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Communication Ethics: A Vital Resource in an Ever-Changing World (October 2016): Early History of Communication Ethics

By Robert L. Ballard, Melba Vélez Ortiz, and Leeanne M. Bell McManus

Early History of Communication Ethics

The study of communication began with the ancient Egyptians. The ancient Greeks later developed it into a distinctive branch of knowledge. The Egyptians, who are sometimes overlooked in the history of rhetoric and communication, ruminated on the features of fine speech, and they created a number of manuscripts detailing the many persuasive, cultural, and religious uses of silence in communication, as detailed in Michael V. Fox’s “Ancient Egyptian Rhetoric.” The Greeks’ exploration of rhetoric focused on persuading audiences in a public forum through speech acts. Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics outlines varying ethical dilemmas associated with public persuasion. It was written as a treatise on how individuals and communities develop good moral character through the pursuit of courage, temperance, truthfulness, and justice, among other virtues. Other perspectives on virtue ethics emerge from Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, Hindu scriptures, Egyptian wisdom literature, twelfth-century Roman Christianity, Enlightenment thinkers, and even the eighteenth-century founders of American democracy. More recent work, such as Alisdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, focuses on practical wisdom, or phronesis. Martha Nussbaum’s Poetic Justice: The Literary Imagination and Public Life examines the role of compassion in the public sphere. Janie Harden Fritz’s Professional Civility: Communicative Virtue at Work explores the importance of cultivating civility in organizational settings.

Another influential perspective is deontological, or duty-based, ethics. Most famously articulated by Immanuel Kant in Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals (often titled “Groundwork”), this perspective suggests that ethical behavior is based on duties to a universal law. Through the supremacy of reason, Kant outlined a “categorical imperative” by which persons should act based on principles, or direct duties, that they would want everyone to uphold in all situations. Furthermore, Kant argued that we should treat people never as means to ends but as ends in and of themselves. As these formulations are not negotiable due to social standing, relationship, or situation, in Kant’s estimation, they are always true and should outweigh individual needs. Hence, they are universal and inviolable, and ethics entails being dutiful and following these principles without exception.

Some forms of duties are religious, like the Ten Commandments. Some claim natural rights, like the 1948 United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Right. And some are the basis for social contract theories, like Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The Social Contract. In The Theory of Communicative Action, Volume 1: Reason and the Rationalization of Society and Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action, Jürgen Habermas attempts to outline non-negotiable rules creating an “ideal speech situation” in which rationally based claims are crafted through democratic argument and all stakeholders are included. Similarly, John Rawls, in A Theory of Justice, places communicators in an “original position” behind a “veil of ignorance” to reduce bias and achieve consensus without regard to personal or individual position. Scott R. Stroud, in Kant and the Promise of Rhetoric, suggests that Kant’s thinking is not merely about individual duty but about creating a civil, moral, ethical community through which to rhetorically and communally pursue the good. And in Kant’s Philosophy of Communication, Gina L. Ercolini argues that reason should extend across the public realm, as it reveals a rhetorical sensibility that operates as the basis for aesthetics and politics.

Consequentialist, or situational, ethics privileges short- and long-term outcomes to adjudicate degrees of rightness and wrongness. Situational approaches are distinct from universal ones. Rather than considering inherent virtues, or duties, to universal principles for discerning right and wrong, situational approaches focus on context. The best examples are outlined by Jeremy Bentham in An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation and John Stuart Mill in Utilitarianism. Utilitarianism suggests ethical decisions are made based on how actions might maximize happiness and benefit the most. Peter Singer, in Animal Liberation, has broadened this approach to include other sentient beings, giving rise to the contemporary animal rights movement. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring has earned its place in American history by making strong ethical appeals for the environment. Thomas Scanlon, in What We Owe to Each Other, exemplifies a communicative approach to consequentialist reasoning. He pushes us to consider how we justify our decisions to those they are likely to affect. For Scanlon, an ethical decision can be made if others have no reasonable basis for rejecting the decision.

Works Cited