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date: 22 May 2017

Communication Ethics

Summary and Keywords

Communication ethics concerns the creation and evaluation of goodness in all aspects and manifestations of communicative interaction. Because both communication and ethics are tacitly or explicitly inherent in all human interactions, everyday life is fraught with intentional and unintentional ethical questions—from reaching for a cup of coffee to speaking critically in a public meeting. Thus ethical questions infuse all areas of the discipline, including rhetoric, media studies, intercultural/international communication, relational and organization communication, as well as other iterations of the field.

Keywords: philosophy, moral reasoning, values, principles, integrity, power, justice, normativity, alterity, relation


Broadly conceived, ethics concerns the creation and evaluation of goodness, or “the good,” by responding to the general question: How shall we live? What makes any given decision good or right or wrong? Is it ethically good for governments to persuade poor people to fight, and perhaps die, in wars that disproportionately benefit the wealthy? Is it an ethical good for society to provide access to free and quality education to all children? Are politicians obligated to tell the truth to their constituents regardless of the consequence? By wrestling with the ancient human question of what is good, ethicists disclose the inherently social and political nature of communicative phenomenon—whether they are linked to laws, morals, values, and customs and whether they vary from region to region or culture to culture. The word ethics itself comes from the Greek word ethikos, which means habit or custom, whereas the word moral comes from the Latin translation of the Greek word ethikos. Ethics govern and yet are distinct from law. That is, while laws encode values and customs that will be enforced by the power of the state, more generally ethics concern those values and beliefs (whether enforced by law or not) that a society or group or individual believe will most likely create goodness. But as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and others have famously said, one has a moral obligation to disobey unjust laws. And the questions of what makes a law or action just or unjust, who gets to deliberate, and how we decide are some of the central questions of communication ethics.

In the field of communication ethics, scholars draw upon a variety of ethical theories to address questions pertaining to goodness involving all manifestations of communicative interaction. And because both communication and ethics are tacitly or explicitly inherent in all human interactions, everyday life is fraught with intentional and unintentional ethical questions—from reaching for a cup of coffee to speaking up in a public meeting. Thus, ethical questions infuse all areas of the discipline of communication, including rhetoric, media studies, intercultural/international communication, relational and organization communication, and all other iterations of the discipline. Some scholars specialize in communication ethics as a subfield of communication studies with applications to all aspects of the field, while others work more theoretically in search of philosophical inquiry and understanding. After a brief introduction to the history of the field, this article sketches three central characteristics that shape contours of communication ethics scholarship—heterogeneity, interconnectivity, and historicity—and then goes on to follow three central concerns of communication ethics scholarship—integrity, power, and alterity. A brief overview of five modes of ethical reasoning will close the article.

Brief History of the Discipline

Some scholars trace the origins of communication ethics to American public education in the early 1900s, when questions about “speech hygiene” drove researchers to examine the role of education in fostering qualities of moral character and “mental health” in students (Arnett, 1987; Gehrke, 2009). Scholarship in subsequent decades came to emphasize speech education as a means to prepare citizens for participation, as both speakers and listeners, in democracy, and particularly as a way to resist fascist oratory. Developed at a time when access to education and the democratic process was shifting from elites to the masses, these scholars focused on speech education as a means to develop moral excellence in psychological, cognitive, and communicative terms they traced to the classical canon of rhetoric, such as the great Roman teacher/scholar Quintilian’s definition of rhetoric as “the good man speaking well” (Quintilian, 2006). Post-war decades in the United States brought increasing attention to questions of communication ethics involving demagoguery, persuasion, propaganda, and human rights (Lomas, 1961; Nilsen, 1960; Parker, 1972). Central to these studies were concern for accuracy and truthfulness such that “in each persuasive situation there is an ethical obligation to provide listeners with such information as it is possible to provide in the time available and with the medium used” (Nilsen, 1960, p. 201).

In the 1980s and 1990s, communication scholars affiliated with what was then the Speech Communication Association (now the National Communication Association) inaugurated the first communication ethics commission and, subsequently, the first national conference on ethics (Arnett, Bell, & Fritz, 2010). These early scholars, such as Ken Anderson, James A. Jaksa, Richard Johannesen, Clifford Christians, and Ron Arnett, seeded what was to become a fertile field of scholarship connecting all areas of the discipline in ways that bridged philosophical and applied approaches. Also in the latter half of the 20th century, scholars in communication ethics began to wrestle with the problematics of power and truth in order to interrogate ethical questions regarding the relationship between social standpoint and social justice. Influenced by continental theorists such as Jacques Derrida, Jean-Francoise Lyotard, and Michel Foucault, communication ethics were sometimes characterized by the struggle between objectivist, absolutist questions of truth versus subjective, relativist conceptions of truth. Scholars critical of objectivist perspectives drew upon insights from critical, critical race, feminist, post-colonial and post-modernist theories that challenged prevailing orthodoxies about the nature of identity, the status of the subject, and the role of power in constructing models of “the good.” Scholars such as Molefi Asante, Larry Gross, and Janice Hocker Rushing undertook examinations of the relationship of ethics to racism, sexuality, and sexism (Asante, 1992; Gross, 1991; Rushing, 1993).

