Toward A Dramatistic Ethics

Kevin McClure and Julia Skwar, University of Rhode Island


This essay presents an initial response to the challenge that scholars begin to flesh-out the possibilities for a Dramatistic ethics. In turn we consider the status of ethics after the poststructural and linguistic turns and explore the potential in Burke's work as a response to the impasse that these turns have created for ethics. Next, we argue that a Dramatistic ethics begin as a mode of inquiry and advance pentadic analysis as a holistic framework for continuing ethical scholarship. Last, we provide a synoptic pentadic analysis of five ethical theories as suggestive points of critical entry.


The field of ethics has been particularly challenged by the linguistic and poststructural turns in the humanities and the social sciences.  Among the troubling challenges of poststructural thought for ethics are the decentering of the subject as the locus of meaning and action and the subversion of the metaphysical grounds of traditional ethical theories.  For some, the upshot of these challenges has led to a certain ethical malaise that involves the loss of shared moral standards and notions of the good, and a search for new grounds upon which to construct ethical theories. For others, the demise of ethics is viewed as a liberation that presents an opportunity for a variety of critical unmaskings.1

While Burkean scholars have long noted the centrality of ethics in Dramatism, both Smith and Crusius (The Question of) opine that scholars have collectively missed the potential in Burke’s work to develop a Dramatistic ethics and challenge Burkean scholars to begin to flesh-out the possibilities of a Dramatistic ethics. This essay presents a tentative response to these challenges by considering the possibilities that Dramatism offers in reconfiguring the field of ethics.  We begin with a review of the status of ethics after the linguistic and poststructural turns. Next, we consider the contribution that Dramatism offers theoretically to the contemporary conversation on ethics, including both the affinities and disparities of Burke’s thought with that of poststructuralism.  Building on that discussion, we argue that an initial Dramatistic ethics begins as a mode of inquiry. In an effort to further this initiative, we advance the pentad as a particularly apt critical method for engaging the ethical. A synoptic pentadic analysis that charts representative ethical thought follows.  The pentadic synopsis is intended to be suggestive of potential points of entry for a Dramatistic ethics of inquiry and to provoke alternative starting points.  Finally, we argue that dramatism invites a shift in the contemporary conversation on ethics toward a discussion of ethics as equipment for living that transcends both modernity’s universalizing impulses and poststructuralism’s deconstructive desires.

The Status of Ethics

A number of scholars have noted that by mid twentieth century Burke was already working through many of the problems posed by poststructuralism.2 While there are many challenges to a variety of disciplines, the two most problematic poststructural tenants for ethics are the rejection of ethics as a meta-discourse concerned with the search for a universal concept of the good, and the displacement of the autonomous Cartesian subject.3 

Burke is, in many ways, in-hand with poststructuralism regarding the problems associated with the poststructural distrust of the study of ethics as a meta-discourse concerned with finding the ethics.  However, perhaps because Burke spent 70 years working through a similar position of skepticism towards claims of truth, he moved beyond the strict detached relativism such a posture implies or, in its extreme, the Derridean silence it encourages. Crusius hints at this in his essay on the possibility of a Burkean ethics when he notes that a Burkean ethics will be both a “practical” ethics and simultaneously an “ethics of resistance” (The Question of).  Put another way, a Burkean ethics will encompass a poststructural skepticism in the spirit of its resistance against truth, certainty, and absolutism but it will also be a pragmatic ethics—as equipment for living.  Any endeavor to develop a Burkean ethics must recognize that Burke’s thought is skeptical but not “just” skeptical, in the sense that “just” skepticism or doubt interferes with praxis (Crusius, The Conversation After 29).  Burke’s move beyond skepticism underscores how a Dramatistic ethics is inclusive of poststructural thought.

Burke began in Counter-Statement with a skepticism that looks similar to Lyotard’s “incredulity toward metanarratives.”4 At this point in his career Burke noted that his work was situated toward using art and aesthetics as a counterpoint to the technologic and scientistic ideology of capitalism. To this end, the themes running through his earlier work encourage “doubt . . . [in] . . . certainties” and “ . . . advocat[ing] nothing, . . . but a return to inconclusiveness” (91).  He was wary of the “deceptive allurement of tradition” (105) and was using literature and art as a means to combat “the practical, the industrial, the mechanized [which are] so firmly entrenched” (113).  At this juncture we find a Burke who at his core values skepticism and aesthetics as a means for counteracting the hegemonic and ideological values of Western society – a Burke that is simpatico with current poststructural thought.

