Ethical Rhetoric in Unethical Times: Five Strategies for the Writing Classroom

By John Duffy

profile_duffyOne of the challenges facing teachers of writing in the twenty-first century United States is how best to teach practices of reasoned, fair-minded argument when contemporary public discourse is so polarized, strident, and deeply dishonest. The college writing course has many purposes, but widely accepted as one of those purposes is to prepare students to engage in the political and cultural conversations that will shape their personal futures and the future lives of their communities. To that end, we teachers of writing have promoted norms of argument that privilege habits and dispositions of truthfulness, accountability, open-mindedness, intellectual generosity, intellectual courage, and other such qualities. We have promoted, to say it another way, norms of ethical argument.

Yet we now inhabit a rhetorical moment in which those norms have been destabilized by powerful political and media discourses that have treated truth as transactional, dismissed evidence-based reasoning, and normalized arguments grounded in racism, misogyny, and religious hatred.

How do we respond?  More to the point, how do we prepare our students to respond? Which of our classroom practices—our questions, readings, and writing prompts—will most effectively enable our students to resist the toxic currents of contemporary discourse and argue in ways that strengthen the bonds of community and civic life?

My purpose in this brief essay is to suggest, proceeding cautiously and with humility, how we might encourage practices of ethical argument in our classrooms. I invoke caution and humility in this undertaking because the teaching of rhetorical ethics, as I have noted elsewhere (Duffy 2019), does not lend itself to off-the-rack lesson plans or syllabi that can be applied in all classes, for all students, at all times. Rather, such lessons are best worked out in the particulars of local contexts, accounting for the needs of students and families, the goals of teachers and programs, and the resources available to institutions and communities. Recommendations about how best to teach ethical argument, then, are offered in the understanding that readers of this essay already know a great deal about what is most likely to work in their classrooms, with their students.

In that spirit, I propose here five modest strategies for consideration by teachers seeking to promote practices of ethical argument in the writing classroom.[1]

Teach Situations, Not Rules

In his wonderful essay, “In Pursuit of Rhetorical Virtue,” John Gage argues that what makes for ethical argument, or argument that is “tolerant, judicious, and reasonable” (Gage 2005, 32) cannot be achieved through the formulation of abstract rules and precepts. Instead, Gage writes, students develop ethical sensibilities in response to situations that call for ethical judgments. Gage recommends that teachers of writing concern ourselves less with teaching rhetorical precepts—“all the rhetorician’s rules,” as Samuel Butler mockingly phrased it— and instead create situations that call for the exercise of those ethical habits and dispositions we wish to encourage.

Let us imagine, for example, the following scenario. The future of the football program at Big State University is on the line. Football is a revered tradition at Big State, beloved by students and alumni. On crisp fall Saturdays, the stadium is filled to raucous capacity by 80,000 cheering fans who cherish the excitement of game day.  Moreover, Big State football is lucrative; revenues brought in by the football program pay for non-revenue producing sports and fund student scholarships.

Nonetheless, let us imagine, several of the trustees at Big State are troubled by what they are learning about the relationship between football and concussions leading to brain damage. These trustees have come to believe football is inconsistent with the mission of a university, and they are preparing a motion recommending that Big State drop its football program.

The role of the teacher in this conception shifts from promoter of rules to creator of situations. The teacher might ask students to assume distinctive roles in the context of the situation—university president, faculty member, football coach, student—and compose arguments concerning the future of football at Big State. In their respective roles, students would be called upon to read about the issues, balance multiple perspectives, present their views to others, and eventually draft an opinion on the right, or ethical, decision about the future of football at Big State.

For her part, the teacher poses questions along the way related to ethical discourse practices. How would an ethical writer respond to this situation? What questions would she ask, what authorities would she consult, what kind of language might she use in making her argument, and what language might she refrain from using? What principles would guide her decisions?

The goal of such discussions would not be to reach consensus, which would be unlikely, but rather to engage students in reflection on what an ethical writer might say in that situation, how she might say it, and why it should be said in precisely that way.

Name the Behaviors You Want to See

Perhaps the most straightforward way we can introduce ethical discourse practices to students is to name the practices we want students to adopt. Let us suppose, for example, students in a first-year writing class are discussing newspaper editorials on the Trump administration policy of separating children and parents at the U.S. border. Some opinions defend the policy as a deterrent, while others see it as inhumane. As students discuss the essays, the teacher occasionally comments and raises questions phrased in the vocabulary of an ethical rhetoric:

“All right, so you disagree with the author’s perspective. But would you say it’s intellectually honest?”