Influenced in part by Alsdair MacIntyre’s neo-Aristotlean work, “After Virtue,” as well as Jürgen Habermas’s discourse ethics, public sphere theory, and theory of communicative action, scholars in the last part of the 20th and first part of the 21st century became increasingly interested in ethical questions pertaining to truth conditions in political discourse, such as journalism, political rhetoric, and discourse in the public sphere (Baynes, 1994; Ettema & Glasser, 1988). At roughly the same time, an increasing number of communication scholars began to draw on the existentialist and hermeneutic continental scholarship of philosophers such as Martin Buber, Martin Heidegger, and Emmanuel Levinas to explore questions of alterity and otherness as it pertained to relational, rhetorical, and mediated communication (Hyde, 2001; Pinchevski, 2005).

Over the last 100 years, communication ethics has engaged questions about how to create ethical worlds with our communication processes, be they individual, face-to-face, mediated, or institutional. The area of corporate ethics, for example, concerns not “green-leafing” public relations, but institutional practices that create goodness—such as transparency, accountability, and profit-sharing—not just for owners or shareholders, but for all stakeholders including workers, the earth, the animals, and so forth (Groom & Fritz, 2012). Some ethicists, such as Zygmunt Bauman, would likely argue that the concept of corporate ethics is itself oxymoronic: “No moral impulse can survive, let alone emerge unscathed from, the acid test of usefulness or profit. All immorality begins with demanding such a test” (Bauman, 1993). In short, communication ethics concerns the discernment of the good, seeking to balance the competing values, needs, and wants of multiple constituencies inhabiting pluralistic democracies.

General Characteristics: Heterogeneity, Interconnectivity, and Historicity

At this point in time, communication ethics scholarship can be described by three central characteristics: heterogeneity, interconnectivity, and historicity. Communication ethics is marked by heterogeneity through the sheer multiplicity of ethical concerns, disciplinary contexts, theoretical perspectives, and modes of reasoning it can pursue. A question about deception, for example, could be examined in any number of communication contexts (e.g., social media, political campaigns, workplace organization, family relations), from any of a number of theoretical perspectives or concerns (e.g., ideological, dialogic, rhetorical, universalist), employing any number of modes of ethical reasoning (e.g., virtue, deontological, teleological, care) and any combination within and between these categories. Often ethical perspectives and values bump into one another, and the ethicist may employ multiple modes of thought to weigh the priorities of ethical value against another—questions about harassment for example, concerns the values of freedom of speech balanced against freedom from intimidation and harassment.

But heterogeneity should not be mistaken for relativism (Brummett, 1981).1 Because ethical questions are embedded both tacitly and explicitly in all human interactions, communication scholars look at both covert as well as overt questions of ethics. Mission statements, for example, may set an overt frame for ethical values and ideals that a given organization aspires toward, but they may not facilitate the recognition of more hidden ethical questions that play out in daily operations. Similarly, ethical codes and credos that stipulate their norms and values are often written at the level of the individual and therefore obscure how institutions, organizations, and groups also function as (un)ethical agents. Codes and credos can also interfere with individual ethical agency and decision-making by removing from conscious awareness the need for vigilant attention to ethical issues that may be hidden. Other forms of overt ethics involve public argument, laws, policies, principals, guidelines, and so forth. In contrast, tacit ethics are implicit patterns of communicative interaction institutions that have ethical implications. That is, communication ethics looks not merely at individual agency and intersubjective processes but also at institutional norms, structural arrangements, and systematic patterns. In communication ethics, ethical questions are a question of not (only) individual agency but of shared implicit and explicit habits, norms, and patterns of communicative action. Communication ethics is therefore quite deliberate in examining both overt and covert contexts.

Heterogeneity also arises through the sheer number of values that may come into conflict in any given situation. In the case of hate speech, for example, the values of free speech bump up against the values of freedom from intimidation, harassment, and violation. Similarly, from the purview of communication ethics, context can mean nearly, if not fully, everything. The question of what makes a convincing ethical argument changes from setting to setting. In the context of a religious setting, for example, reasoning based on tradition and authority might take precedence over reasoning based on compassion and care. Within any given religious community, people wrestle with questions about how much they shall be governed by intelligence, compassion, and outcome and how much by faith. When intelligence tells us one thing and compassion another, which should we trust? Similarly, tensions between local and state or federal control can also shape what values or modes of reasoning take precedence. The communication ethicist must face this nearly endlessly multiplicitous diversity in her inquiry into questions of the good.

Because communication ethics is an immanent subfield that, like the myriad processes of communication itself, is inextricable from the deeply interconnected manifestations of all human interaction, our communicative interactions are inevitably intertwined. Interdependency manifests in the recognition that humans are socially embedded beings and therefore that no self exists completely independent of the social conditions (e.g., language, customs, narratives, hierarchies) from which that self emerged. But it is not simply the self that may or may not consciously choose a given action; communication ethicists also look at how actions choose persons. A worker in a health insurance industry is given an incentive to deny health claims knowing not only that if she does not do it someone else will, but that if she refuses she will be fired and her family will lose its insurance, upon which her disabled child depends. How much ethical agency and “freedom” can such a worker exert? Similarly, the financial managers of this company know that without such incentives, the company will lose money leading to layoffs of workers and possibly denial of even more claims. Thus, not only can there be a kind of independent ethical agency that stands apart from the set of relations it inhabits, there is little possibility of any ethical agent perceiving or anticipating all these ethical interconnections. I may serve my family a healthy dinner of quinoa not knowing that, as an indirect result, thousands of peasants high in the Andes can no longer afford to feed their families the very grain they grow.

