Communication ethics is part of a postmodern scholarly shift that questions the classical ethical perspectives of virtue, duty, and consequential ethics. Postmodernism examines taken-for-granted assumptions of human beings by “deconstructing” the idea that human beings are free, independent, autonomous, and rational agents. It suggests that human beings are communicatively based and therefore interdependent, interrelated, culturally situated, and irrational. In this view, ethical choices are not made based on reason solely, but on how we respond to others incorporating the cultural and situational as much as or as often as reason.
Out of this shift has arisen perspectives connected to communication ethics, such as Carol Gilligan’s classic In a Different Voice, which legitimized women’s voices and a feminist approach by offering a new perspective on the traditional developmental psychology perspective of moral development. She privileges an ethics of care over an ethics of principle. Nel Noddings expanded on this by delineating a difference between “caring about” and “caring for” in Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education. Other postmodern approaches include Michel Foucault’s Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth, which examines the intersection of ethics, epistemology, care for self and others, sexuality, and attention to power within a Marxist tradition. Zygmunt Bauman, a Polish sociologist, has been influential in shaping philosophies of communication ethics. In particular, Bauman’s Postmodern Ethics calls Emmanuel Levinas’s work “the postmodern ethic,” and Bauman’s Community: Seeking Safety in an Insecure World examines the promises of community, its benefits, and its elusiveness.
Conducting research through philosophical and normative approaches involves extensive review of ethical frameworks to offer fresh ethical perspectives. This approach is currently the most productive in communication ethics and the most interdisciplinary, drawing from philosophical, historical, rhetorical, religious, cultural, and sociological sources as well as communicative and rhetorical ones. However, its focus is on communication, and it locates ethics within the structures and processes of communication.
A prominent example of this kind of approach is the trilogy by Michael Hyde: The Call of Conscience: Heidegger and Levinas, Rhetoric and the Euthanasia Debate; The Life-Giving Gift of Acknowledgment; and Perfection: Coming to Terms with Being Human. Hyde draws on Martin Heidegger and Levinas to reveal how our moral call to conscience is located in communication, how communication is where our social need to give and receive genuinely through a life-giving gift of acknowledgment is performed, and how communication reveals a preoccupation to pursue personal and communal perfection. Employing phenomenology, Hyde interweaves personal examples, case studies (like the controversy over Terri Schiavo’s death), and perspectives from religion, science, and rhetoric to articulate a complex but relevant communication ethics perspective. His work is relevant to our everyday experiences in which we consider moral dilemmas, wrestle with dying, recognize a need for others to speak into our lives, consider how we give to others, and reflect on our desire to improve our own and others’ lives.
Calvin Schrag established the notion of the “fitting response.” It essentially asks how one ought to respond to an ethical dilemma in and through a communicative situation. This was outlined in Communicative Praxis and the Space of Subjectivity, which explained how communication is always about something, by someone, and for someone. Schrag expanded on this in The Self after Postmodernity to consider what being human means in a world in which a “fitting response” is central to our identities individually and collectively.
Modern technology has been confronted by scholars in communication ethics. In his essay “Ethics from the Edge: A Sketch of Precarity from a Philosophy of Communication,” Ramsey Eric Ramsey shows how our technological use of language has disastrous consequences for ethical conduct. He says ethics requires an ability to say “we” in a careful manner that attempts to use language as a way of “showing forth” the world in our everyday lives. Extending questions of technology, The Machine Question: Critical Perspectives on AI, Robots, and Ethics by David Gunkel explores whether machines are moral agents worthy of moral consideration. Gunkel’s research challenges Levinas and the relevance of communication ethics only to human agents. In an increasingly networked world, future ethical perspectives must contend with Gunkel’s question. In a different approach, Michael Hyde and James Herrick, in After the Genome: A Language for Our Biotechnological Future, bring together a range of thinkers in communication, rhetoric, ethics, and science to explore what it means to be human in an increasingly biomedically integrated world.
The intersection of technology and communication has gained a lot of attention, but communication ethics has focused on many other issues. Ramsey makes a powerful case for arguing for a return to the body to address questions of ethics in The Long Path to Nearness: A Contribution to a Corporeal Philosophy of Communication and the Groundwork for an Ethics of Relief. Lisbeth Lipari outlines a communication ethics philosophy based on the act of listening. She draws on Western and Eastern philosophy to rediscover the importance of listening to communication and the human condition in Listening, Thinking, Being. Annette Holba employed a philosophy of communication approach in Transformative Leisure: A Philosophy of Communication to understand the transformative role of leisure (as opposed to recreation) in our lives, commenting on its misrepresentation in media and its ability to repair our ability to communicate with others.
No one, however, has done more to advance work in philosophical and normative approaches than Ronald C. Arnett. Consider some of the work he has been involved in: with Annette Holba, he coedited An Overture to Philosophy of Communication: The Carrier of Meaning, which extols the practical value of philosophy of communication in our lives. With Pat Arneson, he coedited Philosophy of Communication Ethics: Alterity and the Other, which explores the various forms of “the Other” in communicative practice and the ethical implications of these many manifestations. On his own, Arnett has provided fresh interpretations on past philosophies relevant to our postmodern lives through Dialogic Confession: Bonhoeffer’s Rhetoric of Responsibility and Communication Ethics in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt’s Rhetoric of Warning and Hope. These works draw on philosophical thinking from darker times (i.e., Nazi Germany), and they legitimize the importance of communication ethics by offering hope through a confessional posture (Bonhoeffer) and warning of the consequences of modernity (Arendt).
As the most productive and prominent area of research in communication ethics, a philosophical approach requires much reading and training within the ethical perspective(s) one seeks to build from and critique. The importance of having a robust and coherent ethical perspective is that ethical choices in communication cannot be made without having an ethical perspective. Given the diversity of human beings as well as the vast range of communication choices individuals face, it is important to establish a strong foundation that can provide guidance for future decisions as well as richness for continued critique, investigation, and modification.
As Pat Arneson’s Exploring Communication Ethics: Interviews with Influential Scholars in the Field and Perspectives on Philosophy of Communication attest, researchers under this approach recognize that in critiquing another’s thinking, a new ethical perspective is offered that will likewise be subject to criticism. This is important, for in aiming for a more ethical world, fresh perspectives generate new insights into communication choices and their related values and implications.