As Crusius points out, something happened to Burke’s ridged skepticism in the period between Counter-Statement and Attitudes Toward History (The Conversation After 31-32), and we contend that something really happened when Burke arrived at Dramatism in A Grammar of Motives.5 As Crusius notes, Burke mid-career “discards antinomian skepticism because he comes to see it as unlivable and ineffectual” in the sense that rigid skepticism is deconstructive and builds nothing – it denies the possibility of claims to truth that merit even temporary allegiance (The Conversation After 32). It is with the development of Dramatism that Burke gets ahead of current lines of thought.  By A Grammar of Motives, Burke makes the turn away from an inflexible skepticism and an unequivocal rejection of “Truth” toward the assertion that getting closer to “Truth” is possible (and not invaluable) if all perspectives on a given subject are viewed in concert: “insofar as one can encompass . . . opposition, seeing [a] situation anew in terms of it, one has dialectically arrived thus roundabout at knowledge” (367).

This dialectical treatment of perspectives is at the heart of Burke’s development of Dramatism and its corresponding pentadic method of analysis set out in A Grammar of Motives.  Burkean thought responds to the poststructural challenge of incredulity toward “Truth,” in its many forms, with a mode of inquiry that is contemplative and reflexive, yet active and engaged. Burke’s Dramatism offers a mode of inquiry that the study of ethics presently needs, since Dramatism is focused on human action, and “action implies the ethical, the human personality” (Burke, LASA 11).          

In Burke’s treatment of Dramatism the notion of ethics is critical – it is in the constant unraveling of human motives, the attempting-to-understand more perspectives in order to find the “strategic spots at which ambiguities necessarily arise” and it is in those ambiguities that human being can hope to get closer to the good (GM xviii).  Part of the good for Burke is to “understand our symbol-driving motivations better and through increased understanding achieve greater self-control” (Crusius, The Conversation After 3). Surely, Burke would not imagine replacing traditional ethics with yet another inflexible and stringent system. Rather, as Smith notes, Burke offers “a basic position toward ethics” instead (173), a position that finds value in critiquing and unraveling the motivations of traditional ethical theories without discarding any of them.

Dramatism also encompasses Burke’s view of reality, or his ontology, which is a pragmatic one based on the definition of human being as a “symbol-using, symbol-making, and symbol-misusing animal” (On Symbols 60). There are instances in Burke’s writing when he describes Dramatism as literal:

. . . man [/woman] is defined literally as an animal characterized by his [/her] special aptitude for ‘symbolic action,’ which is itself a literal term . . . And from there on, drama is employed, not as a metaphor  but as a fixed form that helps us discover what the implications of the terms “act” and “person” really are. Once we choose a generalized term for what people do, it is certainly . . .  literal to say that “people act.” (CS 448)

And in other instances, he concedes that, like any other system, it need not be taken as absolute:

I should make it clear [on Dramatism]: I am not pronouncing on the metaphysics of this . . . maybe we are but things in motion. I don’t have to haggle about that possibility. I need but point out that, whether or not we are just things in motion, we think of one another . . . as persons. And the difference between a thing and a person is that the one merely moves where the other acts. For the sake of the argument, I’m even willing to grant that the distinction between things moving and persons acting is but an illusion. All I would claim is that, illusion or not, the human race cannot possibly get along with itself on the basis of any other intuition. (LASA 53)

This is Burke’s distinct kind of ontology, it does not resemble traditional monistic ontologies in which the concept of reality or Being is understood as uniform, knowable and immutable.  Rather Burke’s Dramatistic ontology folds back in on itself, it uncoils language as language recoils back into it. Burke understands that human beings are bodies that use language, and are used by language. It is a pragmatic ontology that is grounded in the embodied use of language, which is to say that it can “move through language to a position on language, and in that sense beyond language” (Williams 217).  And, because ethics is tied up in symbol-use, this is the kind of ontology that allows ethics to exist and to be critiqued. Understood against the assertion that there is no ontological substructure, no basis for reality, and thus there exist no coherent subjects, Burke’s ontology affirms a foundation of reality (we are bodies that learn language) from which a coherent, albeit still linguistically-constructed, subject can exist – and one that can act ethically.