Communication ethics is also deeply responsive to the historical events, conditions, and conventions that give rise to every communicative interaction. This can be seen in work on public memory, an area fraught with ethical questions—which historical events are commemorated or memorialized, and which are forgotten (Bruner, 2006; Vivian, 2010)? What events rise to the level of national concern—that is, which events are remembered so as to reflect a shared national or cultural identity? Why is there a Holocaust museum but not a Native American genocide museum? Why have there been no reparations for centuries of American slavery? History relates to ethics via other questions of narrative, public and private. What stories are told, from whose point of view? When or how are these stories punctuated, and who speaks and who is ignored? When communication ethics examines concerns of power, it also explores how struggles over meaning and meaning making are always in dialogue with past and present discourses and regimes of power. How do the historical tensions between the differing goals of public education (i.e., serving to foster public goods such as democracy, liberty and citizenship vs. imposing social control through social stratification, compulsory subordination, and coerced conformity) continue to play out in today’s public debates about education policy, from questions of No child left behind to the neoliberal moves to privatization? And what are the implications of education policy for class position, labor conditions, and increasing economic inequality? What has led public discourses about public goods to be subsumed so readily under neoliberal discourses emphasizing self-sufficiency and individual autonomy (Oh & Banjo, 2012; Saunders, 2010)?

Integrity: Truth, Truthfulness, and Trust

Questions of truth and trust have long been at the center of communication ethics inquiry. As she noted in her classic treatise On Lying, Sissela Bok argues that few if any human groups, organizations, institutions, or states could succeed without the background assumptions of truthfulness (Bok, 1979). Distinguishing between truth and truthfulness, Bok puts the burden upon an individual’s active intention—intentionally misleading others differs, to Bok, from unknowingly uttering a falsehood. This distinction between conscious intention and unintentional distortion has been central to studies of journalism ethics, where questions of staged, falsified, and censored news are central (Wilcox, 1961; Wulfemeyer, 1985; Zelizer, 2007). Other questions involve the role of objectivity in news, its epistemic (im)possibility, and the ethical implications distinguishing between impartiality and objectivity (Carey, 1989; Malcolm, 2011; Ward, 2004). The role of the press as a watchdog of democracy has also been of central concern to journalist ethicists, principally through its imagined role as the fourth estate (or branch) of American government and the ethical implications of increasingly concentrated corporate ownership (Bagdikian, 2004; Huff & Roth, 2013; McChesney, 2014). A host of other issues, such as censorship, omission, bias, confidentiality, deception, libel, misrepresentation, slander, and witness, have long been central to ethical concerns in journalism. And some scholars, such as Stephen Ward (2005), have argued for a new philosophical basis for journalism ethics.

But issues of integrity are not just central to journalism—other modes of mediated communication also give rise to ethical questions about appropriation, colonization, and misrepresentation in addition to the kinds of human interactions these media call forth (D’Arcy, 2012; Munshi, Broadfoot, & Smith, 2011). Jaron Lanier (2010), for example, has written extensively about ethical questions related to social media, including what he calls “Hive Mind” that induces mob behavior, an overall lack of independence, groupthink, and depersonalization. Lanier also finds fault with social media’s alienation of information from experience and the drive for anonymity that induces violation, reductionism, insincerity, and a general lack of intellectual modesty. Similarly, in an examination of fearless speech, Foucault (2001) looks into a series of questions about the philosophical foundations of parrhesia: “Who is able to tell the truth? What are the moral, the ethical, and the spiritual conditions which entitle someone to present himself as a truth-teller? About what topics is it important to tell the truth? What are the consequences of telling the truth?”

Ethical questions about truth and truth telling also show up in rhetorical studies, especially those involving regarding history and politics (Johnstone, 1980; Newman, 1995). Whistleblowing is another communicative phenomenon where issues of integrity meet ethics. Ostensibly, “whistleblowing happens when ethical discourse becomes impossible, when acting ethically is tantamount to becoming a scapegoat” (Alford, 2001, p. 36). Yet, according to Alford, the common narrative of the whistleblower as a martyr to truth who is seeking institutional redemption is not played out in the lived experiences of whistleblowers. In fact, the whistleblower is by definition only constituted by processes of institutional retaliation wherein the whistleblower is punished and the institution merely carries on. Even laws supposedly aimed to protect whistleblowers function merely at the level of procedure, which work in turn to reinforce institutional power leaving questions of morality as purely private, not public, affairs. “To act politically in this depoliticized public space is to be a scapegoat” (Alford, 2001, p. 130). Other areas involving integrity in a wide variety of communication ethics contexts include questions of authenticity, betrayal, cynicism, demagoguery, denial, disclosure, distortion, erasure, exposure, falsification, mystification, obfuscation, omission, secrecy, selectivity, silence, surveillance, suspicion, and transparency (Herrscher, 2002; Ivie, 1980).

