The Question of Kenneth Burke's Ethics

Timothy W. Crusius, Southern Methodist University

I have a problem to pose and notes toward an approach to solving it. The problem is summed up in the title of this essay, the question of Kenneth Burke’s ethics. I don’t have in mind assessing the moral value of Burke’s life or achievement—an interesting issue, no doubt, but not my concern. What I mean is: Can we fashion an ethics inspired by Burke’s thought?

Let’s consider the nature of the problem in more detail.

The Problem

First, at one point in his career, Burke planned to write An Ethic of Motives. For reasons unknown, it never appeared. Furthermore, we can’t piece an ethics together from what he did write as William Rueckert has done with A Symbolic. Almost everything Burke wrote has ethical implications, but very little focuses on ethics as such. Whoever would write An Ethic of Motives must range far beyond what Burke said.

Second, unfortunately I don’t believe we’ll get much help by exploring ethical philosophy. It’s chaotic: too many schools of thought, each entertaining its own assumptions, advancing its own premises, and arriving therefore at conclusions incommensurate with each other. As part of my research for Kenneth Burke and the Conversation after Philosophy, I read extensively in ethics from Aristotle to John Rawls. I had hoped to locate Burke within the tradition. I couldn’t because I couldn’t make sense out of the tradition.

Third, another aspect of the situation is that much of what Burke did say about ethics isn’t going to help us very much. For example, in Permanence and Change, Burke claims that language is “loaded with judgments” and “intensely moral.” That’s important because it means that the scientific drive toward a language that suspends judgment only takes us away from ethics. It also means that the neutral ideal is not where people live. We don’t and can’t exist beyond good and evil. But one can hold that language is intensely moral and adhere to any ethics whatsoever. Similarly, Burke tells us later, in his definition of human being, that we are “moralized by the negative.” Again, it’s important to understand what moralized by the negative implies: that human being is ineluctably moral being, always already caught up in “shalt not’s”. To be human is to be moral. But also again, one can believe this and entertain any ethical position whatsoever. You just can’t make an ethics out of such statements. They and others like them provide good reasons to want an ethic of motives, but nothing that will help create one.

In sum, then, the situation provides unusual freedom. We have in Burke himself only hints about the project. Much of what he did say about ethics only affirms its centrality without committing us to anything more. Whereas typically scholars must hack their way through a vast and tangled undergrowth of past discourse, we can leave the machete at home. Not much has been written about a book Burke never wrote, and reading ethics may be edifying but there’s no edifice that requires renovation or demolition. In a sense ethics is as much “not there” as An Ethic of Motives.

So much freedom is always threatening. Even if you’re fond of Derridean absences, you find yourself wishing for more to work with. It’s almost like confronting a pristine canvas with only some tubes of paint and a brush and the injunction to create something wonderful. I have a few observations that should at least give us a sketch to work with.

Towards a Solution

“We began with a theory of comedy, applied to a treatise on human relations,” Burke said, describing the origins of A Grammar of Motives. In other words, the entire Motivorum project begins in ethics, “a treatise on human relations.” Ethics is not an afterthought, merely something else added to A Grammar, A Rhetoric, and A Symbolic. Rather, ethics is Burke’s first and most recurrent impulse. What we should want and not want, what we should do and avoid doing is Burke’s subject first to last. It begins with a theory of comedy because that theory is normative, a matter of “ought” and “should.” Such formulations as “moralized by the negative” are descriptive, claims about what is. As we’ve already seen, you can’t make an ethics out of descriptive statements. In contrast, comedy offers a vision of the desirable, what ought to be. It embodies an attitude, how we should approach human relations. Ethics is nothing if not normative, and so you can fashion an ethics out of comic norms. And what does Burke say in Attitudes Toward History, where his theory of comedy is first developed? “Whatever poetry may be, criticism had best be comic” (ATH, 107).

Let’s alter the terms and ponder the implications of this statement instead: Whatever morality may be, an ethics had best be comic.

The statement implies, obviously, that morality and ethics are not the same thing. Actually morality means what the Greek word ethos means, “custom, disposition, character.” That is, for the most part we don’t construct our morality. It’s always already there, ready to come into play as soon as encounter a situation where what we ought to do becomes an issue. Consequently, if someone offered to write a morality, we’d find the proposal odd. You don’t write a morality. You live it. It’s your custom, your disposition, your character.

