Lesson 1: Where Do Ethics Come From?
In terms of where ethics come from, they come from society and the collective beliefs and values of its citizens. But, more specifically, ethics also come from those individuals willing to make difficult choices and think about big questions: good and bad, right and wrong. Throughout the centuries, various questions have continued to arise about how to treat our fellow humans. Those questions lead philosophers, theorists, managers, political and social leaders, and others to develop guides or treatises exploring the ethical questions that confront society.Next Page: Defining Ethics
Ethics have been defined in diverse ways: as the moral responsibility of a communicator to present the truth as one honestly understands it; as the duty of audience members to question falsehood when one encounters it; and as a social contract and moral compass for society. Martha Cooper notes that a social contract for ethical communication exists. That, “when we make decisions through communication…a sense of commitment, a sense that when people say things, they really mean what they say, or what we think they said." Our modern concept of the ethical communicator, dates back before recorded history, to the time of storytellers.
The social contract discussed by Cooper goes back thousands of years to Greece and Rome. Quintilian (c. 35–100 CE), a Roman rhetorician, refers explicitly to the social contract of the communicator who is expected to present the truth. Communicators should be “good people skilled in speaking” (Quintiliana XII:4)…and above all, be good people. Being a communication professional is no different. We have an obligation to make the best decisions and take actions that will both benefit our organizations, as well as our stakeholders. We make good decisions by applying principles of ethical communication and action.
Although notions of what constitute “a good person” have fluctuated, the notion that a communicator is expected to “speak the truth” has remained a consistent belief. We expect our communicators to tell us the truth. But knowing the truth is a constant struggle.
Ethics are also about having an awareness of the possibilities in a problem or situation. If all we do is the same thing that we always have done, our decisions are not ethical. Individuals and decision makers need to assess all possibilities, gather information, conduct research, and consider one’s options before making a decision. Ethical decision-making is not the same as simply following an ethical code that prescribes what to do in various situations. Codes of ethics prescribe courses of action and behaviors to situations that have been settled. In public relations, for example, the principle of “never guaranteeing placement” of stories and newsworthy content, is not up for debate. Professionals over many years of practice and discussion have decided that guaranteeing placement might encourage an individual to make choices that are not in the best interest of one’s organization or client. Thus, “codes of ethics” enshrine behaviors and actions that are not in contention any more. By contrast, ethical decision-making is a dynamic process that cannot be reduced to a simple rule.
Q: What are other ethical behaviors that are generally settled issues in the public relations profession?
Q: What are some ethical behaviors in regard to social media that have become generally accepted?
The Difference Between Ethics and Religion
When academics talk about ethics, they are typically referring to decisions about right and wrong. As noted above, the study of ethical behavior goes back thousands of years to ancient Greece. Ethics are a branch of philosophy that investigates questions such as “What is good and what is bad?” “Is it just to reward one group with more benefits than another?” “What action should an individual or organization take if a client mistreats him/her/it?” In practice, ethics are decision-making tools that try to guide questions of human morality, by defining concepts such as good and bad, right and wrong, virtue and vice, justice and crime, etc.
Often, religion and ethics are treated as the same thing, with various religions making claims about their belief systems being the best way for people to live, actively proselytizing and trying to convert unbelievers, trying to legislate public behaviors based around isolated religious passages, etc. Of course, not all religions are the same, some are more liberal than others and some more conservative, but in general, all religious traditions believe that their faith represents a path to enlightenment and salvation.
By contrast, ethics are universal decision-making tools that may be used by a person of any religious persuasion, including atheists. While religion makes claims about cosmology, social behavior, and the “proper” treatment of others, etc. Ethics are based on logic and reason rather than tradition or injunction. As Burke suggests of the “hortatory Negative” of the “Thou Shalt Not”s found in many religious traditions that tell people how to behave by “moralizing," ethics include no such moralizing. If something is bad, ethics tells us we should not do it, if something is good, obviously there is no harm in doing it. The tricky part of life, and the reason that we need ethics, is that what is good and bad in life are often complicated by our personal circumstances, culture, finances, ethnicity, gender, age, time, experience, personal beliefs, and other variables. Often the path that looks most desirable will have negative consequences, while the path that looks the most perilous for an individual or organization will often result in doing the most good for others. Doing what is “right” is a lot harder than doing what is expedient or convenient.
