Communicating Ethically
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Communicating Ethically

Character, Duties, Consequences, and Relationships

William Neher

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eBook - ePub

Communicating Ethically

Character, Duties, Consequences, and Relationships

William Neher

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About This Book

This thoroughly updated third edition of Communicating Ethically provides a broad introduction to the ethical nature of communication, bringing together classical and modern theories of ethical philosophy to address issues at play in specific careers and domains throughout the field.

By incorporating a simple framework for ethical reasoning, the reader will be able to develop their own understanding of the various criteria for making ethical judgments. Communicating Ethically applies ethical theories such as virtue ethics and dialogic ethics to contexts of interpersonal, organizational, political, and digital communication. This edition contains expanded coverage of contemporary and non-Western theories and contexts, including Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, social media and "fake news, " and concerns of inclusion and marginalization. Each chapter contains a Preview and Key Ideas sections, and the book contains a Glossary.

This book serves as core textbook for undergraduate courses in communication and media ethics, and can also serve as a supplemental resource for field-specific courses in Strategic Communication, Interpersonal Communication, and Public Relations.

Online resources for instructors include sample syllabi, sample assignments, and quiz questions. They are available at

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By an ethical issue we mean a case in which one can raise a question about whether a particular communication behavior is right or wrong. The question of whether something is right or wrong may seem like a loaded one. Who is to say whether what a person does is right or wrong for that person or that situation? We often feel that a person’s ethics or moral judgments are a matter of personal values and beliefs: can we really judge a person in such a case or, at least, judge their action?
The arguments made and the questions raised in this chapter suggest we often make these judgments. Our feeling the need to justify or rationalize what might seem questionable actions reveals a sense that we can give reasons for or against them. This book is about trying to answer these and similar questions. We feel that you can reason about and give arguments for or against behaviors that can be considered ethical or unethical. Over many years, philosophers, especially in the branch called ethics, have tried to develop systematic ways to reason about ethical issues.
This chapter presents the major standards introduced by ethicists for making such ethical judgments: questions of Character, a sense of Duty, Consequences, and Relationships.

Key Ideas

■ People are often faced with questions about ethics when communicating with others.
■ We make ethical judgments when we do communicate.
■ Criteria for making ethical judgments can be based on the following sets of principles:
□ One’s character or virtue
□ Duties
□ Consequences
□ Relationships.
■ Ethics deals with judgments about intentional actions that can be justified to self and others as right or wrong.
■ Ethical issues arise in all forms of personal and public communication.

Everyday Ethical Decisions

Susan, a senior student in the capstone class, presented her professors and classmates with this dilemma. She had been accepted into three graduate schools but hoped to attend the one that offered the best package of financial aid, assistantships, or stipends. Each school, she explained, required a student to commit or indicate an intention to attend that school before considering the financial aid package they could offer the student (this was her understanding of the communication she had from the graduate schools).
She said: “I feel that I have to commit myself and promise to attend all three under these circumstances, until I find out what kind of financial aid they are going to give me.”
Feeling a little concerned about the ethics of her communication with the universities, she asked for advice from friends, who generally supported her in her deception, most by saying that was “how the game is played.”
In the discussion, other students revealed that they had sometimes found themselves in similar situations and reassured Susan that they would mislead a prospective employer or graduate school in the same fashion. One student, Jonathon, reported that in a job interview he had communicated complete interest and dedication to that employer, without revealing he was really looking at several different offers. His reasoning was that one has to do that in order to protect oneself, to cover all the bases so as not to be caught without any offers or prospects.
Our discussions with students and colleagues concerning these situations reveal several different responses to the ethical issues they raise. Many students expressed the feeling that the graduate or law schools put students in an untenable situation by requiring commitment on the student’s part before committing financial aid on their part. Their point implies the question, “If you are not being treated fairly or ethically, is it all right to reciprocate with a deception on your part?”
Others maintained that these institutions are just institutions rather than real people with feelings—and that lying to them is not morally the same as lying to actual people. These institutions expect people will try to mislead them in these instances anyway, because, after all, “everybody does it.”
In this kind of situation, students recognize that outright lying to others is a breach of communication ethics, but they maintain that circumstances, and especially the need for self-protection, change the equation. This sort of lying or deception is not really wrong, or at least not too bad, because of the circumstance, the parties involved, or the justification that these are standard practices and expectations. Again, the assumption is that this is the way the game is played.
Another student, Michaela, seemed more concerned about the implications, however. “What about other students also wanting to go to the same graduate school and also needing financial aid?” she wondered. Would they be closed out or denied a spot, because Susan was essentially taking up three places instead of one? Michaela was exploring the issue of potential harm coming to others because of Susan’s communication of committing to all three schools. This concern is reminiscent of the response many people expressed when they learned of the admissions scandals involving wealthy or famous parents arranging falsified athletic admissions of their children into prestigious colleges, such as the University of Southern California or Yale. The admissions of these students implied the denial of admission to other students, given the restrictive admission standards at these schools.
Susan then admitted that another reason she was feeling uneasy about her actions was that the faculty adviser at one of the colleges seemed very excited about her attending that school. The adviser described the other students and the faculty she would be working with and even suggested people she could live with while settling in. It seems that this college became personal as an institution as a result of this kind of interaction.
Michaela and Susan were beginning to show how we reason about ethical issues. At first, students believed that Susan’s deception was victimless, except for the institution, which was not really a person. But Michaela’s contribution requires us to question that assumption. And Susan was pointing out that the lifeless institution itself did include some real people who may have real feelings.

