8 Dialogic Ethics

Annette Holba

Dialogic ethics privileges relationships, not character (virtue ethics), duty or universal law/rule (deontological ethics), or consequences (utilitarian or egalitarian ethics). Dialogical ethics occur within dialogue. It is a system in which ethics can be judged by the attitudes and behaviors demonstrated by each participant in a communication transaction. Key to the definition of dialogic ethics is the willingness and ability of each participant to suspend self-interest in favor of experiencing the views, beliefs, and convictions of the other.

You do not forego your own beliefs, but you must be willing to suspend them and not promote your own interests while you are involved in a communicative transaction. Both or all perspectives are equal. A key element that is missing from other ethical decision-making lenses/strategies is the element of dialogue.

Dialogical ethics concerns itself with the relationship between people; it does not have to be concerned about virtue, duties, or consequences, although sometimes those elements are also considered as a result of engaging in dialogue with others. However, the relationship is always central and it is a driving element to making decisions. This emphasis builds what some scholars (Neher and Sandin, 2007) refer to as a firewall which is designed to ensure fair play when one encounters the other. It is too easy to manipulate and take advantage of the other in a deceptive manner (language creates this potential). Dialogue creates a “safe zone” for people to communicate.

Dialogic ethics emerged from philosophers such as Martin Buber (1878-1965) and Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995).  When it comes to communication, Martin Buber distinguishes between I-It and I-Thou.

I-It experiences are often describe as communication that objectifies the other or manipulates the other in some fashion. I-It can also be closer are communication experiences that can be described as phatic communication (for example, small talk with people you know or you do not know-we sometimes do this when we are waiting in line at a grocery store and we engage in communication with people about the weather or the delay at the check-out counter), technical communication (for example, giving someone directions to go somewhere or providing instructions to someone who is trying to make something), or some forms of negative communication like gossip (for example, hurtful communication about another person, behind their back, that can either be true or not true).

Dialogic ethics require the shedding of one’s personal needs and desires in order to communicate ethically with another. In dialogic engagement, we experience the I-Thou. Here is a video that explains the difference between the I-It and I-Thou.

In the I-Thou, there is reciprocity toward the other. So, for example, in my communication with you, me as the faculty member in the CMS department and you as a CMS major (student), I recognize that I am a faculty member because there are students here AND you are one of them. I recognize and honor our relationship. I cannot be a faculty member/teacher if we do not have students. You, as well, cannot be a student without a teacher and you could not be a student here in the CMS department at PSU if we did not exist. Our relationship is reciprocal. This distinction in reciprocity grounded Buber’s teaching philosophy.

In his book, I and Thou, Martin Buber (1970) wrote about “the Between” on the “narrow ridge” as essential qualities of dialogue. He describes these as places between extremes in communication. By avoiding the extremes of positions (For example, the radical left and the radical right in politics), there is a better chance of having authentic and genuine dialogue that is capable of finding common ground, or as Buber would say, a common center from which  dialogue can grow. This is important to keep dialogue ongoing and constructive.

In Between Man and Man, Buber (1978) reveals the first time he understood about genuine dialogue. In this moment, he was in the barn with his horse at his grandparent’s farm. He said while he was combing the mane on his horse, that there he met her eye to eye and communicated without words. He said once he realized he was connecting with her genuinely and dialogically, and that he no longer noticed the separateness between beings, they were one. The moment he again felt the separateness, that genuine moment was over. But while he was in it, he no longer was aware of anything external in their environment. He said these moments of authentic dialogue happen rarely between human beings but that we ought to be so preoccupied with the other that they can happen more often. He doesn’t negate technical dialogue or monologue because there is absolutely a place for them in human communication, but he advocates that we should not forget or turn away from the other by not being open to those serendipitous moments of genuine dialogue.

Emmanuel Levinas believed that all communication is an act of violence since we impose our language, thoughts, actions on others in the process of communication. When he said communication is an act of violence, he was referring to the interruption that we are when we impose our thoughts, ideas, and positions on others because they then have an obligation to respond. This is unavoidable. But, because of this perspective, Levinas advocated for each person to be thy brother’s keeper, observe, reflect, and select the language most appropriate toward the other and invite the other to respond. In some cases, one must wait for the other to respond and in this waiting, one bears witness to other.

Levinas believed in ethics as a first philosophy and that ethics begins first and foremost in person to person contact.  We should become preoccupied with the Other. Our motto should be, I am my Brother’s Keeper. At the same time, we cannot impose this sentiment of brother’s keeper on others, it cannot be demanded from the other.

Here is a video of an interview with Emmanuel Levinas which does not totally get into his dialogic ethical theory but it gives you a treat to hear him speak himself in general terms related to our relation to the other (and in French, there are English subtitles). The notion of transcendence becomes important in this interview.

For Levinas, ethical dialogue creates common ground where there is no power imbalance; there is no recognition of power, period. He advocates for us to engage response-ability by putting self-interests aside and respond to the other.

Dialogic Ethics:

  • Provides for us a method in which to engage others
  • Helps us comprehend why some of our relationships go wrong or succeed
  • Helps us comprehend larger scale societal marginalization
  • Provides ways to resolve conflicts

While easy to understand, it is not so easy to behave in this way. There is also no guarantee a similar response from the other will come (especially with Levinas).

These are some ways for us to consider how to engage in dialogic ethics and practices:

  • Set aside or suspend our own positions;
  • Openly listen to others and their needs/opinions;
  • Understand where the other is coming from;
  • Share your position and be willing to let your position shift/alter/be reshaped by the other as dialogue emerges;
  • Engage in mutual respect for the other and the opinions of the other;
  • Do not make demands on the other;
  • Be open in the dialogical/conversational process;
  • Provide unconditional positive regard to the other;
  • Empower the other through voice;
  • Through dialogue, find mutually agreed upon common ground (even if it is a sliver of ground)

Some challenges of dialogic ethics involve unwillingness to set self-interests aside, unwillingness to relinquish control and allow others a voice of difference; unwillingness to accept the no demand rule; and unwillingness to be open to the other.


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CMS Seniors by Annette Holba is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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