Q: What are the basic differences between how religion makes decisions and ethics makes them?
Q: Are religion and ethics incompatible? Which one should take precedence over the other?
Ethical Orientations: Absolutist
Absolutists make an effort to apply complete or universal standards across all situations. In general, absolutism is used in contrast to relativism and sees situations as fixed and not based on relative circumstances. Most people hold absolutist beliefs on one sort or thing or another, be it about how to treat one’s elders, what actions to take in light of one’s religious beliefs, what coffee is best, etc. For the absolutist, there are certain actions and behaviors that are not determined by situational variables, but are correct or right on their face.
An obvious example might be injunctions against harming other people. An absolutist does not accept that the ends justify the means, nor would s/he be willing to harm one person for the good of another, or oneself. Conscientious objectors in the military are an example. Other examples of absolutist beliefs include: beliefs in equity or “fairness,” freedom-of-choice, democracy, the golden rule, the rule of law (an opposition to arbitrary power), justice, professionalism, the PRSA Code of Ethics, the Ten Commandments, etc.
Absolutists have generally formed their beliefs about appropriate actions and behaviors before a crisis or event happens. Thus, the proper course of action is not determined by the circumstances but an existing moral compass. Absolutism is also intertwined with other ethical positions. For example, an individual can have a preference for utilitarianism, but be willing to compromise if the situation called for it (situational predisposition). While another individual might be inflexible or absolutist in the application of utilitarian principles, believing in all situations that utilitarianism was the best choice, being unwilling to compromise, and seeing utilitarianism as the solution to most problems.
Q: Do you believe that there are any circumstances that warrant absolutism?
Q: What are the things that you are absolutist about?
Q: What do you believe is the basis for your own absolutist beliefs: religion, culture, personal experience, etc.?
Ethical Orientations: Situational
Situationalism holds that the current circumstances or situation should be used as a guide or basis for making choices about right and wrong, in essence, arguing that the ends justify the means. For a situationalist, something bad can be considered good, if the result it leads to is positive. True situational ethics downplay other factors influencing our decision making like religion, cultural values, audience interests, and often rationalize “right and wrong” as what is “good or bad” for the individual(s) involved at a particular time.
Consider organizations like BP, Enron, and Volkswagen, or individuals such as Martha Stewart, Michael Phelps, Floyd Landis, and others, all of whom knew that what they were doing was wrong at the time, but still broke rules or the law, rationalizing their actions as “necessary,” “appropriate,” or “insignificant,” resolving their “cognitive dissonance” as they went along. Most public relations professionals, when asked about their ethical beliefs, usually say that they are situationalists. However, this is probably not accurate. A true situationalist acts in his/her/the organization’s best interest with little regard for the consequences of the actions on others. Since public relations professionals have obligations to numerous internal and external stakeholders and publics, decisions and actions taken must also take into account the good of many others.
So in actual practice, the decisions made by communication professionals are not exclusively situational, guided by the aspects of one’s current situation, but are influenced by multiple stakeholders and publics interests as well. Thus, a better way of describing the situationalist ethics orientation in public relations might be to say one’s decisions are “rhetorical,” meaning ethical decisions are guided by the situation, audience, and constraints.
Q: Why do public relations professionals prefer to call themselves situationalists, when they follow various absolutist codes of ethical conduct (such as the PRSA Code of Ethics) and are often inflexible (partisan) in their beliefs?
Q: Is situationalism actually an ethical orientation? It would seem that acting on one’s best interest is not about making a decision about “good and bad” or “right and wrong.”