Now, if morality is ethos, what is ethics? Traditionally the answer would be, a branch of philosophy that reflects on morality and attempts to make its assumptions and principles explicit, so as to render a coherent account of what is right and good (or valuable). But the problem is that, so conceived, an ethics is virtually impossible. Alasdair MacIntyre complains that

We are Platonic perfectionists in saluting gold medalists in the Olympics, utilitarians in applying the principle of triage to the wounded in war, Lockeans in affirming rights over property; Christians in idealizing charity, compassion, and equal moral worth; and followers of Kant and Mill in affirming personal autonomy. No wonder that intuitions conflict in moral philosophies. No wonder people feel confused.
For MacIntyre, a traditional ethicist, this ethical confusion is something ethical philosophy must confront and overcome. For Burke and those of us who follow him I think it is something else entirely.

MacIntyre is right: Our moral convictions are inconsistent. But they are not so primarily because we are confused. They are so because morality is always a response to a situation. If you abstract from the situations, of course what you’ll get are batches of inconsistent moral principles. But this is precisely what we Burkeans wouldn’t or shouldn’t do. What is language for us? Symbolic action. And what is symbolic action? “A strategy for encompassing a situation.” Our morality enters the picture both in sizing up some situations and in the strategies we adopt for encompassing those situations.

What does this mean for an ethic of motives? It means it won’t be a situational ethics, but rather an ethic of situations. It means that it won’t do what philosophy has almost always done, abstract from situations in a futile effort to discover what is really and always right and good. Morality is part of that rhetorical concern the Greeks called kairos, a timely and appropriate response to a particular situation that we will never encounter in all its particulars again. An ethic of motives simply won’t attempt to do what philosophy tries to do—render morality coherent.

You see, then, why I have largely abandoned the ethical tradition and why I have ceased trying to place Burke within it. For the most part an ethics of motives will be, as they used to say on Monte Python, something “completely different.” But how exactly different?

First and most importantly, it will be comic. Comedy supplies our goal, Burke’s ad bellum purificandum, “toward the purification of war.” We won’t be able to eliminate conflict in human relations, but our ethic must strive to limit conflict to words, verbal conflict. We know, then, what we want. Furthermore, we know a lot about how we’ll approach the moral confusion MacIntyre described so well. Instead of solemnly undertaking to eliminate it, we’ll take the comic route of “appreciating” it instead. We will smile or laugh at our own and everybody else’s inconsistency because we know that morality cannot be any more consistent than situations are.

Second, an ethic of motives will be critical in the sense of having a depth dimension. Because we know what we want, limiting conflict to words, we’ll want to expose and criticize moral convictions and values that lead to war. Sometimes the convictions and values are so obviously war-like that we’ll require no depth dimension. When our President proclaims a war on terror and formulates a policy inaccurately labeled “preemptive war,” who needs anything but the surface? However, some moral convictions and notions of the good are not so obviously connected with war-making. We valorize competition, for example, without realizing that often it means cut-throat exploitation of natural resources and people, resulting in destitution, alienation, resentment, and of course often armed resistance. No, as Burke taught us in so many ways, we cannot take morality and notions of the good at face value. Even something we may love, like great tragedy, requires us to examine the ethics of noble sacrifice, something promoted every Memorial Day.

Third, a Burkean ethics must be embodied. Why? Because we are symbol-using animals. No doubt we would have no morality without language, and certainly no moral principles, since language is required to state them. But if we are moralized by the negative, we remain bodies, animals, flesh and blood, and many of our moral convictions and values are incomprehensible apart from bodily existence. Yet most traditional philosophy has tried to approach ethics abstractly and formally, as if it were an exercise in pure reason alone. This tendency can be traced all the way to Plato. To see a well-developed alternative, pick up George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought (Basic Books, 1999). For ethics, see especially chapters 14 and 20. Of course, Burke’s philosophy was already philosophy in the flesh long before either Lakoff or Johnson were born. And we will have to go far beyond what Lakoff and Johnson have done. They are content to account for morality as metaphorical extensions of bodily needs. They miss all the ethical complications that arise solely from our symbol-engendered motivations. It takes language, as Burke pointed out, to hate as one’s enemy a people living thousands of miles away, whom we have never met and don’t understand. A Burkean ethics must be critical, especially of the motivations that arise from notions like “the American century.” I mention Lakoff and Johnson mainly to indicate that the way to an embodied ethics is now open to a degree it hasn’t been before.