Approaches to Reasoning about Communication Ethics

Susan’s dilemma, as well as the issue facing the student in the job interview, raises issues of communication ethics.
Let’s consider some of the perspectives one could take to thinking in a systematic way about the dilemma in Susan’s case.


First, one could argue that her decision about whether to mislead the graduate schools reflected her upbringing and character. Does one’s action, in a case such as this, indicate that a person has a certain kind of character, or does her acting this way in one case lead to behaving deceptively in later cases? One instructor tried to explore this question with the class by asking what kinds of commitments were more important than others. For example, if one student has become engaged to another, that represents a commitment. Could this commitment be taken as lightly as the one involving the graduate schools or the job offers? Certainly not! At least, that was the response of nearly everyone in the room.
This first approach to reasoning about ethics assumes a person with the right kind of character, one who possesses virtues such as honesty and truthfulness, will behave in an ethical way. The first kind of ethical system is based on the notion of character used in this sense, and is usually referred to as virtue ethics. This system may be the oldest of the ones we shall be considering and is linked, historically, with the oldest tradition of theories about human communication. Virtue ethics assumes that by practicing the right sort of virtues, one will have a guide to making ethical decisions. In addition, the system assumes that there may be competing virtues that apply to any single case, requiring that a virtuous person be able to balance the different virtues appropriately.


Second, one could argue that the moral or ethical thing to do is based on a set of rules that are universal. This system would hold that lying is always wrong, although there may be differences in how wrong a given lie might be, given certain circumstances. This system assumes that any sort of falsehood or lying is presumed wrong until proven otherwise. The great philosopher most often associated with this way of reasoning about ethics was the German thinker, Immanuel Kant. He held that any kind of lying, even for a good cause, such as to save an innocent person from a murderer, was always wrong. Ethics according to this view is based on a set of unchanging duties, which may be based on divine command, that is, based on religious precepts, or on human nature, or on the unalterable laws of reason and logic.
Because the ancient Greek word for duty was deon, this type of ethical reasoning is called deontological ethics. The question about Susan’s actions would be put in terms of whether or not her actions constituted a violation of a universal ethical rule or commandment. We should first determine whether or not in this particular case Susan had a duty to tell the exact truth to each graduate school. Did her misleading them constitute lying (deliberately saying something that one knows not to be true)? If lying is always wrong, then was Susan wrong in this case?


Third, one could argue that the question should revolve around what action results in the best outcome for the most people. This kind of system considers the outcome, the consequences of the behavior as the sole or at least major determining factor in the rightness or wrongness of an action. The most famous of the systems based on this sort of consequentialism is utilitarianism. This word, coined in the nineteenth century and associated with the British philosophers, Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, means that the utility, the usefulness, of an action determines whether it should be considered ethical or not. We should emphasize that usefulness here means specifically the greatest, beneficial usefulness for the greatest number of people.
Another form of the so-called consequentialism is concerned with whether or not the outcomes, the consequences, affect everyone involved equally. This system is based on the principle that everyone should be treated in the same way—it is therefore referred to as egalitarianism. Such an approach is concerned with living in a just society, and is concerned with social justice. A just society is based on the concept that members or citizens have accepted a social contract with other members or citizens based on the principles of social justice. If we were applying utilitarianism in Susan’s case, we would ask who was benefited by her communication. Obviously, she stood to gain by her action, but the question would be the total effect on other persons as well. Michaela’s question about other students wanting to be admitted to the same program seems relevant in this application. Similarly, the egalitarian viewpoint would seek to know whether others were less likely to receive equal consideration for admission or financial aid because of her action.


A fourth way of looking at these issues grows from a concern for human relationships. How are relationships between individuals affected by one’s communication behavior? It seems that Susan may have developed an interpersonal relationship with a person at one or more of the schools. Did the relational nature of this interaction bring with it certain ethical obligations or expectations? This sort of consideration is associated with dialogical ethics, which derive from one’s responsibilities to another human being when engaged in meaningful dialogue or communication with that other person.
In summary, the first fo...

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