Power: Justice, Normativity, and Force

Power is another central thread in communication ethics scholarship that reveals the extent to which politics and ethics are deeply interconnected. Power is here understood to describe the capacity to impose, maintain, repair, and transform particular modes of social structuring that explicitly and implicitly condition our ideas about the good. When ethical values rise to the level of social/cultural importance, they become laws and not merely customs. But all laws and questions of justice are inherently ethical questions insofar as they inherently shape the contours of what any given community conceives of as the good. As Reinhold Niebuhr put it, “Politics will, to the end of history, be an area where conscience and power meet, where the ethical and the coercive factors of human life will interpenetrate and work out tentative and uneasy compromises” (2013, p. 4). The relationships between ethics and power can be understood in terms of three dimensions—justice, normativity, and force.

Normativity is a form of power with wide-ranging ethical implications. Not only do social norms become a framework within which all forms of the good (and by extension, the bad) may be produced, they also invisibly become part of the interconnected embeddedness of the social that make subjectivity itself possible. Gender, for example, is a form of social normativity with far-ranging ethical implications. Not only do gender conventions govern nearly every conceivable variation of human interaction (from the professions to child raising), violations of gender norms are soundly punished, often violently. Similarly, because every binary includes a hierarchy, in the case of gender male standards are not only normative but unmarked as such even while they serve to set the standard of what is “good” in many situations. Thus evaluations of performance of many communicative actions such as oratory, argument, debate, writing, turn-taking, holding the floor, delivering instruction, and so forth, may appear to be gender neutral when in fact the very standards of quality and merit may be deeply embedded in normatively masculine gender conventions. Thus, because of its relation to ideology as a means of legitimating existing social relations and differences of power, status quo, and common sense, normativity can exert tremendous and often invisible power that inevitable engender ethical questions. Who dictates the terms of what is normative, correct, standard, common sense?

At the same time, however, normativity fuels the very machinery of everyday communicative action. Without predetermined conventions, such as those that govern traffic (street, commerce, or Internet), human interactions would be fraught with peril or even simply impossible. Similarly, what some consider to be the social contract—the implicit moral obligations we have by virtue of being part of society—make everyday life in the shared social world possible. But at the same time, norms and conventions by necessity make some things possible and others impossible. A good example of the role of normativity in ethical questions of power relates to the questions of national and world languages. Language plays a significant role in the production, maintenance, and change in relations of power. For example, although to many native English speakers the United States appears to be a mono-linguistic society, the truth is quite the contrary. Some tens of millions of American speak more than 25 languages other than English (not including the more than 175 native American languages now spoken in the United States) with 17.5 million Spanish speakers (Schmid, 2001). The implications of exclusive usage and public acceptance of English-only policies and laws involve a constellation of ethical questions ranging from access to recognition (in terms of citizenship, voting, education, courts, medical care, etc.).

Similarly, there are enormous political and ethical implications of so-called world English wherein there are 1.5 billion English speakers in the world, where English is designated as an official language of 62 nations, and where English serves of the dominant language of science, academic publishing, and international organizations (Tsuda, 2008). From a global perspective, world English can serve as problem of linguistic hegemony, whereby English dominates as a form of linguistic imperialism with ethical consequences ranging from linguistic and communicative inequality, to discrimination, and colonization of the consciousness (Tsuda, 2008). Thus, issues of communicative competence are not ethically neutral but can in fact become political means of social stratification employing linguistic, discursive, and social norms. Because discourses are ways of displaying membership in particular social groups, communicative norms can also serve to include as well as exclude, to mark as insider or outsider, and as a means to regulate other forms of behavior. Other issues of normativity that touch on communication ethics therefore include belonging, civility, codes, community, common sense, conformity, consensus, identity, homogeneity, legitimation, locality, loyalty, mimesis, narrativity, political correctness, precepts, principals, propriety, prudence, ratification, representation, rules, standards, uniformity, unity, and universalism (Lozano-Reich & Cloud, 2009).

The area of justice provides yet another means by which power interrelates with communication ethics. Typically, justice revolves around questions of rights, fairness, due process, discrimination, equality, equity, impartiality, participation, privilege, recognition, sovereignty, and so forth. The American political philosopher John Rawls maintained that justice was equivalent to fairness, and he designed a thought experiment called the veil of ignorance as a means to determine principles of justice (as fairness) in a given community. Rawls’s veil was intended to conceal the social position of each participant in the deliberation of justice. In other words, people would deem principles of fairness without knowing where in society they would end up at the end of the day. In Rawls’s view, meritocracy cannot be just unless everyone begins at the same starting line with the same resources, experiences, endowments, etc. So what principles would those behind the veil choose? Rawls says we would choose equal basic liberties for everyone, with social and economic inequalities existing only if they worked to the advantage of the least well off members of society. To Rawls, the facts of inequitable distribution of economic or other success or failure are, to a large degree, outside of our control and thus neither just nor unjust. What is just and unjust is the way that public and political institutions deal with these facts. Some communication ethicists, however, have challenged these Rawlsian ideals of the capacity for neutral imagination (Couldry, Gray, & Gillespie, 2013; Munshi, Broadfoot, & Smith, 2011).

