Practicing Communication Ethics
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Practicing Communication Ethics

Development, Discernment, and Decision Making

Paula S. Tompkins

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eBook - ePub

Practicing Communication Ethics

Development, Discernment, and Decision Making

Paula S. Tompkins

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About This Book

Practicing Communication Ethics: Development, Discernment, and Decision Making presents a theoretical framework for developing a personal standard of ethics that can be applied in everyday communication situations. This second edition focuses on how the reader's communication matters ethically in cocreating their relationships, family, workgroups, and communities. Through an examination of ethical values including truth, justice, freedom, care, integrity, and honor, the reader can determine which values they are ethically committed to upholding. Blending communication theory, ethics as practical philosophy, and moral psychology, the text presents the practice of communication ethics as part of the lifelong process of personal development and fosters the ability in its readers to approach communication decision making through an ethical lens.

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Part I
Developing a Practice of Communication Ethics

The Centrality of Ethics in Human Communication

Once the conversation started, Taylor knew there was no going back. Mason was complaining about his roommate, Kelly. The three had been friends for years. Last spring, Mason and Kelly asked Taylor to rent an apartment together. Taylor said becoming roommates was one way to ruin two good friendships. Now, he is glad he is living elsewhere. Problems between Kelly and Mason were piling up because of Kelly’s drinking. Alcohol had never been a big part of their lives. Their parents were occasional drinkers who allowed them a glass on special occasions. In college, they considered themselves different from students who went binge drinking. They told each other that they could walk away from alcohol, because they, not the alcohol, were in control. Things had changed. Kelly made new friends who went drinking after work and on weekends. “Kelly’s been short of money. I had to cover the rent last month,” said Mason. “I can’t pay bills for two people. I’m not a bank. What will I do the next time Kelly can’t pay the rent?” He then told Taylor how Kelly woke up in bed with no memory of driving home. Mason paused, “I’m worried. He’s going to work, but I really don’t know how he’s doing. He could get hurt or hurt someone else. I could never live with that.” The three of them were always honest with each other. When they asked for advice, they were always frank and open. What should Taylor say to Mason?
You may have found yourself in a situation like Taylor’s, facing a choice about what to say in a difficult situation. If you are like most people, you want to say the “right thing” and help promote a good outcome for everyone involved. Taylor faces some difficult choices about honest communication in a friendship. Difficult communication choices raise ethical issues. Ethics is the study and practice of what is good, right, or virtuous. Practicing ethics involves discerning ethical issues and making decisions about how to act. Ethical discernment is the ability to recognize ethical issues and make ethical distinctions to formulate judgments about what is good, right, or virtuous. In ethical decision making, an individual uses those judgments to guide her decisions about how to act ethically. Practicing communication ethics involves discernment and decision making about what is good, right, or virtuous to communicate. The failure of decision makers to communicate ethically is evident around us. Media reports of deceptive or false statements by people in business, relationships, and politics are all too common. Controversy over digital fake news has brought greater awareness of deception in communication (Pew). Communication ethics, however, involves more than honesty and deception. Because communication can impact everyone encompassed in the communication process, communication ethics concerns everyone involved in the communication process. Practicing communication ethics involves discerning the proper weight to place on your self-interest to survive and thrive, relative to the self-interest of others in the communication process to survive and thrive, a weight that is good, right, or virtuous. When you have a question about whether your communication is fair, how to communicate care to someone, your freedom or responsibility to communicate, the integrity of communication, or question whether your communication is honorable, you face issues of communication ethics. Practicing ethics involves discerning the proper weight to place on your legitimate interests relative to the legitimate interests of others, a weight that is good, right, or virtuous.
You may have faced a difficult decision where you have questioned how you typically communicate, perhaps like the decision Taylor faces in his conversation with Mason in the chapter’s opening case. Perhaps you decided what to say to someone or how to say it and then considered it a finished episode in your life, relying on what some call moral intuition (Hauser, et al.; Haidt). There are times, however, when you may wonder what is right or good to say, instead of what would be effective in meeting your personal goal or most efficient in completing a task. You may have wondered if a decision not to say anything was a good one, not just for yourself but for others. Perhaps you have listened to a friend’s story about facing a challenge and then wondered what you would do if you faced a personal betrayal, a bribe to look the other way at work, or a request for personal sacrifice from a friend in grave need.