Fourth, and last, an ethic of motives must be ecological in Burke’s extended sense of the term. Yes, Burke has in mind ecology in its usual meaning, preserving the planet. If this doesn’t happen, clearly we can anticipate the end of ethics because the symbol-using animal will cease to exist. Ecology and embodiment are as tightly related as comedy and criticism. But Burke also means by ecology resistance to any unbalanced conceptions and values that happen to exist in our curve of history. He emphasized himself our over-commitment to technological manipulation, but we could adduce many other instances of investment in ways and means that violate social and cultural “ecology.” In short, a Burkean ethics will be a more or less constant counter-statement, as Burke’s first book was. It will be an ethics of resistance.

To return to our original question: Can we create an ethic of motives inspired by Burke’s thought? Clearly, we can. But should we? What might we gain if we fleshed out an ethic of motives?

First, we could show that rhetoric and ethics are not fundamentally different, much less fundamentally at odds. They come together in kairos, the timely and appropriate, and in another Greek concept of great significance for both rhetoric and ethics, phronesis, roughly translated as “practical judgment.” Put another way, rhetoric and ethics are both arts, practical arts, with everything that “practical art” implies. They are not Philosophical, capital “P.” They are situational. They are discursive. They are men and women reasoning together to try to discover what is right and good in this particular case or set of circumstances. Asking questions like, “What is the Good?” may be pleasant prompts for discussion in a philosophy class, but they offer little guidance or help. That’s what I meant by saying that an ethic of motives must be an ethic of situations. It will be a situational ethics only in the sense that all moral judgments and acts are situated.

Second, instead of wasting time pursuing abstractions like the Right and the Good, we must flesh out, be as concrete and detailed as we can, about an ethics based on understanding ourselves as “symbol-using animals.” Let’s be clear about this. We are not angels. We are not even creatures of pure intellect, try as we might to reduce ourselves to disembodied minds. Nor are we complicated rats. Or blond beasts. We are ground apes, social animals, that first stood upright and then acquired language. We are totally dependent on our bodies, and our bodies are totally dependent on the relatively narrow range of environmental conditions required to sustain them. What, then, should we want? What should matter to us? Also: We not only use symbols—they use us. Burke’s motto might be a variation on something Thoreau said: “Symbols are in the saddle and they ride mankind.” What, then, should we want? What should matter to us? How can we come together in a comic society of plain Adams and Eves, flesh and blood, rather than be “goaded by the spirit of hierarchy” and “rotten with perfection”? If we can’t learn to recognize and control our symbol-driven motives, how can we be ethical?

It may sound overly grand and maybe even another symbolic delusion, but the world needs a Burkean ethics. We have to stop believing that it matters if my God is different from your God. Or even that it matters if you have no God at all. We have to stop believing that piles of dead bodies signify transcendent value. In short and in sum, Burkean ethics is about putting the skids on self-victimage. “We have met the enemy and they are us,” Pogo famously proclaimed, something a comic ethics must never forget. Can we meet ourselves as something other than the enemy? That’s the great challenge, the perpetually unrealized possibility, the frontier we’ll never run out of, the final end and purpose of ethics.

*Timothy W. Crusius is an associate professor of English at Southern Methodist University. His books includes Kenneth Burke and the Conversation after Philosophy, Discourse: A Critique and Synthesis of Major Theories, A Teacher's Introduction to Philosophical Hermeneutics, and The Aims of Argument: A Rhetoric and Reader, which he coauthored with Carolyn Channell. This essay was originally presented to the the Sixth Triennial Kenneth Burke Conference, Penn State University (State College), July 2005.

Works Cited

Burke, Kenneth. Attitudes Toward History. 3d edit. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.

---. A Grammar of Motives. 1945. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969.

