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Writing Well

Take the High Road: Appeal to Ethics

Ethics is our moral sense, our sense of right and wrong.

The credibility and persuasiveness of your claims is in direct proportion to your reader's view of you as a person of good sense, good moral character, and good intentions—your ethics. Your trustworthiness arises from the quality of your proof and your ability to take the high ground. Cheap shots weaken your argument, especially if they intentionally deceive your audience.

The following argument is especially strong not only because it draws on solid examples and ethics, but also because the writer is not afraid to admit his own culpability.

The Blame Game

  • “Yes, I did it, but it wasn't my fault.” Yes, it was your fault. Today, it has become common to disavow our actions. This practice is used in many situations, such as the Menendez brothers' defense, Joel Rifkin's defense, and my own defense. It is time for everyone to accept responsibility for their actions and deal with the consequences.
  • On the night of August 20, 1989, the Menendez brothers, 21-year-old Lyle and 18-year-old Erik, brutally murdered their parents by shooting them 15 times with a 12-gauge shotgun. The brothers claimed that their parents, Jose and Kitty, abused them physically, mentally, and sexually. When Jose and Kitty were gunned down, they were quietly watching television. To be acquitted of the murders, the Menendez brothers had to prove that their lives were in imminent danger. I cannot understand how they could claim this, but Laurie Levenson, a former prosecutor, said, “It was probably their only defense.” The trial lasted five months. When it was over, the brothers were acquitted of murder. By denying responsibility for their actions, the Menendez brothers were able to get away with murder.
  • Another example of denying responsibility is Joel Rifkin's defense. Accused of strangling 17 women, Rifkin failed in his first attempt to be exonerated. On June 8, 1994, Rifkin was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison. But as the saying goes, if at first you don't succeed, try, try again. For his next trial, Rifkin tried a variation of the insanity defense called the “adopted child syndrome.” Rifkin's lawyer, Martin Efman, argued that the trauma of being separated from his mother led Joel to strike back at women he identified with her. Dr. David Bordzinsky, a professor of law at Rutgers University, called the defense “a bunch of malarkey.” Fortunately, the jury agreed.
  • People don't have to be murderers to deny responsibility for their actions. On July 30, I was driving to Cleveland, Ohio, when a police officer pulled me over and informed me that I was driving 70 miles per hour in a 55 mile per hour zone. He then issued me a summons for speeding. Even though I knew I was speeding, I wouldn't admit it. On October 9, I went to the Mt. Olive Municipal Court in an attempt to shirk my guilt. However, I was convicted and fined $100.
  • It doesn't matter if people succeed in escaping responsibility for something they have done. The fact that they tried to escape responsibility is wrong. Until we realize this, I think we are likely to see more cases similar to those of the Menendez brothers, Joel Rifkin—and me.
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Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Writing Well © 2000 by Laurie Rozakis, Ph.D.. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order this book direct from the publisher, visit the Penguin USA website or call 1-800-253-6476. You can also purchase this book at Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.


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