PhD Candidate
Rhetorics, Communication,
and Information Design

Clemson University


Value of Research Specialization

Our technologies are playing an increasing role in not merely enforcing moral, ideological, and legal codes —such was the role of traffic lights, stop signs, voting software, military drones, and so on— but instead are making moral, ideological, and legal decisions autonomously and with little or no human intervention, even when without the strict capacity to do so. This is compounded by the rapid development of autonomous vehicles. My research brings rhetorical theory to the discourse of cognitive science and artificial intelligence that has been lacking thus far, and shows that it is instrument to the creation of machines that can make truly moral decisions. Additionally, persuasion and persuadability are shown to be integral to any working theory of mind, and my research creates vital avenues for interdisciplinary research among scientists, rhetoricians, and philosophers.

Argument of Dissertation

My dissertation argues that both cognitive machines (CMs) of the past as well as those today, such as rapidly developing autonomous vehicles, are unable to make ethical decisions themselves, because foremost a moral agent must first be a rhetorical agent: capable of persuading and of being persuaded. This does not, however, indicate that CM's are devoid of ethical or rhetorical implications or activity; to the contrary, a large part of this dissertation focuses on the ways in which rhetorical tropes and figures, particularly analogies, inform both cognitive machines and ethical systems at large. However, the greater purpose of this research project is to develop a theoretical framework, heavily informed by media theory and philosophy of technology, and justified through prior analysis in the dissertation, that moves toward the possibility of rhetorethical machines that can act as both moral patients and moral agents alike.

Contribution of Dissertation

By approaching rhetoric as a material force that is vital to thought and communication, and by additionally positing it a requirement for more behavior, I can

  • Expand the practical function of rhetoric beyond the more classical role of analysis in the rhetorics of science
  • Develop the role of persuasion in the construction and design of ethical systems moral decisions
  • Clarify the need for future work in rhetoric as an active and necessary constituent of thought rather than a purely social phenomenon
  • Complicate the Aristotelian views of rhetoric and agency while neither negating or avoiding them
  • Advance the philosophy of mind, artificial intelligence, and rhetorical studies without alienating or otherwise exacerbating the hostility between disciplines

Relevance to Future Research

I have chosen a dissertation topic specifically designed to allow for publication in multiple disciplines, journals and formats that also fills an interdisciplinary niche that has of yet been underexplored. My dissertation will be added to and revised into book form to illuminate this avenue of scholarship. Additionally, the research I have done has prepared me to pursue a wide range of trajectories in scholarship, and my next major project will explore how artificial intelligence algorithms have altered our writing practices. Lastly, this research has driven me to understand the multitude of forces that compose social and physical reality, including but not limited to material entanglements, social construction, persuasive practice, political factors and literary influence, and I will continue to unravel this network of forces in future work.