---. Permanence and Change. 3d edit. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.

Crusius, Timothy W. Kenneth Burke and the Conversation after Philosophy. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1999.

Lakoff, George and Mark Johnson. Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought. New York: Basic Books, 1999.

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Question of Kenneth Burke's Ethics

I am especially interested in this essay because of three reasons:

Tim Crusius is one of the foremost interpreters of Burke's dramatism/logology. His book, KENNETH BURKE AND THE CONVERSATION AFTER PHILOSOPHY, is one of the most profound explanations, placements, and/or extensions of Burke's thought you will find. It rightly won for Tim a recent Burke Society Lifetime Achievement Award.

I heard Tim's panel presentation on this subject at Penn State in July, 2005, and participated in the three-day seminar he conducted on Burke and ethics at Duquesne in May, 1996. I was most impressed at each.

The inherently ethical dimension of all symbolic action is central to dramatism. This notion binds together the pentad/hexad, on the one hand, and the terms of the guilt-redemption cycle, on the other, in my view. The general, implicitly moral paradigm points toward, connotes, the explicitly moral pattern of action, especially via the concept of a valuable, beneficial purpose, a desideratum of some kind, implicitly ethical because invariably rule-governed.

Not all interpreters of Burke see things that way. I, however, regard that connection as inescapable. If language-use essentially carries such moral overtones, can temptations toward dramas of sin, sacrifice, and redemption ever be far removed from human relationships?

Not likely, Tim avers. He, though, like Burke, counsels a "purification of war," a studied application of the "comic" attitude that would limit inevitable conflicts to verbal combat alone.

A few highlights of this article I'd like to call attention to:

"Morality cannot be any more consistent than situations are," the author advises. If our ethically-laden discourse serves as an act in a scene, if it is, indeed, "symbolic ACTION," we cannot place Burke neatly into any abstract philosophical tradition in respect to ethical reasoning, Tim says. Such generalized rationalizations seek principles we can apply in all cases, not actually an attainable goal. That's a well-taken point, it seems to me. I would ask, however, for further explication of the difference between "situational ethics" and "an ethics of situation." Crusius prefers the latter phrasing, and abjures the former. I'm not sure I got the distinction.

I would also ask Tim, if there were a Q & A available, can a symbol-user with morally good intensions apply such standard dictums as the Golden Rule, the Double Commandment, and Kant's categorical imperative as useful rules of thumb in many situations, even though they won't necessarily serve in all contexts? I do recall the admonitory things Burke has said about maxims, and the elaborated maxims we call novels and plays, as expedient pieces of "equipment for living." I heard Trevor Melia, a noted Burke scholar himself, once say that we couldn't cross the street safely if it were not for stereotyping. Aren't very imperfect, irrationally dramatic as well as rationally "methodical" (P&C) human klutzes in need sometimes of general guidelines? Will they be effective at "thinking through" the complexities of every unique situation?

Of course, traditional maxims are situated to a degree. But only to a degree.

Another combination of warnings that struck me as exceptionally timely is the reminder that we humans are symbol-using ANIMALS, thoroughly dependent on our physical being and "the narrow range of environmental conditions required to sustain" that physical existence, with an urgent need to maintain an "ecological balance" between the transcendental and the material, the symbolic and the nonsymbolic, action and motion. Homo Loquax is so caught up today in the temptations to "Empire," as Burke has said in GM. The symbolic/entelectial motive is so pervasive, paramount, alluring, selective, and blinding, that we as a species seem heedless of the potentially catastrophic damage we're inflicting on the only viable home we will ever have in this universe.

And I like the framing of that industrial/military/social aggression Tim offers in this treatise, as he did also at State College: "Burkean ethics is about putting the skids on self-victimage." We think we're contending with the "other" both in shooting warfare and in commercial competition. In the long run---maybe not so long at this juncture---we're hurting ourselves.

"Can we meet ourselves as something other than the enemy? That's the great challenge," Crusius concludes. I think Burke himself was ambivalent about it all, if not overtly pessimistic. A vision of a colony on the moon for the well-to-do and who knows what miserable fate for the masses here on earth: It wasn't a pretty prophesy that Burke signed off with just before he left the parlor.