Ethical Orientations: Categorical Imperative
The Categorical Imperative, which comes from sixteenth century German philosopher, Immanuel Kant, is an ethical orientation that holds that one’s actions should be undertaken as if s/he had the power to make them universally applicable. Thus, to decide if lying is acceptable, one should ask oneself what would happen if everyone lied? Or from a public relations position, what of deceiving the media, not being honest with stakeholders or publics, using fear appeals to get people to take action, or any number of other dubious communication strategies?
For Kant, the answer is easy, if everyone did it, we could not trust individuals or organizations. Kant further argues that we should treat people as ends (or inherently valuable), and not as means to ends (taking advantage of people for personal gain as a situationalist might). The categorical imperative in not about doing what is easy or what people like; rather, the categorical imperative is about doing what is “right.”
We do not litter because if everyone littered, we would have a dirty and unsanitary world. We do not speed because if everyone sped the roads would be unsafe. The categorical imperative is about personal restraint for the good of society. However, the categorical imperative cannot be used to guide decisions about things that are not universally agreed upon, such as which religion is best, or whether pornography should be banned, because there are no universally agreed upon rules of social conduct in such matters. The Categorical Imperative is also not intended as a stick to make others do what we want, but as a way of judging the societal value and equity of one’s own actions. On moral and ethical issues such as being honest, treating workers fairly, offering health benefits or a living wage, etc. the categorical imperative would apply. Actions that are taken purely for self-gain, or that exploit others, violate the principle.
Q: Why is it that what people believe is often not consistent with their actions? For example, everyone agrees that drivers should not text and drive, and yet, more than 330,000 people are injured or killed every year because of that.
Q: When are universal principles or beliefs not “universal?” For example, that one should not kill other people is generally accepted, but then we make exceptions for example with the death penalty.
Ethical Orientations: Communitarianism
Communitarianism is an ethical orientation that meshes well with the basic assumptions of what public relations is all about: to create and maintain relationships. As the father of the communitarian movement, Amati Etzioni explained:
the Communitarian movement…is an environmental movement dedicated to the betterment of our moral, social, and political environment…Communitarians are dedicated to working with their fellow citizens to bring about the changes in values, habits, and public policies that will allow us to do for society what the environmental movement seeks to do for nature: to safeguard and enhance our lives.
Communitarianism refers to the rejection of an “isolated self with rights, interests, values, and ends independent of social context," and instead suggests that people have duties and responsibilities as citizens. Communitarianism is similar to deontology, dialogue, and feminism.
A communitarian public relations ethic would call upon public relations professionals and organizations to endeavor to act in the best interest of their stakeholders and publics, adhering to principles of “Corporate Social Responsibility” (CSR), for example, rather than simply pursuing what might be the most advantageous to shareholders or senior managers. Communitarians work to make sure that all ships rise by acting in the best interest of others, and encouraging stakeholders and publics to also act in the best interest of others. The focus of the communitarian would be collaborative rather than competitive.
Q: Individualism is a strongly held US value. How does that square with communitarian values?
Q: The US congress functions largely on partisan grounds, with republicans pursuing one agenda, and democrats pursuing their own. How might congress look if lawmakers took a communitarian approach?
Q: How does communitarianism square with modern organizations pursuing selfish or self-serving goals?
Ethical Orientations: Deontology or Duty
Deontologists act on an inflexible set of beliefs about right and wrong, doing what they personally believe is right no matter what the consequences are. Members of activist organizations are prone to deontological views in regard to their organizational cause. Thus, we often see deontological ethics practiced by political extremists on both the left and right, fundamentalist religious adherents, and others, who simply believe that what they are doing is right, in spite of arguments and evidence to the contrary.