Explicit and overt questions of communication ethics often involve the values of justice. Ethical credos, honor codes, moral principles, and ethical guidelines often stipulate “right vs. wrong” scenarios as a means to get at the good. When questions of justice need to be arbitrated, deliberative methods that weigh first principles, outcomes, and precedent are often employed. But these themselves often beg the ethical question of who deliberates, under what conditions, and with what resources (Fraser, 1994; Habermas, 1989). A community dialogue meant to empower citizens largely disenfranchised from the halls of power must contend with questions of access, competence, and convention that underlie the very possibilities of deliberation. For example, when knowledge and communication skills leading to social power are made available to advantaged social groups but are withheld from less advantaged groups in society, a community “dialogue” can inadvertently become an instrument of injustice (Gastil, Lingle, & Deess, 2010; Jovanovic, 2012). Similarly, inequitable access to the resources of symbolic capital—the prestige, privilege, and education needed to constitute arguments—cannot be just if the allocation of those resources is unequal and available only to a few.

Questions of force are often directly related to justice in that they present manifestations of state and social power that can violently silence, repress, or simply rule “out of order” questions of justice. Force creates situations in which people are not able to speak for themselves, where those in power do not listen, and when the very language needed to articulate claims to justice is not understood. An example of the ethical dimensions of force can be seen in Scott’s (1990) idea of the “hidden transcript,” a form of hidden public discourse produced by and witnessed only by those without the power to set norms and the claims of justice. As Scott writes, even the most violent political oppression never completely silences the voices of the oppressed—the unspeakable is spoken clandestinely through discourse hidden from those in power: “Most of the political life of subordinate groups is to be found neither in overt collective defiance of power holders nor in complete hegemonic compliance, but in the vast territory between these two polar opposites” (1990, p. 136). Similarly, Squires (2002) draws on this concept to examine how subordinated groups voice political resistance in disguise, hidden between the lines of the official or public transcript in a multiplicity of coded forms: “In the history of Black public spheres, the pressures of living in a racist society, the ongoing fight for equality, and the rich cultural reserves have necessitated” the use of hidden transcripts (Squires, 2002, p. 457). Thus explicit force such as prohibitions of speaking and listening are met with implicit and explicit modes of force involving rumor, gossip, disguises, linguistic tricks, metaphors, euphemisms, folktales, and ritual gestures: “For good reason, nothing is entirely straightforward here; the realities of power for subordinate groups mean that much of their political action requires interpretation precisely because it is intended to be cryptic and opaque” (Scott, 1990, p. 137).

Other forms of the power of force can be seen in the selective aggregation of “big data” by media and Internet conglomerates, or the everyday silencing, censorship, coercion, compulsion, confession, diagnosis, interrogation, negation, marginalization, repression, and prohibition that occur in workplaces, schools, governments, and other organizations where force overtly and covertly serves power (Fairfield & Shtein, 2014; Nunan & Di Domenico, 2013). But force also resists power in forms such as (re)appropriation, critique, extortion, framing, mobility, negation, networks, parrhesia, speaking truth to power, subversion, and even violence. For example, during the height of state violence in response to the American civil rights movement, a group of Quakers began pamphleteering, witnessing, and organizing in search for forceful responses to violence. In their 1955 pamphlet, “Speak truth to Power,” the Quakers wrote, “if ever truth reaches power, if ever it speaks to the individual citizen, it will not be the argument that convinces. Rather it will be his own inner sense of integrity that impels him to say, ‘Here I stand. Regardless of relevance or consequence, I can do no other’” (Rustin, 1955, p. 68).

Relation: Alterity and Compassion

Another central thread of communication ethics is the idea of the relation as ontologically basic, meaning that no self can exist outside of the myriad relationships that make up the social matrix of communication. As Martin Buber wrote, “man did not exist before having a fellow being, before he lived over against him, toward him, and that means before he had dealings with him. Language never existed before address” (1998, p. 105). The relational thread of communication ethics calls upon us to never lose sight of the radical alterity, or otherness, of the other. That is, we are asked to never mistake our understanding of the other for the other herself, never to impose our meaning and understanding upon him, never to attempt to absorb/assimilate/appropriate the other into ourselves. We are enjoined to avoid absorbing the other’s difference into my own same.

One of the central concerns of communication ethics pertains to our relation to others and, in particular, to the radical otherness, or alterity, of others. Post-modern and post-colonial literatures have clearly identified and lucidly critiqued the many ways in which political hegemons cast the other in the role of feared and threatening stranger where the other is depicted as without humanity or legitimacy, resulting in patterns of annihilation, oppression, and alienation or of appropriation, assimilation, and absorption. In contrast, the ethical relation to alterity approaches the other as welcomed—as “the stranger, the widow, the orphan” (Levinas, 1969, p. 77). To Levinas, the other is a moral center to whom one owes everything, and the other must always come first, not last: “To recognize the Other is to recognize a hunger. To recognize the Other is to give. But it is to give to the master, to the lord, to him whom one approaches as ‘Vous’ in a dimension of height” (1969, p. 75).

In writing about this second, ethical sense of alterity, Levinas observes how the other is always more than she appears: “The face of the Other at each moment destroys and overflows the plastic image it leaves me” (1969, p. 51). The acknowledgment of alterity enables speakers to acknowledge, if not honor, radical differences in thought, belief, political and social location, communicative, symbolic and social capital, and so forth. Other aspects of alterity that arise in communication ethics involve relations of alienation, ambiguity, asymmetry, contradiction, cosmopolitanism, discord, diversity, incongruity, interruption, intersectionality, and ostracism (Arneson, 2014; Hyde, 2012; Pinchevski, 2005).

