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.”

Next Page: Ethical Orientations: Categorical Imperative