Dramatism can also work through the second challenge that poststructuralism poses for ethics: the decentering of a freely acting and autonomous subject. The self or subject that poststructuralism deconstructs is the Cartesian, sovereign, unitary subject, who is conscious, rational, and detached. After poststructuralism’s deconstruction of this subject, it is effectively “‘decentered’: no longer an agent of action in the world, but a function through which impersonal forces [texts] pass and intersect” (Waugh 5). People are constituted and conditioned by language, which is always situated, and which reproduces certain social structures that inscribe difference.  The poststructural move to decenter the Cartesian subject is one that often aims to respect Others. Yet, instead of creating space for both the self and the Other to exist, the deconstruction of the subject is a “death” of the self and the Other. In claiming that subjects are nothing more than the intersection of external textual forces —as Nelson explains, “the autonomy of language . . . belongs to language, not to those who use it” (169) —the ability of subjects to act (ethically or not) of their own will is thus wholly displaced. 

Burke’s Dramatistic view of language centers on action, and “action implies the ethical, the human personality” (LASA 11).  Language affords subjects (or, Burke’s word, agents) with the ability to act, and “[t]o say that action is motivated is to say that one is not (entirely) a victim of circumstances, but that one must make a choice” (GM 250). Action and choice are inextricably tied to judgments of good and bad, or right and wrong— for “when one talks of the will, one is necessarily in the field of the moral” (PC 136). Burke’s theory of Dramatism, in which the act contains ethical choice, is thus dependent on a subjective, conscious agent (Hassett 181). In order to understand how Burke allows for an ethical agent that has the ability to act and choose, while still accounting for the linguistically-constructed nature of agents, we look to his notion of language as embodied action.

For many poststructuralists there is “nothing outside the text” (Derrida 158). While Derrida’s declaration is not necessarily representative of all forms of poststructural thought, all too often poststructuralists follow Derrida and insist that there isnothing beyond texts, discourses, or the play of language or “nothing beyond the fetishes of the commodity – [in poststructuralism there are] no bodies” (McNally 6). Human experience is but the play of language and text, and the subject is but an illusion of determining discourses.

For Burke it does not follow that we are only language or that we are wholly controlled by it. We are symbol-using animals grounded in a realm of non-symbolic motion. As animals we are a part of that non-symbolic realm; as symbol-users, we separate ourselves from it. Utterances are spoken by and through a non-symbolic body, and it is this interplay of our linguistic abilities in the context of our bodies, or “central nervous systems” that makes us individual agents.

By learning language the human body, a composite creature, combines the realms of non-symbolic motion and symbolic action. The body thus provides a principle of individuation that is grounded in the centrality of the nervous system. But this separateness as a physiological organism is “transcended” by the peculiar collective social nature of human symbol systems. (cited in Blankenship, Pivotal Terms 147)

For Burke individual bodies can never disappear into a hyper-reality of texts. As Crusius points out, “the poststructural contention that an individual (a unique identity) cannot result from impersonal and universal forces must be an error” (The Conversation After 40). While the subject is certainly linguistically constructed, in Burke we are also in constant dialectical tension with the nonverbal realm.  It is this tension and the very human ability to separate ourselves from our sheer animalness through symbol use – through the negative — that creates or affords human agency. In The Rhetoric of Religion, Burke plays out a conversation between the Lord (TL) and Satan (S) about TL’s creation of humans, wherein Burke dramatically describes the uniquely human ability to choose or “deviate”:

TL . . . When I introduce words into my Creation, I shall really have let something loose. . . In dealing with ideas one at a time (or, as they will put it, discursively) they can do many things which can’t be done when, like us, all ideas are seen at once, and thus necessarily corrected by one another.
S . . . I see it! . . . By their symbolocity, they will be able to deviate! . . . and to that extent that will really be free . . . by the dramatistic nature of their terminology, they are in a sense ‘forced to be free,’ since they will think of themselves as persons, and the idea of personality implies the idea of action, and the ideas of both freedom and necessity are intrinsic to the idea of an act. (282-83)

While words can be acted onto us, the very nature of our ability to use words allows us to deviate from those words—recalcitrance.  Put another way, while we are “symbol-used” we are also “symbol-using” and thus able to make choices. Burke’s understanding of human language implies an active agent who is both empowered through language and limited by it.

