Tag Archives: social sciences

The Melioristic Bias

President Obama signing the Affordable Care Act in 2010
 President Obama signing the Affordable Care Act in 2010

The melioristic perspective is a useful indicator of how an individual has constituted the future and their role in it.

When most people use the term “rhetoric,” they usually mean it as the name for a verbal facade: an artificial construction far removed from what a person actually thinks.  But a University of Chicago thinker a generation ago made a convincing case that our rhetoric tends to have its own unique “signature.”  Our words, he noted, always “mark” us.

Richard Weaver
         Richard Weaver

Richard Weaver never demonstrated his point more convincingly than in his observation that the sciences have a “melioristic bias.”1  His idea was that those working in the social sciences have faith in their abilities to find solutions to human problems that will make things better.  That’s the essence of the bias: a conviction that human institutions tend to evolve rather than devolve.  His point was that our scientific discourse reveals how much we operate on the underlying assumption that we can ameliorate social dislocations.  From this perspective, a program like Social Security is an answer to the once chronic problem of old-age poverty.  It’s the result of the kind of progressive lawmaking in the mid-1930s that many of us still admire.

Here’s the interesting thing about the melioristic bias. Operating on the assumption of the transformative power of institutions is what gives political progressivism its energy. Challenging social conditions are seen as opportunities for fixes, reforms and new policies that can further the cause of social justice.  This belief is the core catechism of American liberalism.

Weaver became an important figure in the evolution of conservative thought in the 1960s.  It seems clear from his work that he viewed the “true” political conservative as someone who is more willing to accept certain human tendencies as givens and less amenable to bureaucratic fixes.  In simple terms, societies are not going to be significantly transformed for the better simply by using the rhetoric and machinery of social change, which ask for more than it is in the nature of institutions to deliver.

This belief in the need to recognize certain “essences” of human nature was central to Weaver’s view.  From his perspective the rhetoric of change and the realities of change are two different things.  We may idealize a solution—increased access to medical care in the Affordable Care Act, for example—but the actual organizational response to a given social issue is always going to be problematic. A conservative usually can’t imagine so complex a piece of organizational planning as likely to be effective.

This skeptical stance is representative of a baseline view that puts greater faith in individual human agency rather than bureaucratic power, a difference that explains the “government-is- the-problem-not-the solution” logic that thrived in the Reagan years and survives in the current Republican Congress.  Somehow massive corporations are mostly seen as immune to the same problems.

Of course this simplified view of the world overlooks how individuals can be dispersed along the continuum that separates these polar opposites. Nonetheless, it remains a useful kind of insight to look for the melioristic perspective as a sign of how an individual has constituted the future and their role in it. See the world as a place of eminently doable reforms–still my view, even though its picked up some dings over the years–and you have a reasonable indicator of a political liberal. In contrast, identify someone who sees progress largely through individual rather than organizational initiatives, and you have probably discovered a classical conservative. Either way, the bias is easily discovered when a person’s rhetoric drifts toward consequential topics.

1Richard Weaver, The Ethics of Rhetoric (Chicago: Gateway, 1953), 194-200.


Comments: Woodward@tcnj.edu

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“Mere?” Not so Much.

 Individuals who flatter themselves by being about “action” must ultimately face the undeniable fact that survival in American life depends on the water of communication.  What we say matters. A lot. 

In parched California, getting caught watering the sidewalk rather than a patch of grass is likely to annoy neighbors.  And a clueless homeowner’s response that what is involved is “merely” water won’t help.  Everyone understands  what’s at stake.  Water makes life possible.

My incredulity matches those neighbors when I hear someone dismiss another’s comments by noting that those expressions are “mere rhetoric.”  In my field this is the professional equivalent of a thumb in the eye.  I’ll give the phrase it’s due; it hangs around our public discussion like mosquitoes in a Michigan summer.  But it’s a misguided thought.

We use the “mere” put-down to devalue someone’s words, usually on the mistaken assumption that we have other means for understanding each other.  In the usual form, the preferred reality is to preference “deeds” over words.  And that is sometimes the case.  For example, we generally expect that people will act on their stated intentions: that their behavior matters. But even in such cases we are also interested in making conclusions about character based on spoken promises.  Individuals who flatter themselves by being about “action” must ultimately face the undeniable fact that survival in American life depends on the water of communication.  What we say matters.  A lot.

The “mere rhetoric” mistake is often spoken by reporters and politicians, the very folks who most need to acknowledge the debt they owe to the fluency of others.  Their fuzzy thinking sometimes comes with a statement such as this:  “For the moment let’s set aside all the rhetoric about this subject and get to the point about what’s at stake.”  This supposed set-aside is then followed by. . . well. . . more language. Staring at each other in complete silence isn’t much of an option. Not understanding our debt to words shows the same kind of lack of self awareness that allows someone to worry about the government “taking over” Medicare.

Over the centuries thinkers have wondered if there isn’t a better cure to misunderstanding than via verbal pathways.  Most have usually ended up with a synthetic symbol system that mimics mathematics.  No one ever misunderstands what “2” means.  And we don’t think others are hurling abuse in our direction if they talk about a “dozen.”  Mathematical language has the virtue and liability of being completely stipulative.

Football on television is functionally as much about the announcing as the action on the field.  Try watching an entire game without the sound.

But our expressive needs require more.  We revel in rhetoric that is loaded, judgmental, evocative and sometimes rude.  We seek out people who use beautiful constructions that engross and engage.  And this isn’t just in the realms of the novel or poetry. Football on television is functionally as much about the announcing as the action on the field.  Try watching an entire game without the sound.  Similarly, a judgment in the form of a letter grade often matters more to a student than their actual work.  And parents rejoice when their young children begin to pass through the threshold of literacy.

To be sure, we are theoretically capable of stepping back from the rhetorical world.  But the requirements are harsh and, for most of us, not very welcoming.  Lock yourself away in a silent place.  Don’t talk. Don’t listen to others.  And try to control the verbal chatter of a rhetorical mind that can probably run circles around  even your most loquacious relative.  It’s not fun to be denied the gifts of utterance.

The scholar Kenneth Burke reminded us that “Language is equipment for living.”  We are toilers and pleasure seekers in the information age, often allowing our bodies to wither while our heads surf through endless waves of verbiage.  Even social scientists who pride themselves on being rigorous empiricists usually end up studying verbal behavior most of the time.  As for the neuroscientists who often use brain scans to seek the origins of our actions?  Well, that’s mere neuroscience.  The human mind is more than the organ of the brain.  It’s the source and signature of our verbally constructed selves.