The E question

The “E” question.

I have consciously avoided, in all my pursuits, questions of ethics. There just doesn’t seem to be a convincing argument, to me at least, that ethics exist as a “discrete” quantity to be conferred or instilled in an individual, or a society for that matter. Senstitivity to ethical issues can be conferred through both rhetorical and philosophical education, but ethics as a subject field is both a mystery, and a misery to me. I noticed as I logged on to the OED today that they updated the entry for misery with some nuanced terms:

misery index Econ. (orig. and chiefly U.S.), an informal measure of the state of an economy obtained from the sum of the rate of inflation and the unemployment statistics, devised by American economist Arthur Okun (1928-80).

1973 D. POTTER Hide & Seek iv. 99 ‘What’s the matter with you, misery guts?’ asked the other woman, obscurely offended. ‘Piss off, Marlene,’ the girl replied.

As Turbulent Velvet commented, the subject of emotions and ethics are seldom mentioned in the same breath. However, rhetoric and emotions often are. Rhetorical education has long been scarred by its association with ethics. This goes back to the “Q” question explored by Lanham. Just what is good in regard to Quintilian’s definition of the ideal orator as “a good man speaking well?” Is good an ethical term, or an evaluation of value? The Platonic and Aristotelian view is that good is an ethical term, and this makes rhetoric supremely problematic. The Sophistic view is that good is a pragmatic question of value. But good is never ignored in questions of rhetoric. Cicero, one of the great taxonomizers, listed the attributes of “personhood” as multiple facets that must be dealt with in order to promote the judgment desired by an orator, stealing some concepts from Isocrates regarding the public notion of good.

All propositions are supported in argument by attributes of persons or of actions.

We hold the following to be the attributes of persons: name, nature, manner of life, fortune, habit, feeling, interests, purposes, achievements, accidents, speeches made.

Name is that which is given to each person, whereby he is addressed by his own proper and definite appellation. It is hard to give a simple definition of nature. (De Inv. I:24:34)

Habit is a poor translation. Cicero uses habitus demonstrating his sensitivity to the cultural part of identity. Notice also that he also includes both feeling and chance. Nature, as Cicero notes, is the most problematic term to define. He goes on to describe biological attributes, and qualities which differentiate men from beasts. Nature is the problematic descriptor at the root of the conflict between transcendental expressivism and socially constructed neo-Marxist praxis. Is nature merely habitus? I resist that conclusion. Expressivism deals with the “E” question in a Kantian manner, assuming that people in touch with their true selves are impelled toward moral behavior. Social Constructivism is built on the premise that education instills moral values. Sophistic praxis ridicules the problematic nature of ethics, and thumbs its nose at ethical conventions.

I don’t think that rhetoric should teach ethics, only ethical sensitivity. It’s “good” to recognize the values game, and the qualities of emotion and chance that influence it. Dwelling on ethics makes me a misery guts, causing a huge increase in my misery index.