Thus, unlike a Habermasian discourse ethics of the ideal speech situation, where interlocutors are instructed to “bracket status differentials and deliberate as if they were social equals,” (Fraser, 1994, p. 117), or a Rawlsian theory of justice, which asks interlocutors to deliberate behind a “veil of ignorance,” alterity deliberately invites and acknowledges difference, acknowledging that each of us arrive “on the scene” of communication with different histories, traditions, values, and experiences. The acknowledgment of alterity gives rise to a sense of ethical responsibility—the ability to respond to the other—which leads to compassion. To Buber, therefore, “Genuine responsibility exists only when there is real responding” (1975, p. 16). Ethical compassion arises not because one identifies with the others’ suffering but because one recognizes the other’s alterity, and therefore, her suffering. As Noddings writes, “I do not ‘put myself in the other's shoes,’ so to speak, by analyzing his reality as objective data and then asking, ‘How would I feel in such a situation?’ On the contrary, I set aside my temptation to analyze and plan. I do not project; I receive the other into myself, and I see and feel with the other” (1984, p. 30).

Noddings illustrates the idea of empathic engrossment as our response to an infant crying. We know something is wrong, and the infant’s feeling becomes ours. This is not a problem-solving state, but a feeling-with state. Thus ethical compassion is not vulnerable to ideological ideas about worthy and unworthy suffering but simply feels with the other because she is suffering. Therefore, relational compassion is open to transformation of the self wherein “we are not attempting to transform the world, but we are allowing ourselves to be transformed” (Noddings, 1984, p. 34). The relational dimension of communication ethics are also important in feminist care-based ethics, focusing less on the rights of individuals and more upon caring responsibilities in relationships (Tronto, 1993). Other dimensions of compassion that arise in communication ethics involve acknowledgment, advocacy, affirmation, amnesty, atonement, attunement, embodiment, forgiveness, generosity, gratitude, humility, kindness, leisure, precarity, reconciliation, and sharing (Arnett, 2013; Holba, 2014).

Discussion of the Literature: Five Modes of Ethical Reasoning

As a branch of philosophy, ethics concerns questions about what makes some actions right and some wrong in a given context. Throughout history all cultures have developed particular doctrines or philosophies of the good, many of which are classified in the West along four primary lines: virtue ethics, which locate the good in the virtuous character and qualities of actions or individuals; deontological ethics, which locate the good in an act or an individual’s adherence to duties or principles; teleological ethics, which locate the good in the consequences of actions and choices; and dialogic ethics, which locate the good in the relations between persons. During the 20th century, postmodern ethics has called these prior ethical theories into question by challenging not merely the value of rules, procedures, systems, and fixed categories for understanding or theorizing ethics, but the humanist ideas of persons as autonomous agents who can act independently as ethical agents. Below are described five such modes of ethical reasoning.

Most commonly associated with the 5th-century bce Greek philosopher Aristotle, virtue ethics focus on the choice, cultivation, and enactment of “virtuous” qualities, such as courage, temperance, truthfulness, and justice, in both the individual and in civic life. In his foundational Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle (1998) describes how virtue is an expression of character in which we become temperate by doing temperate acts. In the Aristotelian sense, then, ethics are a human activity rather than a creed, principle, or goal. Most religious traditions articulate a number of overlapping virtues, many of which derive in turn from even earlier traditions and cultures. For example, the so-called cardinal virtues of 12th-century Roman Christianity emphasize courage, prudence, temperance, and justice; these were derived from the earlier Greek philosophies of Plato and Aristotle that in turn derive from far earlier Egyptian wisdom literature (ca. 3000 bce). Similarly, the 5th-century bce Paramitas of Indian Buddhism stress generosity, patience, honesty, and compassion and are derived in part from virtues articulated in Hindu scriptures that originated around 1000 bce. Further east in 5th-century bce China, both Confusianism and Taoism identified virtues such as empathy, reciprocity, and harmony for the cultivation of an ethical personal and civic life. Even the 18th-century American political virtues of Jeffersonian democracy (inscribed in the Declaration of Independence as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness) derive in part from the Aristotelian idea of Eudaimonia, the happiness caused by living a virtuous life. Outside of religious traditions, contemporary Euro-American theorists of ethical virtue, sometimes called neo-Aristotelians, locate virtue variously, for example, in the enactment of intentions and motives (Phillipa Foot, Michael Slote), in practical action or phronesis (Alsdair McIntyre), and in the civic value of emotions, especially compassion (Martha Nussbaum).

