Ethical Orientations: Situational Ethics

The final ethical orientation considered here is situational ethics. Popularized by Joseph Fletcher in the late 1960s, this approach believes that ethical laws or rules are applied based on the context. As communities vary over time, so do the ethical laws that best direct human action. Situational ethics asserts that love, human welfare, and individual happiness should always be upheld; however, the orientation does not provide guidelines or absolutes for application.

Situational ethics is the most common ethical orientation used by public relations professionals. Wright found that professionals rely most often on situational ethics, but not the classical situational ethics orientation described above. Yes, professionals make consequence-based choices that vary based on the situation, but they do so using subjectivism, meaning that public relations professionals respond differently to the same ethical situation.

Such diversity of ethical approaches heightens the need for ethical literacy. Public relations professionals need to be able to assess a situation, identify the personal values at play, and consider the most appropriate ethical orientation. Further, a public relations professional must be ethically literate in order to understand the diverse behaviors and the ethical orientations that guide others. Only through ethical literacy can public relations professionals successfully “mind the ethical gap.”

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