belief in global warming, including Fidel Castro, Osama Bin Laden and Charles Manson. It was to be classy. Then a bunch of debate-team types called in and forced them to cancel it, which—as Heartland’s press release explains—was what they wanted all along. “This provocative billboard was always intended to be an experiment,” Heartland President Joseph Bast said through his press agent. “And after just 24 hours the results are in: It got people’s attention.”

So once again the result of the Can I Get Attention Experiment is yes. This particular trial also seems to have a yielded a new version of the Ad Hominem fallacy, where instead of attacking the person advancing a given idea, you find some other already-attacked person who advanced it, too. Thank you, Heartland Institute, for giving us a new logical fallacy. I’m sure we’ll use it all the time, especially since for a certain segment of the population it, you know, short circuits their brain.

Most Midwest commuters recognize such reasoning as bullshit, though. Heartland’s experiment suggests that they consider it not ignorable bullshit, either, but the kind that must be stamped out. There is a name for that sort of revulsion: moral. Saying that global warming isn’t real because a murderer said it was is not just unconvincing. It’s wrong. Why is that?

For the purposes of this discussion, let us assume that we—we meaning we who do not hold advanced degrees in statistical analysis—cannot just know whether global warming is real. We have to figure it out. We could live in damn Greenland and stare at a barometer all day,* or we could evaluate the arguments of others who have done the primary-source work for us. If we choose the second option, rhetoric becomes a sort of instrument for identifying and measuring claims—a barometer for truth. We throw all these conflicting arguments and the evidence to support them into the machine, and it grinds them up—just like a barometer—and spits out what holds up.

From this perspective, it is clear why we can’t have the Unabomber Believed It Too Fallacy running around. We want the rhetoric machine to be as accurate as possible, because we don’t know what’s going to come out of it when we turn it on. We use rhetoric to figure out what’s true in issues like global warming because we don’t know what’s true—not because rhetoric is the most efficient means of convincing people. If we already knew what was true, rhetoric would be superfluous; we’d just show people the truth and be done.

The difference between good and bad rhetoric is the difference between talking to someone and tricking him. When you talk to someone, you start the conversation without knowing where it will go. A conversation is a process, a means. Tricking someone is a means to an end: you keep running the conversation toward the outcome you had in mind all along. It sounds like a merely technical distinction, but consider the difference between A) meeting someone who likes you so much they invite you to the movies and B) tricking a stranger into taking you to the movies. One of these lives is happy and good.

Like all ethics, the ethics of rhetoric is one of process. It answers the question of how to do things, because what is to be done cannot be known. Rhetorical ethics tell us how to convince people, because what they should be convinced of is not yet known. Rules like The Ad Hominem Fallacy acknowledge that ethics are a means of navigation, not transportation—the reason the Bible says thou shalt not kill instead of kill Ted and help Susan move.

Heartland can therefore answer for its billboard with one of two explanations. Either they are immoral, or they already know that global warming is not real. I haven’t called, but I suspect they would say it’s the second one. Heartland is so convinced that we don’t need to worry about man-made climate change that they have no more use for rhetoric as tool for discerning truth. On to tricks. Before we boldly discard our system of inquiry to tell everyone what’s true, though, I would like to hear how we know.

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  1. More on rhetorical ethics and epistemology please! You sharp writin’ man, you.

    My only critiques, that you surely thought of but left out in favor of making me laugh out loud, is that the experiment may been more about driving traffic to heartland.org rather than a more facile “will this create a scene?” Furthermore, calling it an “experiment” is a quick way of saying “this is not intended to trick or persuade.” But I’m glad that people, Midwest commuters especially, made a scene about it, because, as someone working on an advanced degree in statistical analysis to combat climate change, I wouldn’t have bothered.

  2. Wouldn’t this be a form of the “guilt-by-association” fallacy? At least I assume that’s a fallacy. Seems pretty fallacious.

  3. I just finished finals, so I have Bible on the brain. The problem of certainty definitely comes up when attempting to derive ethics or values from works one views to be holy.

    The following is something awesome one of our Hebrew Bible professors wrote:
    “The Bible has contributed to violence in the world precisely because it has been taken to confer a degree of certitude that transcends human discussion and argumentation. Perhaps the most constructive thing a biblical critic can do toward lessening the contribution of the Bible to violence in the world is to show that such certitude is an illusion.” -Professor John Collins

    That argument can be dangerous with the wrong intentions: let’s undermine knowledge to cloud moral judgement! But the same argument is very helpful as a check against the certainty that can encourage extremism.

    Separately: The King James Version of the Bible says, “Thou shall not kill,” but that (and many other parts of King James) is a mistranslation into English. A better translation is “You shall not murder.”

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