Expertise & ethics: An argument in 13 pieces

Jamie MacKinnon (jmackinnon@BANK-BANQUE-CANADA.CA)

Inkshed XVI ­ May 1999

1. I should introduce myself. I'm a writing consultant at the Bank of Canada in Ottawa. I'm interested in reading, writing, history and food, especially beer. I live in Ottawa, and was born and grew up in Guelph, a fifth-generation Canadian. I strongly support the idea of a wider body politic, which is implied when more people can understand, use, react against, and write themselves the documents of public life. This means that I'm interested in plain language, literacies, and citizenship, as well as learning and the notion of expertise.

2. Expertise should be self-critical; often it isn't. Take Plain Language. In its roughly 25-year history, the Plain Language movement has grown enormously. Successes include more widespread use of plain language in public documents, greater awareness of what plain language is and can do, and a growing body of how-to literature. Like many a 25-year old, Plain Language is in good health and focussed on action. It's relatively untroubled by doubt, self-scrutiny, or rhetorical theory. It's time, I believe, that it were.

3. Expertise should be able to keep at least two things in mind at the same time. Here are two.

Expertise doesn't know how to operationalize the first view. Expertise, even rhetorical expertise, often unwittingly implies or reflects the second view, often, considering the material, inappropriately.

4. Expertise can be a cult, and cult members can be cruel. I first started thinking about ethics and expertise when I read about the 1990 award for "Public Doublespeak," a "booby prize" given out by the Canadian Council of Teachers of English. The passage was taken from the Victoria Times Colonist and concerned the looming (at that time) GST and its application. My views:

5. Plain language is problematic. I'm not sure we can ever say that a given piece of discourse is "plain" or "not plain" language with any certainty. Even if we could agree on what plain language is, and then agree that a given document is, in fact, in plain language, is no guarantee of the document being ethical.

6. All stories, all narratives, carry an ethical burden. It can't be escaped. Plain language documents don't escape this burden by virtue of "plainness." Public documents constrain choice and incite action; the developers and disseminators of these documents must he held responsible.

7. Expertise often confounds is with ought. I've become a little leery about the presumption involved in telling (or advising) people what to do (this doesn't mean that I don't do it). I've seen a lot of consultants who blur, in their prescriptions, is and ought. By "is" I mean the knowledge base, ideology, forms of reasoning, etc. that constitute the ground from which they speak. By "ought" I mean the propositions, suggestions, recommendations, etc. that they put on the table.

8. The Web compounds the problem. Surf the web, look at sites dedicated to writing, language, document design, etc.; you'll be struck by how many of them are author-less. The same is true of many on-line writing labs, style guides, etc. No discernible author, and therefore no ethos, the "moral element in character." As Wayne Booth reminds us in The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction, when we have no sense of the author, when we have no sense of the subjectivity in discourse, we don't know "what kind of company [we're] keeping." As Donald McCloskey reminds us, the company we keep when we read is important; it affects us for good or bad, just as our mothers told us.

9. Deconstruction compounds the problem. The so-called "subject" has been on the retreat for much of this century. One tenet of deconstruction is that the thinking "subject" can't escape his or her own discursive practices, and therefore is imprinted by them, an object of them. Some academics have declared the thinking, acting subject, the "engine of liberty and freedom" in Enlightenment thinking, to be dead, "gone from history" (cf Diggins). And of course if the subject is dead, so is honest subjectivity. And ironically, so is "objectivity."

10. Despite what my mother told me, arguing is good. One way to ensure that language expertise has an ethical bearing is to abandon the (often tacit) view of public documents as, to use Chaim Perelman's terminology, "demonstrating." Perelman, you may remember, was a Belgian philosopher who, when asked to write a book on justice at the end of the Second World War, was struck by the limitations of formal reasoning. He read widely in the areas of ethics, politics and the law. He concluded that rhetoric, "conceived as a theory of persuasive discourse which stressed argument constituted the key for opening the door on values."

11. Opining, a kind of informal (or egoistic) arguing, is good. Opinionated writing, if you'll pardon the redundancy in that phrase, is a form of "knowledge in the making." The wonderful phrase is John Milton's: "Where there is much desire to learn, there . . . will be much arguing, much writing, many opinions; for opinion in good men is but knowledge in the making" (Areopagitica). We come to know what we know, often, by believing and opining first.

12. Experts are often cross-dressers. They tend to dress arguments in demonstrating clothes. It seems to me that where many public documents fail ­ and this is where ethical concerns come in -­ is in pretending to be demonstrations, when in fact they are arguments. For example, guidelines that masquerade as policy, suggestions that are called "rules," "findings" that pretend to absolute truth as opposed to reasoned interpretation, are all arguments dressed up as demonstrations. Teaching materials are, for the most part, arguments, and should plead, suggest, inveigle, make a case ­ but all too often, their structure and voice are of demonstrations.