In this way Burke allows for the possibility of the ethical whereas poststructuralism does not. Yet it should be underscored that Burke acknowledges that individual agents are also linguistically constructed by social and institutional forces. Sharing this notion with poststructuralism is one reason why Dramatism so adequately responds to that important insight. Indeed, for Burke “the so-called ‘I’ is . . . a unique combination of partially conflicting ‘corporate we’s’” (PC 264).  Burke’s agent is no bourgeois individual, unitary and fixed, rather she is an amalgamation of social and corporate forces acting on the agent and the agent’s particular embodied response to those forces in her own skin. Burke’s self is “polyvocal, both an inner dialogue of voices and a potential for dialogue with other individuals whose identity is also both collective and unique” (Crusius 41).

It is clear that Burke’s thought can help us move through the challenges poststructuralism poses for the study of ethics. As a scholar who for decades was working through many of the same problems that we are now dealing with, it seems as if Burke, while he recognizes many of the same basic “problems” of language and reason, provides a way through these challenges. In Burke’s pragmatic ontology, a critical dialogue about ethics can be grounded in a reality that understands language as metaphorical and thus always skeptical of “Truth” but not frozen in inaction and silence. In Burke’s view of language there exists an agent/a body—that can and does act, and that can resist becoming nothing but automata in a complex system of symbols at play. Burke’s view of language “privileges the human subject, not truth or knowledge” (Williams 217), and in doing so provides for the possibility of the ethical, although in a new and discounted form.

In the next section we shift our concerns from the theoretical grounds in Dramatism that provide the basis for constructing an ethics and toward suggestive points of entry for a Dramatistic ethics of inquiry. We do so by advancing the pentad as a particularly apt critical method for engaging the ethical and by employing the pentad in a synoptic analysis of representative ethical theories as an initial act of inquiry.  Given the brevity of a journal article and the expanse of a project on a Dramatistic ethics, our preliminary foray using the pentad as a meta-theoretical critical method provides a rich basis from which a number of critical departures can be generated.

The Pentad as a Meta-Theoretical Method6

Indeed a Dramatistic ethics that responds to poststructuralism will have to begin as a mode of inquiry. To this end, the study of ethics can benefit from what sociologist Zhao calls meta-study, or second-order analysis of the ethical theories and critiques within the discipline itself.  Zhao goes on to describe meta-study as the “remapping of . . . a changing discipline . . . if primary study is a long journey to an unfamiliar place, then meta-study involves frequent pauses for rest, identifying directions, revising travel plans, or even having second thoughts on the final destination” (381).

Overington notes that Burke’s pentad provides an ideal meta-methodological framework for studying “explanatory discourses” about human action, or theories about human action (133). In the pluralized dialectic operationalized via the pentad, Burke sought to displace the totalizing and authoritative privileging of any particular rhetorical construction or version of reality by seeking out “counter-statements” and “corrective rationalizations” to the dominant orientations.  Thus, any complete or well-rounded treatment of a subject needs to include the full panoply of discourses, representations, and orientations detailed in Burke’s discussion of the pentadic ratios because no one perspective is capable of being fully correct.  In symbolic action wo/men “seek vocabularies that will be faithful reflections of reality. To this end, they must develop vocabularies that are selections of reality. And, any selection of reality must . . . function as a deflection of reality” (GM 59). What is said is in dialectical tension with what is left out. For Burke, any chosen or selected terminology “necessarily directs the attention into some channels rather than others” (LASA 45), and the choice to direct attention to a particular channel is a motivated act. In order to tease out the motivations inherent in symbolic acts, Burke codifies them in the pentad, a five-pronged pattern that is apparent in “any rounded statement” about reality:

In any rounded statement about motives, you must have some word that names the act (names what took place in thought or deed), and another that names the scene (the background of the act, the situation in which it occurred); also, you must indicate what person or kind of person (agent) performed the act, what instruments he used (agency) and the purpose. (GM xv)

Burke points out that even the “primary philosophical languages . . . are to be distinguished by the fact that each school features a different one of the five terms” (127): realism is tied to act, materialism is tied to scene, idealism to agent, pragmatism to agency, and mysticism to purpose. While any statement about reality will be grounded in one of these philosophies or terms, many statements favor one term or a ratio of two terms over all others (i.e., scene-agent or agent-purpose). Pentadic analysis allows critics to ferret out the motives of symbolic acts (and tie these motives to a philosophic school or modes of thought). With “the pentad as a generating principle,” Burke contends that:

. . . we may extricate ourselves from these intricacies [of motive], by discovering the kinds of assertion which the different schools would exemplify in a hypothetical state of purity. Once this approach is established, problems are much less likely to conceal the underlying design of assertion, or may even serve to assist in the characterizing of a given philosophic work. (131)

While expressions of motives through “terministic screens” are unavoidable, Burke maintains that there are some uses of terminologies that are more representative of reality than others. Terminologies that feature one term or ratio as the “perspective of perspectives” and that suppress other terms or ratios in the pentad are less representative of reality, since any “rounded” or full statement features all five terms (PLF 89).  That is, terminologies arrive closer to reality as they move toward greater inclusiveness of all five terms by providing a greater circumference of perspectives.  In this way the pentad is an ideal method for “asses[ing] the degree to which discourse is open (or closed) to a range of reality orientations” (Anderson and Prelli 88). Because the pentad makes no authoritative claims “in the form of some final synthesis culminating in the truth” it shares an attitude with poststructuralism that reaches superior ends by approaching discourse from a multi-perspective position (73).

Poststructuralist discourses normally feature the agency of language as a “perspective of perspectives” and hence are more “closed” in their nature. Whereas Burke’s pentad, by way of the ratios borne of five perspectives, is a pluralized dialectic that:

. . . avoids a totalizing metaphysics insofar as no particular discourse is viewed as authoritative; rather, it is a ‘dialogue of many voices’ in both agreement and disagreement . . . In this sense, Burke’s pluralized dialectic seeks to cultivate openness to many perspectives with each perspective correcting the other. (McClure and Cabral 76)

Thus pentadic analysis is a particularly apt methodology for moving beyond incredulity toward conceptions of “the Good” and toward a better understanding what might be good in any particular case.

In what follows, then, we employ the pentad synoptically to chart an overview of representative ethical theories. In turn we consider Kantian ethics, classical utilitarianism, Marxist ethics, Aristotle’s virtue ethics, and Nietzsche’s individualist ethics. A pentadic meta-critique of ethical theories will make more apparent the extent to which those theories can be seen as orientations in a dialogue of many voices that constitute conceptions of the good.  While the depth and scope of our analysis is limited, it is suggestive of analyzes that could be conducted on the panoply of ethical theories with much greater depth. The analysis, then, functions as a representative heuristic that invites further inquiry and counter-statements. As we progress through the analysis a dominant term or ratio(s) is ferreted out of each theory illuminating the perspective by which each is motivated. Moving through a pentadic analysis of ethical positions allows for a fuller understanding of each perspective on ethics and offers a productive approach for moving forward with a Dramatistic ethics as a mode of inquiry.

Pentadic Analysis

Burke makes it clear that because morality is contained within the act, all ethical theories feature the act.  In A Grammar of Motives, while discussing the philosophical schools, he notes that “so far as our dramatistic terminology is concerned . . . the ethical requires the systematic featuring of act” (210). In his critique of Kantian duty theory Burke observes that “[E]thics builds its terminology around the problem of action” (LASA 436).  Thus, in the following analysis the act is the pentadic grounding on which all theories of traditional ethics are formulated; act as a term, then, will not be explicitly discussed, as it is the central term of any pentadic view of ethics. Accordingly, our pentadic overview of five ethical theories seeks to identify each theory’s featured ratio as motive grounding in the act of theorizing. While each theory features a distinct ratio, traditional and modern theories of ethics, especially those premised on the Cartesian subject, tend to consistently feature agent as a prominent perspective; therefore, it is also noteworthy that each of the following theories places the agent in either a primary or secondary position in its featured ratio. Put simply, these theories vary insofar as how they position the ethical subject or agent in relation to acts.