Deontological ethics (derived from the Greek word for duty) are most commonly associated with the 18th-century Prussian philosopher Immanuel Kant, who constructed a theory of moral reasoning based not on virtues, outcomes, or emotions but on duties and obligations. In his book Foundations for a Metaphysics of Morals, Kant proposes that ethics are based on a universal law that he calls the categorical imperative. Sometimes mistakenly confused with the golden rule (i.e., do unto others as you would have them do unto you), the categorical imperative holds that a person should only act on the principles that she or he would want everyone else to always act upon. Kant’s universal law is categorical because there are absolutely no exceptions under any conditions, and it is imperative because it is a necessary duty to which everyone must adhere. But the imperative is dictated not by goods in and of themselves, but by logical reasoning. For example, Kant argues that the ethical prohibition against lying is a categorical imperative because if lying were universalized, no one would believe lies, which depend for themselves on public trust. Bok’s work on lying builds upon this logical contradiction inherent in lying. Similarly, the second formulation of Kant’s categorical imperative—which states that we should never treat people as means to our ends, but always as ends in and of themselves—is readily understood as a universalizable, prohibitive law. Other deontological ethical theories include religious and monastic approaches (such as adhering to divine commands, doctrinal principles, and the fulfillment of monastic vows) and social-contract theories based on the philosophers Thomas Hobbes and Jeans-Jacques Rousseau. In contemporary Euro-American contexts, deontologists, also called neo-Kantians, have developed rights-based approaches (e.g., John Rawls’s theory of justice), discourse-based approaches (e.g., Jürgen Habermas’s discourse ethics), and contract-based approaches (e.g., Thomas Scanlon’s contractualism). Significantly for communication, both Habermas’s and Rawls’s theories center on processes of communication from which ethical norms and principles are derived. For example, Habermas’s discourse ethics prescribes the development and acceptance of rationally grounded validity claims and non-transcendable norms that are produced in democratic argumentation, whereas Rawls’s theory of justice relies upon the discursive achievement of overlapping consensus and public reason. Both approaches have been critiqued on a number of grounds from differing theoretical perspectives, including feminist, postmodernist, Marxist, communitarian, libertarian, and noncognitivist. For example, Chantal Mouffe critiques both Habermas’s and Rawls’s theories because they rely upon idealized, conceptually impossible, and hyper-rational models of deliberative democracy.

Sometimes considered the foil of deontological ethics, teleological (from the Greek word for goal) ethical theories (also known as consequentialist) exercise moral judgments based on the outcomes and consequences of actions rather than on principles, duties, or virtues. Among the most common ethical theories are utilitarianism and ethical egoism. Utilitarianism, associated with the 18th-century British philosophies of John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham, theorizes that we are ethically bound to do what is best for the most people. According to Mill, for example, actions are good when they promote the greatest happiness for the greatest number. In the contemporary Euro-American context, consequentialist theorists include Peter Singer, who extends utilitarianism to include the good of animals and other beings on the planet; Shelly Kagan, who defends consequentialism from critiques by contemporary deontological ethicists; and Amarta Sen, who applies utilitarian ethics to economics, democracy, and public health. Another form of teleological ethics—ethical egoism (which is sometimes called rational self-interest theory)—theorizes that all ethical actions are ultimately self-serving, even those that appear to be self-sacrificing. Some contemporary theorists argue an ethical egoist position from a psychological point of view that stresses the emotional and social benefits of ethical actions to self, whereas others argue ethical egoism from an evolutionary point of view that stresses the genetic and biological benefits to self. Still others argue ethical egoism from a rational point of view, positing that both individuals and society benefit when each individual benefits. Teleological ethics have been critiqued on a number of grounds from a number of perspectives, especially the deontological and virtue-based approaches. Martha Nussbaum, for example, argues that consequentialist reasoning all too easily leads to a kind of heartless cost-benefit calculation that excludes the full expanses of the ethical.

Associated largely with late 20th-century Euro-American philosophers, such as Zygmunt Bauman, Joseph Caputo, and Michel Foucault, but also with feminist ethicists such as Carol Gilligan, Joan Tronto, and Nel Noddings, postmodern ethicists critique so-called modernist and enlightenment ethical philosophies such as virtue, deontological, and teleological ethics. Rather than conceptualizing human beings as free, autonomous, independent, and rational agents, as do the modernist theorists, postmodernists view human beings as inter-related, inter-dependent, contradictory, emotional, and, occasionally at least, irrational social beings. Drawing in part on the 19th-century philosopher Frederick Nietzsche, who crafted a brilliant challenge to traditional religion, philosophy, and morality, post-modern ethicists further reject modernist ideals of certainty, universalism, and essentialism, as well as rules, codifications, and systems. In place of ethical rules or precepts, for example, Zygmunt Bauman posits the idea of moral responsibility in which each person must stretch out towards others in pursuit of the good in all situations, even, or perhaps most especially, when what is the good is most uncertain. Thus, Bauman cautions against certainty, calculation, and precept, arguing that reason alone is an insufficient basis for ethical action. Similarly, feminist ethicists from a range of perspectives, such as Annette Baier’s virtue-oriented ethics to Chantal Mouffe’s Marxist-oriented ethics, critique deontological perspectives such as Rawls’s idea of the priority of the right over the good because it categorically privileges individualistic and abstract rights over collective goods and values. From a somewhat different postmodern perspective, Michel Foucault posits ethics as caring for the self through what he calls a practice of freedom. Joseph Caputo, in contrast, argues against ethics itself and in its place posits the affirmation of the other, the singularity of each ethical situation, and the centrality of the unqualified, unconditional gift that requires precisely those things that are not required.