13. On the other hand, treating many public documents as arguments helps (and only helps) to ensure that they're ethical, aimed at "producing mutual understandings and therefore . . . the basis for inquiry into shareable truths."

That's the end of my argument ­ fragments of an argument, really, as I'm still refining my thinking in this domain. I would very much value substantive feedback.

Expertise & ethics

Jamie MacKinnon

Inkshed XVI -- Mont Gabriel Québec -- May 1999

Suggestions for providing ethical expertise

1. Recognize that all discourse carries an ethical burden. Acknowledge the power inherent in and sought by language, as well as the unequal distribution of social and political power and language facility.

2. Make expertise humane. In designing a public document, ask yourself if what might be deemed to be a "demonstration" might better be thought of as an "argument." Don't be afraid to argue, plea, inveigle, exhort, opine, etc.

3. Acknowledge the problematic nature of language, style, structure, "plain-ness" etc. Admit to complexity.

4. Contextualize expertise. In working as an expert, tell your client what kind of expertise you're drawing on, its methods, assumptions and limitations.

5. Be prepared to question and advise on rhetorical and ethical concerns, not just the surface (style, format, etc.) of text.

6. Give expertise a human face. Introduce yourself; use I or We. In any document that may be read by an unknown or distant audience, say who you are, describe your office and/or capacity, and note any context that could help locate the writer, the kairos and the motivation of the document for a distant reader. In the text, don't be afraid to reflect a sense of subjectivity.

7. Define your audience explicitly. In documents that may be read by an unknown or distant audience, be explicit about the intended (or original, or ideal) audience.

8. Consider the ongoing relationship that the provision of expertise can establish. As St. Exupéry's Little Prince discovered, we are responsible for our roses.

The winner of the 1990 Public Doublespeak award, as reported (word for word and including the unclosed quotation marks and use of ellipsis) in the Canadian Council of Teachers of English Newsletter, Vol. 24, No. 3:

". . . unsalted peanuts are [GST] tax-exempt because they are in their original state. Salted peanuts are taxed at 13.5% because they have had salt added and are considered 'manufactured,' she said. . . . It will tax items like peanuts as snack foods at a seven-per-cent rate ­ except unsalted peanuts, which would be taxed at 'zero per cent' as a basic grocery because they could be used in cooking. Zero per cent is not the same as being tax exempt," Minogue explained. ("Nuts and bolts of GST explained with peanuts," Victoria Times Colonist, 14 June 1990: A2).

Perelman's Theory of the Rational and the Reasonable [after Golden et al]



Degree of certitude

Degree of certitude

mathematical model

immutable divine standards

a priori self-evident truths

natural law

legal reasoning model

contingent propositions

acceptability by audience

Criteria for evalating

decisions & arguments

Formal validity

logical coherence

conformity to precedents

equitable and fair

conformity to common sense

consistency with social beliefs & values

practical, relevant, social useful consequences



individual level

universal level

all social milieus

unresponsive to education, culture, experience & time

situational level

analogous circumstances

responsive to education, culture, experience & time

References and Further Reading

Andersen, Roger. The Power and the Word: Language, Power and Change. Paladin Grafton Books, London, 1988.

Booth, Wayne. The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction. University of California Press, Berkeley, 1998.

Coe, Richard. "Three Approaches to 'Plain Language': Better, Best, and Better than Nothing," in Proceedings, Just Language conference, 1992.

Diggins, John Patrick. The Rise and Fall of the American Left. Norton, 1992.

Gage, John T. "An Adequate Epistemology for Composition: Classical and Modern Perspectives." Essays on Classical Rhetoric and Modern Discourse, edited by Robert J. Conners, Lisa S. Ede and Andrea Lunsford. Southern Illinois University Press, Carbondale, Illinois, 1984, pp: 152-169.

Harris, Joseph. "The Idea of Community in the Study of Writing." College Composition and Communication, Vol. 40, No. 1 (Feb. 1989), pp: 11-22.

Henderson, Willie, Tony Dudley-Evans and Roger Backhouse (editors), Economics and Language. Routledge, 1993.

Katz, Steven B. "The Ethic of Expediency: Classical Rhetoric, Technology, and the Holocaust." College English, Vol. 54, number 3, March 1992, pp 255-275.

MacKinnon, Jamie. "Toward a Canadian Rhetoric." Textual Studies in Canada, Vol. 1, 1991, pp 65-76.

McCloskey, Donald. If You're So Smart: The Narrative of Economic Expertise. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1990.

McCloskey, Donald. The Rhetoric of Economics. University of Wisconsin Press, 1985.

Perelman, Chaim. "The New Rhetoric: A Theory of Practical Reasoning" and "Old and New Rhetoric," in The Rhetoric of Western Thought, fourth edition, Golden, James L., Goodwin F. Berquist and William E. Coleman. (eds.). Kendall / Hunt Publishing, Dubuque, Iowa, 1989.