“How does this writer communicate empathy for the families? How is the rhetoric of empathy communicated in this paragraph, this sentence, this metaphor?”

“How does this author address arguments that contradict her own? Does she seem open-minded?  Would you describe her as intellectually generous? What do we mean by such terms?”

“Consider the adjectives the writer uses in this paragraph. Does she seem angry? Is her anger justified, in your opinion? Under what circumstances, would you say, is justifiable anger or righteous indignation appropriate?”

What is common to such questions is the explicit naming of the ethical qualities we want our students to adopt. Students do not, of course, arrive in our classrooms unfamiliar with such language. They arrive, rather, as complex moral beings with their own conceptions of what it means to be honest, empathetic, justifiably angry, and the rest. Perhaps fewer of our students, however, come to our classes having learned to associate these qualities with acts of speaking and writing. Perhaps fewer arrive with the understanding that their rhetorical practices speak as much to their ethical commitments as to the messages they wish to convey. In this sense, the explicit naming of ethical qualities can make unfamiliar what was previously familiar, and so suggest to students new and potentially generative ways to think about the activities of speaking and writing.

Model the Practices You Wish to Teach

Stephen D. Brookfield and Stephen Preskill, authors of Discussion as a Way of Teaching: Tools and Techniques for Democratic Classrooms, write that one of the mistakes they have often made as teachers is to announce on the first day of class that they believe in class discussion, tell students why such discussion is good for them, and then place students into small groups to begin discussing. “The trouble with this scenario,” the authors suggest, “is that it omits a crucial element: we have neglected to model for students how to engage in the activity we are urging on them . . .” (41). If we are committed to teaching students to speak and write truthfully, generously, and courageously, Brookfield and Preskill’s self-evaluation suggests, we ought to model these behaviors ourselves.

So, for example, when students ask questions, or make comments on classroom readings, we can demonstrate attentiveness by listening carefully and thoughtfully. If a student offers an opinion that seems to us naïve or poorly reasoned, we can model tolerance and respectfulness by withholding criticism and hearing out that student. Should conflicts between students in a writing group become heated, we can model diplomacy by addressing differences calmly and tactfully.

We can also model ethical discourse in interactions with colleagues. Brookfield and Preskill recommend inviting colleagues into our classrooms to engage in unrehearsed conversations about a contentious issue. As students look on, Brookfield and Preskill advise faculty to “listen attentively to each other’s comments, reframe and rephrase what you’ve heard, and check with colleagues to make sure you’ve caught their meaning accurately” (52). Such conversations offer opportunities to demonstrate how ideas may be clarified and new perspectives gained through respectful disagreement.

Exemplars, Exemplars, Exemplars!

The philosopher Linda Zagzebski defines the exemplar as “a paradigmatically good person,” a person whose actions or life fills us with feelings of admiration, and whom we are moved to imitate (2010). “Exemplars are those persons who are most imitable,” Zagzebski writes, and they are most imitable because they are most admirable” (52). Just who should be regarded as an exemplar speaks to a complex blend of ideological, cultural, religious, and other commitments, but commonly cited as exemplary figures are spiritual leaders, such as Buddha and Jesus; historical actors, such as Dorothy Day and Nelson Mandela; and fictional characters, such as Hermione Granger, and Lisbeth Salander. We might introduce such figures in our classes, asking students to reflect on the ethics of their speeches and writings.

For example, when the heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali refused to be inducted into the US Army during the Vietnam War, stating, “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong,” (Hauser 1991, 144–145), he became for many a reviled public figure. Sportswriters rebuked Ali as an unworthy champion, and US senators and congressmen denounced him as a traitor. He was stripped of his title, his boxing license was revoked, and he was placed under FBI surveillance. Nonetheless, Ali continued to speak out, identifying resistance to the war with the civil rights struggle of African Americans. After a meeting with Martin Luther King Jr. in Louisville, in which Ali spoke in support of the struggle for fair housing practices in the city, he made the following statement to reporters:

Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on Brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights? No I’m not going 10,000 miles from home to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of white slave masters of the darker people the world over. This is the day when such evils must come to an end. I have been warned that to take such a stand would cost me millions of dollars. But I have said it once and I will say it again. The real enemy of my people is here. I will not disgrace my religion, my people or myself by becoming a tool to enslave those who are fighting for their own justice, freedom and equality. If I thought the war was going to bring freedom and equality to 22 million of my people they wouldn’t have to draft me, I’d join tomorrow. I have nothing to lose by standing up for my beliefs. So I’ll go to jail, so what? We’ve been in jail for 400 years. (Hauser, 167).

