All Commentary
Tuesday, August 1, 1995

The Ethics of Rhetoric

The Logic of Political Rhetoric Must Be Animated by First Principles

Dr. Livingston is Vice President and Director of Freeman Services at the Foundation for Economic Education.

In The Ethics of Rhetoric, Richard Weaver identifies two criteria that define the ethical boundaries of political discourse. First, rhetoric should be grounded in sound logic with argument’s “high speculation about nature” provided by clear thinking and experience. Second, rhetoric should move people toward the good when knowledge of the truth alone is inadequate for rightly affecting human action.

Judged by these standards, political discussion has become, for the most part, ignoble. During recent election campaigns, it was rare to find candidates willing to honestly examine alternatives using cause-and-effect reasoning. Vote-seeking competitors, some intentionally and others out of ignorance, obfuscated issues by praising causes while condemning effects, applauding consequences while repudiating means, and affirming ideas while denying corollaries.

When the ideal of democracy was being refined in the eighteenth century, election campaigns were viewed as events to educate the masses. A full discussion of contrary policies would enlighten even the most uninterested among us. Politicians now view educating electors as risky business. After all, the opposition’s argument might be found compelling. To apply the faculty of reason requires understanding; to experience emotion does not.

And so, it is to the emotions that appeals are now made. Campaigns are designed to inspire blind faith and affection in candidates portrayed as noble, and to stir feelings of indignation and hatred toward opponents said to be evil. This is base rhetoric because it blocks the intellectual independence and understanding of constituents; competing arguments are rejected solely because rhetoric’s will is impeded “and in the last analysis it knows only its will.”

Rhetoric was, in its inception, a mainstay of constitutional order. When the Greeks first wrote about it in the middle of the fifth century B.C., their manuals were used by exiles from Sicily, whose property had been confiscated by the tyrants. Following their return to Sicily after the tyrants’ expulsion, they used this knowledge in courts of law to obtain restitution for their losses. As the century came to a close, a terrible truth about rhetoric was revealed in Athens: when political discourse abandons principle, the decline of a republic can be frighteningly rapid. When Pericles delivered his famous funeral oration describing the Athenian ideal and its contrast with Spartan totalitarianism, Greece was at the zenith of her material and intellectual powers. Socrates was in his forties, Sophocles was still writing, and Hippocrates was practicing medicine and teaching many others this developing science. A mere 50 years later, democracy in Athens destroyed itself when unbounded rule by the Athenian Assembly replaced the rule of law. The world’s first democracy became a tyranny when unprincipled legislation forced individuals to obey the capricious will of a popular majority.

Full Circle

America’s architects of freedom were deeply offended by the thought that a prince’s pleasure could have the force of law. Although Americans are still repulsed by this idea, we have traveled full circle. We expelled the monarch from his palace, but we replaced him with an aggressive legislative body, whose pursuit of political ends is only periodically disrupted. We are now citizens for a day and then subjects for the intervening years that separate elections. For all practical purposes, Washington’s elected elite is America’s sovereign power. They possess vast legislative authority, and they establish arbitrary rules of behavior for their constituents while applying special rules to themselves. Their legislative acts neither command nor deserve respect beyond that procured by force; law has become the means by which the few exploit the many.

Many are now rejoicing about the recent “sea change” in Congress. “Good” newcomers are said to have replaced “bad” incumbents. More astute observers know that any changing of the guard in Washington is analogous to a barbarian invasion. Newly elected officials, and incumbents who have gained influence, can be found in the corridors of power displaying pride and wonderment about how to legislate benefits for themselves and their constituents. Politics is primarily a struggle to command, with the spoils going to those who are willing to say and do anything to achieve their ends.

If political rhetoric is to be a guiding light for legislative action to renew our republic, its logic must be animated by “first principles” identified by the philosophers of freedom–David Hume, John Locke, Montesquieu, and Adam Smith. Their central lesson is that the judgments of unbridled democratic majorities are as flawed as the dictates of tyrants; government can only be good if it is limited. Without a “belief in things higher than democracy,” including individual liberty, the rule of law and private property, our fate is inextricably linked to that of ancient Athens. As nations move along the slippery path toward totalitarian democracy, liberty is extinguished by governments that inevitably become absolute.