Deontology, however, is not simply a case of someone being stubborn. A deontologist acts on a set of personal beliefs about the world and is unwilling to compromise those beliefs. Thus, a deontologist will usually ignore situational factors when making decisions, and does not let the consequences of decisions get in the way of their actions no matter how risky the outcome. Mandatory minimum prison sentences are an example of a deontological ethics. By contrast, an absolutist might also believe that certain crimes demand stiff penalties, but also might be more willing to take into account exigent circumstances. Similarly, a situationalist is unlikely to have the same predispositions about punishment and might accept a plea deal if it was expedient.
From a communication standpoint, deontologists are fully capable of assessing possible outcomes, but believe that the long-term goals of their issues or causes are more important than short-term results. Thus, most activists are not willing to compromise their fundamental values with organizations that they oppose, although an activist (deontologist) might be willing to work to phase in a solution if it met long-term goals. Appealing to individuals holding deontological views requires a detailed understanding about the basis for their belief. Deontologists literally believe that they are right and everyone else who disagrees is wrong.
Q: What duties do you believe you are subject to? If the nation went to war, do you have an obligation to serve in the military? If a loved one was harmed by someone else, do you have a duty to seek some sort of revenge such as the death penalty?
Q: Are there any particular duties that a communication professional should embrace?
Ethical Orientations: Dialogue
Dialogic theory refers to a set of principles and beliefs about how to engage with others using interpersonal communication and conversation. Dialogic theory consists of a body of communication principles that were developed to facilitate interaction between two people, or among small groups of individuals. Dialogue starts from the assumption that various interpersonal communication features (e.g., risk, trust, commitment, mutuality, collaboration, propinquity, positive regard, empathy, etc.) are necessary in order for people to have rewarding, honest, and meaningful interactions.
However, dialogue is more than just polite talk or conversation, but consists of the application of formal communication principles designed to minimize power held by individuals and organizations, to involve all participants in a conversation, and to respect the views and opinions of all participants involved. More importantly, dialogue, unlike deontology or absolutism, is not about being right. Dialogic participants have to be willing to admit when they are wrong, and must be willing to be changed through their interactions. Thus, a dialogic perspective focuses on the attitudes toward others held by the participants in a communication exchange.
People should be treated with respect and not as “others.” “Unconditional positive regard for others” is often used to describe one of the primary features of dialogue. A dialogic ethic assumes that everyone involved in an issue is important, and has a unique perspective that should be valued. Note also: participants in dialogue have their own beliefs and perspectives, and have an obligation to advocate for their position in moderation, not at the expense of others. However, dialogue is not about winning or being right, but coming to a genuine and empathetic understanding of others. Dialogue is a relational ethic.
Additionally, in a dialogue one works to genuinely understand the positions of others so that the best decisions might be made, and to be willing to be changed if it becomes apparent that one’s position is wrong or confused. Contrast dialogue with deontology where no change is possible and where deontologists are unwilling to consider the views of others. Although genuine dialogue involves the application of formal principles of conversation and not simply “talk,” a dialogic ethicist would generally always be willing to listen to others and to take into account multiple perspectives in order to make the best decision. S/he would be open-minded.
Q: Dialogue requires people to admit when they are wrong and try to correct their errors. Why are so many people afraid to admit when they are wrong?
Q: How can you have a conversation involving “unconditional positive regard for the other” with someone who you disagree with such as an activist or protester?
Q: Dialogue requires trust from participants and a willingness to share information and take relational “risks.” Why do these two concepts scare organizations if what they are doing is legal and socially acceptable?
Ethical Orientations: The “Golden Mean”
The basic principle of the golden mean, laid down by Aristotle 2,500 years ago is moderation, or striving for a balance between extremes. A related concept in business communication is the idea of “satisficing,” or doing a little of what everyone wants but with no one getting exactly what s/he wants, essentially a compromise between interested parties. The difference is that the golden mean is a principle of moderation intended to serve the best interest of one’s stakeholders and publics, rather than a tactic of negotiation.
Adherents of the golden mean are not expected to do what another individual or organization wants simply to pacify them, but would choose to take a moderate path rather than acting on extremes. The golden mean focuses on the middle ground between two extremes, but as Aristotle suggests, the middle ground is usually closer to one extreme than the other. For example, in the case of courage, the extremes might be recklessness and cowardice. Being closer to recklessness would be the sweet spot or “mean,” rather than being in the middle, which might represent inaction.