Teachers can discuss with students whether Ali should be considered an exemplar, whether his words and actions were admirable, and whether his statement to the press offered examples of ethical rhetoric. Students might consider which ethical practices, if any, were enacted in Ali’s speech, and where in the text these are expressed. The teacher could ask how the ethical qualities of Ali’s speech, should students see any such qualities, might inform students’ own writings—which of Ali’s ethical practices might students imitate? Should students object to Ali’s speech, the teacher could discuss with them why they object to Ali’s rhetoric and which moments in the text—which paragraphs, sentences, or words—they find objectionable.

We might share other exemplary texts with students. Some we know well, such as King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” or Ronald Reagan’s eloquent address to the nation after the Shuttle Challenger disaster. Others are perhaps less known, such as Carrie Chapman Catt’s 1916 speech, “The Crisis,” on women’s suffrage, or Missouri Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson’s address to the congregation at the Greater Grace Church in Ferguson, Missouri, after the shooting of Michael Brown in 2014, a speech Newsweek described as “riveting” (Mejia 2014). Finally, we might invite students to bring to class examples of ethical discourse that speak to students’ own experiences, traditions, narratives, and histories. Should students be willing to share, they may further expand and enrich our understanding of ethical discourse practices.

Embrace Dissensus

The everyday work of the writing class often leads us, teachers and students, into discussions of difficult, controversial, even painful topics. The readings we assign and the topics students write about may involve questions of race, gender, or sexuality. Classroom discussions may consider such issues as economic inequality, immigration, or gun violence. In the diverse classrooms in which we teach, we may find it difficult to achieve consensus on such controversies. Nor should we try. Instead, we might be better off embracing dissensus.

By dissensus, I mean the practice of encouraging diverse perspectives, making space to explore those perspectives, and acknowledging that reconciliation of incommensurable points of view may not be productive, or even possible. Insisting on the resolution of difficult or provocative topics, were we to do so, risks imposing a false sense of unanimity upon students who may hold fundamentally different views. More, it risks silencing minority perspectives by creating a rhetorical environment in which students in the minority feel pressured to go along with the views of the majority.

Dissensus, in contrast, acknowledges that conflicting positions may frustrate compromise and elude the search for common ground. And while consensus implies closure—the group having agreed to a position is now free to move on—dissensus speaks to continuing conversation, ongoing negotiation, and, perhaps, evolving points of view over time. Finally, dissensus makes clear that ethical discourse can thrive in conditions of agreement and disagreement, harmony and dissonance, unity and division. The ethical writer operates in all such contexts.

* I offer the strategies in this essay, modest as they may be, as a starting point, a beginning, an invitation for reflection.  Should these strategies serve as intended, they will provide students and teachers with occasions to work toward deeper, richer, more fully realized understandings of what it means to be an ethical speaker and writer in these unethical times.

John Duffy teaches at the University of Notre Dame, where he is the O’Malley Director of the University Writing Program. He has published on the ethics of writing, the rhetoric of disability, and the historical development of literacy in cross-cultural contexts. In his recent book, Provocations of Virtue: Rhetoric, Ethics, and the Teaching of Writinghe examines the ethical dimensions of teaching writing in a post-truth world.


Brookfield, Stephen D., and Stephen Preskill. 1999. Discussion as a Way of Teaching:       Tools and Techniques for Democratic Classrooms. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Duffy, John. 2019. Provocations of Virtue: Ethics, Rhetoric, and the Teaching of Writing.    Logan, UT: Utah State University Press.

Gage, John. 2005. “In Pursuit of Rhetorical Virtue.” Lore: 29–37

Hauser, Thomas. 1991. Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times. New York: Simon and     Schuster.

Mejia, Paula. 2014. “Sharpton, Captain Johnson Give Moving Speeches at Ferguson   Memorial for Michael Brown.” Newsweek, August 17,   2014.

Zagzebski, Linda Trinkaus. 2010. “Exemplarist Virtue Theory.” Metaphilosophy 41(1-2):  41–57.

[1] The strategies discussed in this essay are adapted from Duffy, 2019.


Author: darinljensen

I am a writer and a teacher who is interested in issues of class and social justice.

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