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Communication Ethics: A Vital Resource in an Ever-Changing World (October 2016): Contemporary Scope and Context

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

Contemporary Scope and Context

Communication ethics occurs in many contexts. Some of these include interpersonal (two people communicating with each other), intercultural (communication between cultures), organizational (communication within and on behalf of an organization), rhetorical (public communication from one to many, often in the form of speeches or written texts), political communication (communication in political contexts, including propaganda, lobbying, campaign speeches, or other forms in a governance context), and media (such as journalism, public relations, marketing, and advertising). Other areas of interest to communication ethics scholars include artificial intelligence, narrative, communication ethics pedagogy, biotechnology, the moral imagination, and topics at the intersections of ethics, values, and communication.

Many different kinds of works survey these areas. In the International Encyclopedia of Interpersonal Communication, Fritz’s article “Interpersonal Communication Ethics” describes the importance of communication ethics in dyadic (two-way) communication. The Handbook of Communication Ethics, edited by George Cheney, Steve May, and Debashish Munshi, is the first of its kind to collect the multiple contexts, situations, and scope of communication ethics with attention to foundational values and diverse forms of communication. Moreover, questions of power, equality, and justice making—as well as connections between matters of social justice and ethical theory—are probed, helping make the transition from philosophical approaches to postmodern dialogical ones.

Communication ethics pedagogy has also been linked with community activism through pursuit of social justice and equity. This link further indicates how communication ethics is not merely philosophical, and it can result in change in people’s lives, especially those marginalized by race, gender, and sexual orientation, as outlined by Spoma Jovanovic in “The Ethics of Teaching Communication Activism.” Understanding that communication ethics weds the theoretical with the applied is important to researching communication ethics. Conflict between Persons: The Origins of Leadership, by Ronald C Arnett, Amanda G. McKendree, and Leeanne M. Bell McManus, draws on philosophical foundations to demonstrate how ethical conflicts offer opportunities to demonstrate leadership and promote the good within a particular narrative, as it emerges within communication. A practical process for readers is offered on how to respond to ethical conflicts and move toward a position of leadership. Thus, communication ethics research is neither purely theoretical nor purely applied. While some researchers focus on one more than the other, it is a tension in which communication ethics flourishes. On the one hand, it questions ethical theories to generate new perspectives more applicable to making sound communication choices. On the other, it investigates past ethical dilemmas to offer prescriptions for future ethical choices.

As part of a diverse scope of communication ethics, Clifford Christians, a media ethics pioneer, was instrumental in revealing how theoretical and classical approaches to ethics are inherently applicable to communication contexts. In Moral Engagement in Public Life: Theorists for Contemporary Ethics, Christians, along with coeditor Sharon Bracci, surveyed a wide range of ethical perspectives encompassing classical ethics (virtue, duty), dialogical perspectives (Levinas, Bakhtin, social ethics), Eastern philosophy (Confucianism), and cultural studies (Cornel West, bell hooks) as they apply to communicative behavior and public life. in Ethical Communication: Moral Stances in Human Dialogue, Christians and John Merril focus on the implications of altruism, egoism, autonomy, values and axioms on protonorms (see definition in “Media Ethics,” below), and more.

Communication ethics also addresses cultural differences. Fred Casmir’s “Third-Culture Building: A Paradigm Shift for International and Intercultural Communication” provides a multi-perspectival approach to intercultural communication ethics. The work is a classic, and it articulates how cultural difference can lead to common ground. Alternatively, Communication Ethics in an Age of Diversity, edited by Josina M. Makau and Ronald C. Arnett, takes a dialogic approach. It is one of the first to directly discuss cultural and individual differences from an ethics standpoint. In modeling dialogue and communicative engagement, Kathleen Glenister Roberts and Ronald C. Arnett’s edited volume Communication Ethics: Between Cosmopolitanism and Provinciality reveals a dialogue between scholars on the tensions of ethics, global cosmopolitanism, and local provinciality.