Similarly, in terms of organization to public communication, a communicative balance would be closer to open information and abundant communication, rather than limited information and no communication. But completely open communication is both difficult and unwise, so the golden mean is where most organizations should be.
Q: Isn’t the golden mean sort of a wishy-washy approach that tries to avoid making any waves?
Q: Is the idea of the golden mean closer to a situationalist or absolutist approach?
Ethical Orientations: Reciprocal Favoritism or “The Golden Rule”
The golden rule is a philosophy for leading one’s life that suggests that other people should be treated fairly and with respect. Essentially, people act for the good of others, because they would like to be treated in the same way. As Lopreato explains: “Reciprocal favoritism comprises acts of beneficence between unrelated individuals who have a written or unwritten rule that one good deed deserves another."
Examples illustrating the ubiquity of the golden rule can be found in virtually every culture and religious tradition in the world (goldenruleproject.org):
- Ancient Greece: “Do not do to others that which would anger you if others did it to you.”—Socrates.
- Bahá’í: “Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.”—Udana-Varga, 5:18.
- Buddhism: “Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.”—Udanavarga 5:18.
- Christianity: “All things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them.”—Matthew 7:12 (http://biblehub.com/matthew/7-12.htm).
- Confucianism: “Try your best to treat others as you would wish to be treated yourself and you will find that this is the shortest way to benevolence.”—Mencius VII.A.4.
- Hinduism: This is the sum of duty; do naught unto others which if done to thee would cause thee pain.—Mahabharata, 5:1517.
- Islam: “Do unto all men as you would wish to have done unto you; and reject for others what you would reject for yourself.”—Hadith, Islam.
- Jainism: “In happiness and suffering, in joy and grief, we should regard all creatures as we regard our own self”—Lord Mahavir 24th Tirthankara.
- Judaism: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow.”—Shabbath folio:31a, Babylonian Talmud.
- Latter Day Saints: “And let every man esteem his brother as himself, and practice virtue and holiness before me.”—Doctrine and Covenants 38:24.
- Native American: “Whatever befalls the earth, befalls the sons of the earth. Man did not weave the web of life; he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.”—Chief Seattle.
- Sikhism: “As thou deemest thyself, so deem others.”—Guru, Nanak Dev.
- Taoism: “Regard your neighbor’s gain as your own gain, and your neighbor’s loss as your own loss.”—Tai Shang Kan Yin P’ien.
- Wicca: “An’ it harm no one, do what thou wilt”—The Wiccan Rede.
- Zoroastrian: “That nature alone is good which refrains from doing unto another whatsoever is not good for itself.”—Dadisten-I-dinik, 94,5.
Given the ubiquity of the golden rule and the fact that the golden rule perhaps comes closest to being a universal principle, striving to do what is considered good and right by virtually everyone, it is an outstanding model of ethical behavior.
Q: Why, given the fact that the golden rule is so universally known and accepted do people still persist in ignoring it and oppressing and harming others who have different beliefs?
Q: Can the golden rule be used by organizations in their everyday interactions with stakeholders and publics?
Ethical Orientations: Utilitarianism
Utilitarianism is an ethical principle attributed to Jeremy Bentham in the 16th century, and a hundred years later to John Stuart Mill. The approach of a utilitarian is to pursue the greatest good for the greatest number. In actual practice utilitarian is not a simple or trivial approach. Utilitarianists conduct research and evaluate multiple possibilities in order to make the most informed and equitable decisions. Utilitarianism, in contradistinction to deontology, always considers the consequences of decisions and would never act solely on the basis of personal opinion or preference. When decisions involving numerous stakeholders need to be made, everyone’s interests need to be considered, and then action taken that will benefit the majority of the people. From an ethical standpoint, one of the issues with utilitarianism, is that decisions are usually made by those in power, rather than those who will be impacted by a decision. Although many parties may be consulted before making any decisions, utilitarians do not make decisions democratically or by committee.
