The Moral Arc and Rhetorical Ploys

Josh Blackman has a post on the rhetorical use of the phrase, “moral arc,” which is often accompanied by an assertion that said arc “bends toward justice.” His two contentions are thus: 1) This phrase is being abused, taken from a religious context and put in a political one. As a result it is being bastardized in ways likely unforeseen by the originators. 2) What do you mean by justice or liberty? Quoting from Lincoln, Josh Blackman discusses how the word liberty and justice have taken on contrary meanings for different groups. He then concludes that, “Liberty is not self-defining. Nor is Justice. Do not presume that the end-game of our universe comports with your pre-conceived notions of morality. Such is the ultimate fatal conceit.”

Which reminds me of this fantastic video featuring Jonah Goldberg on the same topic.

Using the “wrong side of history” and referencing the “moral arc” which “bends towards justice” are rhetorical tricks which end debate before it starts. Similarly, we find rhetorical devices used to end debate when people “march for science.”

As Blackman points out, such phrases are often rife with conceit.

Aside from the conceit, which flows from the certainty that a policy prescription is demanded by the moral force underlying the cosmos and everything therein, this idyllic view of policy ends and means commits other errors of reasoning. As with the recent “March for Science,” these rhetorical conclusions confuse the descriptive for the prescriptive, the positive with the normative, and -failing to understand the roots of science, and the philosophy thereof- ignores entirely that gulf between their love of science and their love of a policy. The chasm of is/ought is a difficult one to leap on the assertions of “moral arcs,” “the right side of history,” or that science naturally demands a particular action.

And that is where the hubris fails us. Instead of making the argument to close the gap, many, particularly those of the progressive view, insist that their desired outcomes are demanded by science and morality. Unfortunately, the consequences of these enforced demands are frequently those of failed regimes, famines, displaced populations, and lost prosperity.  Perhaps, it would be better to see through the unsupported high-minded rhetorical conclusions and focus a bit more on the arguments to be made. No matter how noble the goals may be.

James Devereaux is an attorney, all views are his own. 

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.