Aristotle’s virtue ethics, as it is explained in his Nicomachean Ethics, is grounded in an understanding of human agents as beings capable of developing characteristics– virtues—that lead to the agent engaging in ethical action. For Aristotle, the human good is viewed as “a soul in accordance with virtue” (Rosenstand 424). In order to become virtuous, people must engage in habitual practices that encourage development of the virtues early in life. These virtues are further developed later in life by participating in social practices that require virtue intrinsically. For Aristotle, then, ethical knowledge is not just rational knowledge accessible by studying texts. Rather ethical knowledge is gained through the agent’s active participation in civic practices that experientially encourage the development of culturally virtuous characteristics that improve society: “we learn by doing, for example, people become builders by building and lyre players by playing the lyre; so too we become just by doing just acts” (Chappell 78). Aristotle believed that acting virtuously not only moves society closer to perfection, but that human beings should strive to be virtuous or ethical because it leads to “human flourishing.” Pentadically, then, Aristotle’s virtue ethics features an agent-purpose ratio, wherein the agent, capable of virtue, develops virtuous characteristics in society in order to fulfill his or her purpose or end—flourishing or happiness.

Unlike Aristotle’s ethics, which recognizes that ethical choices made by virtuous people may vary according to the situation, Immanuel Kant’s deontology asserts that there exists one fundamental principle of morality on which all other moral duties are based—the categorical imperative: “Act only accordingly to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become universal law” (Kant 421). An action is thus conceived as ethical on the basis of its universal application. Johnson describes the means by which a rational agent arrives at the judgment of a course of action as moral or not moral.  First, formulate a maxim that enshrines your reason for acting as you propose. Second, recast that maxim as a universal law of nature governing all rational agents in these circumstances. Third, consider whether your maxim is even conceivable in a world governed by this law of nature. If it is, then, fourth, ask yourself whether you would, or could, rationally act on your maxim in such a world. If you can, then your action is morally permissible. From this brief explanation of Kantian ethics, the pentadic ratio can be charted. The goal or purpose of Kant’s ethics–establishing a rational universalization of moral maxims–necessarily deemphasizes the scenic nature of ethical matters while featuring the purpose of universalizing. While purpose is the dominant term, the agent is featured secondarily, creating a purpose-agent ratio. The agent is a rational subject able to decide whether or not a certain course of action is ethical based on the universal application of reason.

Conversely, classical utilitarianism, an ethical framework popularized by Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, views actions as right or ethical in terms of the utility of the consequences it produces (Irwin 364-66).  In utilitarian ethics, “the ultimate value is happiness or pleasure . . . what is good is pleasurable, and what is bad is painful . . . hedonism (pleasure seeking) is the basis for [utilitarian] moral theory” (Rosenstand 216). As a normative and consequentialist theory, utilitarianism mathematically calculates the likely consequences of human actions by numerically ascribing conceptions of intensity, duration, certainty, remoteness, fecundity, purity, and calculating the extent to which an act will produce pleasure or pain. As long as an action is likely to produce more pleasure than pain for the individual or the community, it is deemed as right action. Utilitarianism thus seeks to end the accumulation of misery by compensating for it with pleasure. Many of these calculations are aimed at eliminating “bad” laws that were a concern in the early nineteenth century: if a law causes more misery than pleasure, it should be eliminated. Thus, utilitarianism posits that moral value of an action should be determined instrumentally.