Q: Utilitarianism seems like such an ethical way of making decisions, why is it not used by more people?
Q: If utilitarianism formed the basis for decisions in the US congress, taxes on the wealthy would be higher, benefits to the needy more widely available, etc. Clearly, this is not the case. So why are so many people opposed to making decisions that serve the interests of the majority of society?
Q: Is utilitarianism something of a socialist position that punishes individuals?
Case Study: The Long Now
The Long Now (TLN) was established 1996 as a way to raise awareness about technology, capitalism, democracy, and long-term responsibility.
TLN foundation grew out of a concern that:
“Civilization is revving itself into a pathologically short attention span. The trend might be coming from the acceleration of technology, the short-horizon perspective of market-driven economics, the next-election perspective of democracies, or the distractions of personal multi-tasking. All are on the increase. Some sort of balancing corrective to the short-sightedness is needed—some mechanism or myth which encourages the long view and the taking of long-term responsibility, where “long-term” is measured at least in centuries.” (http://longnow.org/ about)
Course of Action
What The Long Now has achieved in only 20 years is astounding. Created by nine thought leaders including Danny Hillis (polymath, inventor, scientist, author, engineer, former Vice President for Research and Development at Walt Disney Imagineering, and a Disney Fellow), Stewart Brand (author, environmentalist, entrepreneur, creator of the Whole Earth Catalog, and cofounder of The WELL), Brian Eno (world renown musician, avant-garde performer, and artist), and others. TLN has already begun work on the Millennial Clock project (its original project)—“a large (think Stonehenge) mechanical clock, powered by seasonal temperature changes. It ticks once a year, bongs once a century, and the cuckoo comes out every millennium." The Long Now has also sponsored more than 150 talks by leaders in dozens of fields: art, climate change, education, energy, the environment, the internet, journalism, law, music, public policy, religion, terrorism, etc.
TLN has also funded a number of long view projects including
- purchasing a “two-mile-long swath of mountain land…covered by a forest of ancient bristlecone pine trees” (considered among the world’s oldest living things with some as old as 4,900 years) (http://longnow.org/clock/nevada).
- The Rosetta Project, “a global collaboration of language specialists and native speakers working to build a publicly accessible digital library of human languages” (http://rosettaproject.org).
- PanLex, an effort to make every word of every language of the world’s 7,000 languages accessible to everyone.
- The Long Bets, an effort to improve long-term thinking by encouraging people to find solutions to problems far into the future.
- Revive&Restore, an effort to advance genomic technology and rescue and restore endangered and extinct species of plants and animals.
- “The Interval,” a bar, café, museum, and the home of TLN Foundation (http://theinterval.org/visit).
The principles of TLN are simple: “serve the long view, foster responsibility, reward patience, mind mythic depth, ally with competition, take no sides, and leverage longevity.” The traces of a number of ethical principles are found in each of these principles and in the activities of TLN, including, Communitarianism, Dialogue, Deontology, Utilitarianism, Reciprocal Favoritism, and the Categorical Imperative. What TLN does is guided by ethical principles. The organization’s focus is on the future, and as an official nonprofit, TLN exists solely for the benefit of humanity.
Moral of the Story
Public relations professionals are the guardians of the public good. As organizational counselors and environmental scanners we have the ability to see the big picture and help our colleagues, managers, organizations, and stakeholders and publics see the big picture and focus on the next millennium. Ethical decisions do not just focus on the situation at hand, but consider the future, and how best to serve organizational interests down the road. A sense of duty to do what is right, the application of dialogic principles applied to interactions and decision-making, a focus on doing good for the greatest number, etc., are not simply “ideals,” but achievable states. As the ethical conscience of our organizations, public relations professionals should take inspiration for organizations like TLN, with their focus on ethics and not expediency.