Points to Ponder

  • ܀ How do you decide what is good, right, or virtuous in a conversation with a friend or during a meeting?
  • ܀ How do you decide whether to listen to someone you passionately disagree with or step back and let others speak?
The idea of practice is not unique to communication ethics. You may be familiar with practice in sports or the arts. Practice is a method of learning that develops habits through repeated study, performance, and skill development. The skills an athlete relies upon during a game or a musician during a concert do not appear overnight. They develop as athletes and artists study to become skilled practitioners of their sport or art. A practitioner is a person who studies and develops skills for applying what she has learned in her actions. A practitioner uses knowledge, skill, and experience to make judgments about how to act in a specific situation. Society may use tests and licensing to limit the label of “practitioner” to persons who achieve a specified level of knowledge and skill development, such as licensing doctors, lawyers, or teachers. More generally, society recognizes the importance of practice for all of us in the idea that anyone can develop a skill by studying and applying knowledge through education. Practice is a method of learning that develops a person’s knowledge and skill through study and systematic application of concepts and theories. Practice, however, does not guarantee success in every situation where knowledge and skills are applied. While athletes draw upon the same set of skills and knowledge whenever they play, each game presents different challenges in a unique combination of facts and circumstances for playing their sport, just as different pieces of music and concert venues present different challenges for a musician, or different patients and varying access to medical resources present different challenges in practicing medicine for a doctor. Practitioners draw upon knowledge, skills, and personal experience to make a judgment about the best—and sometimes a better—way to act in a specific situation. When judgments of practitioners do not work as expected, they take responsibility for their mistakes and learn from them.
Practice is essential in communication. Aristotle presents his theory of rhetoric as the practical art of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion (24). Rhetors draw upon their experience and knowledge of persuasion to make judgments about what to say in a specific speech. The tradition of teaching communication has a long history from the ancient Greek teachers of rhetoric, such as Aristotle and Isocrates (Poulakis), to our communication classrooms today. The ideas of practice and practicing help explain the present-day concept of communication competence. Competent communication involves applying knowledge and skills of communication appropriately, responsively, and ethically in a specific situation (Wilson and Sabee 8–9 and 38–9). One way to develop communication competence is by studying and applying communication theories. Competent communicators judge when to follow and not to follow guidelines of practice identified by communication theories, concepts, or rules. This requires that individual communicators discern and judge how to apply their knowledge and skills of communication appropriately and ethically in response to a specific situation. Competent ethical communicators use their judgments about what would be good, right, or virtuous to communicate, rather than relying only on judgments about what would be effective or efficient in meeting a communication goal.
Practice also is an important idea in ethics. There are different definitions of ethics and the related concept of morals. Before going further, it is important to be clear about how the terms “ethics” and “morals” will appear in this book. Some philosophers associate morals with society’s expectations about how individuals ought to act toward others and ethics with how a person should live her life. Others consider ethics the philosophical study of what is good, right, or virtuous. Still others consider morals and ethics essentially synonymous (see Jaska and Pritchard 4–5). Both ethics and morals concern identifying and understanding what is good, right, or virtuous, whether it involves interacting with others in society, identifying habits and standards for living your life, or thinking about ethics generally. For simplicity, I will use “ethics” rather than “morals” throughout this book, except when a specific theory or ethicist uses the term “moral” to explain a key idea or concept.
This brief discussion of the different meanings of ethics, however, does not make clear how practice is important to ethics. The role of practice for ethics becomes evident in a second, alternative name for ethics—practical philosophy. Ethics as practical philosophy focuses on ethics as a practice for problem solving that applies concepts and theories about what is good, right, or virtuous in real world situations. An important feature of ethics as practical philosophy is that it addresses real world situations in ways that are local, timely, and responsive to the facts of a situation, rather than abstractly focusing on ethical issues and problems (Toulmin). If you used ethics as practical philosophy to think about Taylor’s communication problem in the chapter’s opening case, you would make a judgment about what to communicate as if you were Taylor in this situation, rather than only thinking abstractly or generally about how to communicate ethically with friends.
Becoming a competent practitioner requires time and commitment. A skillful violinist or competent basketball player does not develop overnight. Musicians and athletes use their skills of discernment and decision making to apply their knowledge and understanding in real world situations, and then reflect upon their actions. When they do this, they improve their practice as musicians and athletes. The same is true for practitioners of communication ethics. To practice ethical communication, a communicator must work to develop skills of ethical discernment and decision making to apply her ethical commitments as she communicates.
This is a book about developing a personal practice of communication ethics. This practice is not limited to specialists, such as philosophers, ethicists, or scholars of communication. Individual people practice communication ethics when their communication actions are guided by their ethical commitments. Research in moral psychology suggests that sometimes ethical action is more spontaneous than thoughtful, guided by emotions or intuition shaped by socialization and culture (Haidt; Greene). Other research suggests that when socialization of ethics is sporadic or does not occur, individuals may not recognize the existence of ethical issues or do not understand them even when they experience moral emotions. When individuals are not taught to think about or practice ethics, the ability to recognize ethical issues and act ethically may begin to disappear in their relationships, workplaces, and communities (Smith, et al.). This book can help you develop your personal practice of communication ethics, so ethics can play a more prominent role in your family, friendships, workplace, and community. If you are looking for an ethical checklist of “dos and don’ts” that would make you an ethical communicator, you will be disappointed. This book does not tell you what your ethical commitments should be. An important part of developing your practice of communication ethics is making your own ethical commitments and then being accountable and responsible for how you practice them. In the following chapters, you will read about concepts, theories, and skills that can help you develop your personal practice of communication ethics. Before you begin that task, however, it is helpful to understand how communication is important enough to matter ethically and, what counts for more, how your communication is important enough to matter ethically. The study and practice of communication ethics rests on the idea that individual acts and episodes of communication are important; they are not trivial. Your communication is important, not only to the individuals with whom you directly communicate, such as family, friends, and coworkers, but also to others who participate with you in the communication processes of the groups, organizations, communities, and cultures to which you belong. The idea that your communication is important enough to matter ethically is the basis of communication ethics and a primary reason for my writing this book.