The ethical act, while implied in any theory of ethics, plays a relatively insignificant role in utilitarian ethics. Act is featured insofar as utilitarianism attempts to calculate good acts, but the act is seen as relative to the ends it produces by way of mathematical calculation. Thus, agency, understood here as the means by which ethical action is achieved, suggests that agency is the featured term. The agent is presented as calculating and autonomous, and important to the extent that it is the agent’s rationality that determines or calculates ethical actions. Agent is subsumed beneath agency or instrumentality. Thus, utilitarianism is understood as an explanation of good action that features agency (as instrumental) as the dominant term, with the rational agent as secondary. Agency-agent is the likely dominant ratio here.

Marxist ethics, however, is largely a critique of the naive “bourgeois mentality” of Bentham’s ethics (Wood 147). Marx holds that an ideal or ethical society is one in which all human agents are endowed with the right to live sustainably, not necessarily pleasurably. For Marx, “to receive according to need, and to give according to ability” (Rosenstand 323) is the basic foundation for a good and ethical life. Based on a critique of the capitalist state, Marxism equates value or justness with material needs being met by social systems (i.e., governments) so that people might engage in meaningful work without suffering and struggling in a system of labor that values profitability over the sustainability of human life (Wood). Marx asserts that the oppressed social classes must rise up against oppressive governments and create this more just social system.

Agents for Marx are important; in order for the ideal social system to exist, agents, willing to improve their own situations, are assumed. But the character of agents in Marxism are derived from human consciousness across historical periods by the material conditions of the prevailing time. Burke calls the Marxist treatment of conditions (scene) as “dazzlingly concrete” (GM 200). Human consciousness, goodness, and contentedness are products of the material conditions of agents. Thus, Marxism can be said to feature scene in relationship with the agent, resulting in the featuring of a scene-agent ratio. The agent is grounded and controlled by the capitalist scene, which is also the ground for agents creating a more just society.

Friedrich Nietzsche expressed similar concerns with modern society. It is difficult to locate a secure launching point for an analysis of Nietzschean ethics. Because Nietzsche contends that “the voluntary is absolutely lacking, everything is instinct” (251), his ethical philosophy does not square with traditional ethical theories that center on a conception of agents as rational and autonomous. While Nietzsche’s concept of the “will to power” values an agent who strives to master his or her environment, he also recognizes that  the agent “continually encounters similar efforts on the part of other [wills] and ends by coming to an arrangement (‘union’) with those of them that are sufficiently related to it: thus they conspire together for power” (340).  We can find an ethics, though, in the characteristics Nietzsche believes constitute an excellent person, which centers on agents who disengage from public life, who pursue a creative project in solitude, and who deal with others only instrumentally. He encourages “gifted” agents or Ubermensch (such as himself) to “reject the herd mentality of the majority [so that] the individual can reach an authentic set of values for himself” (Rosenstand 480). While there is a stark contrast here to Aristotle’s virtue ethics, there are also underlying similarities in that both thinkers put forth the idea that the potential for goodness lies in the character of an agent. For Nietzsche the ideal agent is one who can resist power and affirm his or her own life unconditionally (his concept of a “Dionysian” life) and go beyond good and evil in a state of nature. Nietzsche’s novel brand of virtue ethics, then, heavily features the agent–but the agent is limited to one that is aloof, solitary, creative and standing alone and in a natural state; goodness is not transcendental, tied to any religion or mystic scheme, but occurring in the agent. Here, the dominant ratio is likely agent-scene, with the scene conceived as the location where human beings are apart from society in a return to a state of nature.

We believe that the synoptic pentadic mapping of these five ethical theories’ ratios offers a good starting point for a conversation about ethical scholarship in general. Ethics can no longer prescribe unilateral, monistic frameworks for ethical action. The postmodern critique is valuable insofar as it demonstrates that monistic/modernist theories cannot work in a globalized, diverse, linguistically-constructed and constrained world. Instead of discarding theories though, Burke would have those theories act in dialogue with each other, “in co-operative competition,” creating a dialectic that when “properly developed can lead to views transcending the limitations of each” (CS 188). The aim here is to find what reality orientations (the ratios) of theories of ethics so that we might better understand them singularly and, more importantly, in relationship to one another.

