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Communication Ethics: A Vital Resource in an Ever-Changing World (October 2016): Dialogic Ethics—Communication Ethics’ Most Significant Contribution

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

Dialogic Ethics—Communication Ethics’ Most Significant Contribution

Virtue, duty, and consequentialist ethics form the foundation of classical ethics study. From a communication ethics standpoint, they originate in philosophy and are applied to communicative actions, such as speaking your mind on what you believe (virtue of courage), not lying even when it is unpleasant news (duty), or not revealing something on a news broadcast that might cause widespread panic (consequential). While built on the foundation of these classical approaches, today’s communication ethics differs dramatically. In particular, there is dialogic ethics, which locates ethics in the communicative relationships between people rather than in philosophical thought. Thinkers in this area include Martin Buber and Emmanuel Levinas, whose work has been expanded by contemporary communication ethicists.

Buber’s I and Thou emphasizes mutuality and reciprocity between persons, suggesting that we relate to others along a continuum of “I-It” to “I-Thou.” In the former, we treat another person as an object and keep her/him at a distance. The latter relationship is one of mutual and shared vulnerability in which there are high levels of trust and intimacy. For Buber, being connected to others is the foundation of our personhood. Conversely, in Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority and Otherwise than Being, both by Levinas, the foundation of our personhood is rooted in our responsibility for others as it emerges in communication. For Levinas, ethics is “response-ability” for another person who is radically and infinitely different from the self. Ethics is putting the other before and above one’s self without the expectation of reciprocity, and thereby not viewing the other as an extension of one’s self. Amit Pinchevski’s By Way of Interruption: Levinas and the Ethics of Communication and Jeffrey Murray’s Face to Face in Dialogue: Emmanuel Levinas and (the) Communication (of) Ethics apply Levinas to the study of communication in terms of dialogue, language, experience, and mediated forms of communication.

Mikhail Bakhtin’s work on dialogue has also influenced communication ethics. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays and Speech Genres and Other Late Essays provide a philosophical explication of how humans are dialogical beings, composed of many voices and influences. Communication ethicists cite Bakhtin alongside Buber when articulating how the ethical nature of dialogue is fundamentally connected to what it means to be human. Bakhtin’s Toward a Philosophy of the Act critiques Kant’s ethics while also centralizing the importance of action. His notion of “non-alibi of Being” speaks to the primacy of “answerability” related to communicative (and other) actions: we cannot act without being answerable for the decisions, choices, and actions we engage in.

Rob Anderson, Kenneth Cissna, and Ronald C. Arnett spearheaded contemporary examinations of dialogue as an ethical form of communication in their edited volume The Reach of Dialogue: Confirmation, Voice, and Community. It was followed a decade later by Anderson, Leslie Baxter, and Cissna’s seminal edited volume Dialogue: Theorizing Difference in Communication Studies. Another foundational work is Charles Brown and P. W. Keller’s Monologue to Dialogue: An Exploration of Interpersonal Communication, which situated ethics as a dialogic interchange within interpersonal interaction. It proffered early arguments for ethics as a communicative phenomenon, not as a wholly philosophical one. An emphasis on connecting ethics and cooperative communication engagement is maintained in Dialogue and Deliberation by Josina M. Makau and Debian L. Marty. Dialogic Civility in a Cynical Age: Community, Hope and Interpersonal Relationships by Pat Arneson and Ronald C. Arnett offers a pragmatic philosophical response for people interested in improving interpersonal relationships in an era of cynical communication.

Works Cited