Communication Matters

When a person says that communication is “just talk” or “empty words,” she implies that communication is unimportant or makes little difference in the world. You may have had a conversation with someone who questioned whether it was worth your time or effort to talk about a problem, discuss an issue, or give a speech. She may have contrasted “mere words” with actions that have an observable result to encourage you not to waste your time communicating. Much communication, especially oral communication, is ephemeral, meaning it quickly disappears, often leaving no physical trace of its existence. Your words, for example, physically disappear after you speak them in a conversation with a friend. Unless your friend writes about your conversation in a personal journal or text or makes a digital recording of your conversation, your communication exists only in your and your frie...

Table of contents

Citation styles for Practicing Communication Ethics
APA 6 Citation
Tompkins, P. (2018). Practicing Communication Ethics (2nd ed.). Taylor and Francis. Retrieved from (Original work published 2018)
Chicago Citation
Tompkins, Paula. (2018) 2018. Practicing Communication Ethics. 2nd ed. Taylor and Francis.
Harvard Citation
Tompkins, P. (2018) Practicing Communication Ethics. 2nd edn. Taylor and Francis. Available at: (Accessed: 15 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Tompkins, Paula. Practicing Communication Ethics. 2nd ed. Taylor and Francis, 2018. Web. 15 Oct. 2022.