Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Communication Studies

Committee Member

Dr. Steven B. Katz, Committee Chair

Committee Member

Dr. Charles Starkey

Committee Member

Dr. Jan Rune Holmevik

Committee Member

Dr. Pamela Mack


This work concerns the rhetorical and moral agency of machines, offering paths forward in machine ethics as well as problematizing the issue through the development and use of an interdisciplinary framework informed by rhetoric, philosophy of mind, media studies and historical narrative. I argue that cognitive machines of the past as well as those today, such as rapidly improving autonomous vehicles, are unable to make moral decisions themselves foremost because a moral agent must first be a rhetorical agent, capable of persuading and of being persuaded. I show that current machines, artificially intelligent or otherwise, and especially digital computers, are primarily concerned with control, whereas persuasive behavior requires an understanding of possibility. Further, this dissertation connects rhetorical agency and moral agency (what I call a rhetor-ethical constitution) by way of the Heraclitean notion of syllapsis ("grasping"), a mode of cognition that requires an agent to practice analysis and synthesis at once, cognizing the whole and its parts simultaneously. This argument does not, however, indicate that machines are devoid of ethical or rhetorical activity or future agency. To the contrary, the larger purpose of developing this theoretical framework is to provide avenues of research, exploration and experimentation in machine ethics and persuasion that have been overlooked or ignored thus far by adhering to restricted disciplinary programs; and, given the ontological nature of the ephemeral binary that drives digital computation, I show that at least in principle, computers share the syllaptic operating principle required for rhetor-ethical decisions and action.