4 Ethical Deliberation: Thinking and Reasoning Ethically

Annette Holba

Introduction: Traditional Ethical Lenses that Guide Ethical Decision-Making

Ethical Issues:

1. Are all decisions we make ethical?

2. What is an ethical issue or what makes an issue ethical?

Paula Tompkins (2011), Professor Emerita at St. Cloud State University, argues that “Practicing ethics involves discerning ethical issues and making decisions about how to act. Ethical discernment is the ability to recognize ethical issues and make ethical distinctions in order to formulate judgments about what is good, right, or virtuous. In ethical decision-making, an individual uses those judgments to guide her decisions about how to act ethically” (p. 5). Professor Tompkins (2011) understands ethics as practical philosophy and suggests that “communication ethics rests on the idea that individual acts and episodes of communication are important; they are not trivial” (p.6).

Because Tompkins (2011) identifies communication as ephemeral, rhetorical, and transactional, with dimensions of content, relationship, authenticity—there involves a constituent process of communicative engagement—and all of these aspects suggest that what, how, and why we communicate matters. For Tompkins, all communicative gestures, transactions, and even unintentional acts/behaviors have ethical dimensions. Therefore, we cannot continue to communicate on a daily basis without thinking about our communicative practices and what impacts they have on ourselves, others, and society as a whole.

Let’s unpack her description of communication which will help us to see why all communicative gestures have ethical dimensions.

According to Tompkins (2011), communication is:

  • Ephemeral – because communication, especially when spoken, vaporizes once it is said. Even written communication vaporizes its possibility of meaning and simultaneously it is irrevocable because the written form exists and it is consumed or read by others. When communication is exchanged in some fashion, it cannot be taken back or taken away. We might try to fix the message, restate them message, address the message in some way but even so, it still existed for others to experience. Even if it is no longer present in existence, it was still delivered in some way and the message, its meaning, and its impact is eternally present. The echo of the message still exists in memories and in thoughts. So, even if we try to explain or clarify, the original “saidness” is never forgotten; it remains in its absence as everpresent.
  • Rhetorical – communication has the power to manipulate, persuade, and impact other people, entities, and environments. Because of the rhetoricality of communication, there is also an inherent responsibility to the other that is undeniable and inescapable. We must understand that everything communicated has the possibility of impacting others.
  • Transactional – communication is between people, between people and environments, between people and entities/organizations. This means there is a transactional, interdependence that occurs naturally in human communication.

Communication has dimensions of:

  • Content – the message (logos)
  • Relationship – people (pathos)
  • Authenticity – ethics (ethos)

You might recognize these dimensions as being first acknowledged and developed by Aristotle (384BC-322BC) in his rhetorical triangle, a key part in his rhetorical theory. Logos has to do with the logic of a message. Pathos has to do with the emotional appeal of the argument (and may be the strongest persuasive element). Ethos has to do with the credibility of the speaker/message creator and it originates from the Greek word for ethics.

Some philosophers create very specific criteria for what makes something ethical or an ethical matter. For Tompkins, the act and event of communication is inherently always-already ethical. There is no avoiding ethics in communication.

Ethical issues can blow us off course. In order to not get blown off course, you have to know where you stand and what your particular “course” or path is, how it looks, and what it means. We know that as young children and as emerging adults, peer pressure holds some level of influence for many people. While we like to think that we make our own decisions and that we are not influenced by those around us, that simply is not true to the same extent for every person. We have studied the influence of media upon our decisions, choices, and experiences to some extent just by virtue of being a Communication and Media Studies student so we know that influences from media, others, and our environments are real, subtle, and sometimes not positive. Keeping this in mind, getting to know who we are individually without the influence of others can be helpful in understanding our individual moral compass and our ethical positioning and preferences in decision-making. This course is designed to enable us to learn about ourselves, be honest with ourselves, and begin to understand who we are as human beings embedded in a culture with other human beings. Learning about ourselves will help us to understand how we make decisions where we are right now in our lives outside of a judgmental framework. Once we know who we are and where we are, only then can we decide if we like what we see and if it matches our ideal vision. This is the first step of understanding our “course” which is then the first step of staying on course and not being blown off course.

Traditionally, ethical decision-making has been discussed through three broad lenses. These lenses are very traditional and could be familiar to you if you have already taken an ethics course in a philosophy curriculum. Some of these lenses also have sub lenses attached to them. You might have heard about some of these lenses in other courses. These lenses are: virtue ethics, deontological ethics, and consequentialist ethics. These three lenses emerge from the domain of philosophy (understanding ethics as being a branch of philosophy) and have been the hallmarks of Western philosophy since the early Greek influences (such as Plato and Aristotle and others before their lifetimes). There is another lens that sometimes is not part of the traditional discussion on ethical lenses and it will be highlighted in this course. This lens emerged from the communication discipline though it does have explicit roots in and ties to Aristotle’s virtue ethics; while being obviously different in focus, we call this dialogic ethics. When you hear the couplet, communication ethics, in scholarly books, articles, discussions, the speaker is most often specifically referring to dialogic ethics. It is important to have some understanding of the other ethical lenses because often, dialogic reasoning may involve or overlap with virtue, deontological, or consequentialist influences. It is also helpful to understand the differences between each type of lens because these differences impact ethical reasoning and decision making outcomes.

According to Neher and Sandin (2007), these lenses can be grouped in the following ways:

Virtue Ethics – Bases decisions on character

Deontological Ethics – Bases decisions on a universal code, list, or duty

Consequentialist Ethics – Bases decisions on perceived consequences

Dialogic Ethics – Bases decisions on relationships (that rely on dialogue with another)


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