Each of these five theories position the agent as either primary or secondary in their controlling ratios: Aristotle’s virtue ethics features an agent-purpose ratio wherein agents develop themselves to reach the teleos of human being—a good life; Kant features a purpose-agent ratio wherein the goal or purpose of universalizability limits the agent’s ability to make ethical choices; utilitarianism features an agency-agent role where the process of means-end calculation serves as the agency by which rational agents decide on ethicality; Marxism features a scene-agent ratio, where the scenic conditions of bourgeois capitalist society are the grounds on which a better life must be forged by agents;  and Nietzsche articulates a radical brand of virtue ethics featuring an agent-scene ratio, where the agent, separate from society in a scene of nature, forges his or her own good life.  Poststructuralism, however, challenges the featuring of the agent by doing away with the agent all together, arguing that the agent is wholly constructed by the agency of language (as is ethics itself). This killing off of the agent, though, is also problematic.

Yet, the pushback on the part of poststructural thought is grounded in a valuable critique of monism; any approach toward ethics must avoid a unilateral foundation. It is argued here that Burke’s approach—a dialogue of many voices, a perspectivism that is pluralistic while it avoids relativism—offers a position that goes beyond an absolute denial of the agent. In applying Burke’s method of pentadic analysis to ethical theories, the critic avoids any claim to absolute ethical “Truth,” while striving to open closed discourses by pointing out the terministic screens by which ethical discourses are formed. In viewing all ethical frameworks pentadically, a Burkean approach will find ways in which some of these theories are more apt as frameworks for application in any particular case than others. A pentadic approach will also help ethics as a field of study find points of ambiguity in its theories, allowing opportunities for correcting or amending theories that tend toward totalization. A Dramatistic ethics as inquiry offers a constructive avenue after the deconstruction of modern ethical theories. 


This essay presents a tentative response to the challenge that scholars begin to flesh-out the possibilities for a Dramatistic ethics.  In turn we considered the status of ethics in the context of poststructuralism and explored the potential in Burke’s work as a response to the impasse that poststructuralism has created for ethics. Next, we argued that a Dramatistic ethics begin as a mode of inquiry and advanced pentadic analysis as a holistic framework for continuing ethical philosophy and for beginning to flesh-out the possibilities for a Dramatistic ethics of inquiry. Lastly, we provided a brief synoptic pentadic analysis of five ethical theories as suggestive points of critical entry. The challenge of constructing a Dramatistic ethics is broad and deep, so we see this study as a preliminary and tentative response to that challenge.  While the depth and scope of our analysis is limited, it is intended to be suggestive of analyzes that could be conducted on the panoply of ethical theories. Thus, our analysis also functions as a representative heuristic that invites further inquiry and counter-statements.

Future research might expand the inquiry on the theories pentadically considered here or explore more contemporary theories of ethics such as Emanuel Levinas. Alternatively, in response to the meta-study offered here, future research might focus instead on a pentadic analysis of social-ethical problems. In any case, the utility for Burke’s theory of Dramatism and his method of pentadic analysis for ethical studies is clear.


1. Among these are: Albrecht; Chappell; Cornell; MacIntyre, After Virtue and “The Claims”; Madison and Fairbairn; Mason; Racevskis; and Vattimo.
2. See Brock; Crusius, The Conversation After; Bentz and Kenny; Wess, Kenneth Burke; Hassett; and Southwell.
3. For examples see Arenson; Bauman; Comas; Cornell; Hoffmann and Hornung; Jarvis; MacIntyre, After Virtue and “The Claims”; and Madison and Fairbairn.
4. Lyotard essentially defined the postmodern condition as an “incredulity” toward the definitive narratives of modernity. Burke shared this insight and it informed his construction of Dramatism. See Crusius, The Conversation After 62-63; Weiser; and Wess, Kenneth Burke 62-63.
5. For an excellent analysis of the shift in Burke’s thought leading up to A Grammar of Motives, see Weiser.
6. There are numerous exemplary critical studies that employ and discuss Burke’s pentad, among these are: Anderson and Prelli; Birdsell; Blankenship, Murphy, and Rossenwasser; Blankenship, Fine, and Davis; Brummett; Conrad; Fergusson; Fisher; Hamlin and Nichols; King; Ling; Overington; Signorile; Tonn, Endress, and Diamond; and Wess, “Pentadic Terms.”

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