Rather than theorizing an ethics based in individual character, duty, outcome, or interest, dialogic ethics locates the ethical in the intersubjective sphere of communicative relationships between and among persons. The issues of response and responsibility are woven into the center of dialogic ethics. Associated largely with the work of two 20th-century Jewish European philosophers, Martin Buber and Emmanual Levinas, dialogic ethics posits ethics as first philosophy wherein the ethical relation with the other, rather than the ontology of the self, is understood to be foundational to human experience. To Buber, the person becomes a person by saying Thou and thereby entering into relation with other persons. The Thou, in Buber’s understanding, is not a monadic subjectivity but a relation of intersubjectivity, or development of mutual meaning, that arises from people cohabiting communication exchanges in which understanding arises from what happens in between the subjectivity of persons. To Levinas, one’s personal subjectivity can only arise through one’s own responsibility to the other, who is utterly different from oneself and to whom one owes everything. Dialogic ethics thus requires a healthy respect for the irreducible alerity, or otherness, of persons with whom one has dialogue, wherein the self never mistakes its own understanding of the other for the other herself. In the context of communication studies, dialogic ethics has generated a rich body of research by contemporary scholars such as Kenneth Anderson, Ronald Arnett, Rob Cissna, Michael Hyde, and Jeffrey Murray wherein the ultimate issues in communication ethics pertain not so much to words themselves, but rather to the ethical realm in which communication is constitutive of persons, cultures, publics, and relationships. For example, to Cissna and Anderson, dialogic ethics involve an awakening of other-awareness that occurs in and through a moment of meeting.

In the field of communication, ethicists make use of all of the above theories in approaching questions of ethics in interpersonal, intercultural, mediated, institutional, organizational, rhetorical, political, and public communication contexts. Clifford Christians and Michael Traber, for example, take a deontological approach in searching for ethical universals and protonorms across cultures. In contrast, Josina Makau and Ronald Arnett take a more dialogic approach in a volume on communication ethics and diversity. In contrast, Fred Casmir takes a multi-perspectival approach to intercultural and international communication ethics. More recently, Michael Hyde has drawn on the dialogic ethics of Emmanuel Levinas to explore ethical rhetorical action in personal and public life, and Sharon Bracci and Clifford Christians have brought a wide range of ethical perspectives to bear on a range of communication questions.

In the classroom, communication ethicists emphasize the importance of cultivating attunement to silences, erasures, and misrecognitions that occur when one voice speaks in place of another or when another is silenced. By asking questions such as who speaks, who is heard, or whose voice is rendered unintelligible, students are encouraged to more fully recognize both tacit and overt ethical questions in all manner of communicative interactions. While most communication ethics textbooks tend to include some combination of theory, disciplinary context, and applied context, each tends to principally emphasize one or two of these areas. Some communication ethics textbooks are organized principally around modes of moral reasoning, while others address ethics as it is understood in different areas of the field. Some textbooks are embedded in specific applied contexts such as the workplace or the media, and some attempt to combine theory, disciplinary context, and value.

Addendum: Some Key Themes of Communication Ethics














































































Due Process







Group Think






































































Listening Otherwise


































Propaganda Secrecy







Response &








































Truth telling

















Websites/Other Information

Communication Ethics Division of NCA:

Institute of Communication Ethics:

Quintilian’s Institutes of Oratory:

Further Reading

Anderson, K. E., & Tompkins, P. S. (2015). Practicing communication ethics: Development, discernment, and decision-making. New York: Routledge.Find this resource:

Arnett, R. C. (1986). Communication and community: Implications of Martin Buber’s dialogue. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.Find this resource:

Casmir, F. L. (1997). Ethics in intercultural and international communication. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.Find this resource:

Cheney, G., Lair, D. J., Ritz, D., & Kendall, B. E. (2009). Just a job? : Communication, ethics, and professional life. New York: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

Cheney, G., May, S., & Munshi, D. (Eds.). (2011). The handbook of communication ethics. New York: Routledge.Find this resource:

Chesebro, J. W. (1973). Cultures in conflict—a generic and axiological view. Today’s Speech, 21(2), 11–20.Find this resource:

Christians, C., & Traber, M. (1997). Communication ethics and universal values. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.Find this resource:

Cissna, K. N., & Anderson, R. (2002). Moments of meeting: Buber, Rogers, and the potential for public dialogue. Albany: State University of New York Press.Find this resource:

Couldry, N., Madianou, M., & Pinchevski, A. (Eds.). (2013). Ethics of media. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire, U.K.: Palgrave Macmillan.Find this resource:

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Foucault, M. (1997). Ethics: Subjectivity and truth. (P. Rabinow, Ed. and R. Hurley et al., Trans.). New York: The New Press.Find this resource:

Habermas, J. (1990). Moral consciousness and communicative action. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Find this resource:

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Harker, M. (2007). The ethics of argument: Rereading Kairos and making sense in a timely fashion. CCC, 59(1), 77–97.Find this resource:

Hyde, M. J. (2001). The call of conscience: Heidegger and Levinas. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press.Find this resource:

Johannesen, R. L. (2002). Ethics in human communication (5th ed.). Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press.Find this resource:

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Levinas, E. (1998). Otherwise than being. (Alphonso Lingis, Trans.). Pittsburgh, PA.Find this resource:

Lipari, L. (2014). Listening, thinking, being: Toward an ethics of attunement. State College: Penn State University Press.Find this resource:

Makau, J. M. (1997). Communication ethics in an age of diversity. Urbana: University of Illiinois.Find this resource:

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(1.) And some scholars have made the case for ethical relativism in certain contexts of communication. See, for example, Barry Brummett, A Defense of Ethical Relativism as Rhetorically Grounded, Western Journal of Speech Communication: WJSC, 45(4) (Fall 1981), 286–298.