Communication Ethics

There are many debates on what exactly is ethical communication. Although there is no a single explanation, there are three main philosophical points of view that are applied in communication: the ethical egoism, utilitarianism and the categorical imperative.

Communication is the process of transferring information. It can be verbal, nonverbal, visual, oral or written. The common model of communication has six components: sender, encoder, medium, decoder, receiver and message.

Cynics maintain that people care only about themselves, that everybody is looking out for number one. Ethical egoists say that's the way it ought to be. Everyone should promote their own self-interest. The boundaries of an egoist's ethical system include only one person. The ancient Greek philosopher Epicurius (341 BCE to 270 BCE) is considered to be the first representative of ethical egoism. He defined the good life as getting as much pleasure as possible.

British philosopher and economist John Stuart Mill (May 1806 to May 1873) shared the Epicurean view that pleasure in life is the only consequence which matters, but took great exception to Epicurus' preoccupation with his own pleasure: Mill urged people to seek the greatest happiness for the greatest number.

German philosopher Immanuel Kant (April 1724 to February 1804) took an entirely different approach to ethics. Unlike Epicurus and Mill who cared about consequences, Kant was concerned with the demands of reason and the moral law. He defines an act as right or wrong regardless of the outcome.

Ethics in communication could include different components depending on the type of communication: whether it is between persons, in business, communication which includes media or whether it concerns international relationships.

In corporate life, ethics in communication include several main aspects: the way management communicates with subordinates, the way each employee represents the company to other organizations or persons and the way people communicate between each other within the organization. Many companies have sophisticated regulations on what is ethical and what is unacceptable in communication. These regulations may also concern the company's operations, values and image.

How the management communicates with employees is a major aspect of communication ethics. Employees insist that the company management is honest with them and vice versa. In communication between colleagues ethics most often includes requirements for tolerating differences and does not allow offensive communication.

In a survey of more than 1,400 readers of the American magazine Working Woman most responded that they have witnessed such unethical behavior as lying to employees, expense-account abuses at the highest levels and in-office jockeying involving favoritism, nepotism and taking credit for other people's work. Almost half have seen discrimination based on sex and color more than a third, sexual harassment and just under a third, lying to make a sale.

In 1987, the Ethics Resource Center in Washington, D.C., commissioned Phoenix, Arizona-based Behavior Research Center to survey 2,000 U.S. corporations about their ethics policies and programs. The survey showed that, although 85% of the respondents have written guidelines on ethics, only 50% distribute them to all employees, while 38% restrict distribution to management.

As business expands globally, the ethics in global communication gain more attention. In global scale, ethics include basic human interactions: respect for differences, trust that our counterparts will work with us in a truthful manner, honesty in communication with others and expectations that each of us will keep our word and maintain credibility. The essence of global ethics and professional standards is based on self-understanding, tolerance of differences, appreciation for the unique and curiosity of the unknown.

One definition of global ethics refers to any form of communication, written or spoken, that applies to providing a service or product to a different culture or country in exchange for compensation or intangible reward.

When considering interpersonal communication, ethics is equal to personal responsibility for the relationship between the involved people. Psychologists say that good interpersonal communication ethics is important to relationships between people. The notion of responsibility engages a communicator with an ethical charge to involve in practices that bind a given relationship together.

Journalists are considered to be responsible for the information they disseminate to public. Thus they must follow ethical rules when executing their job. Among the most common principles are objectivity, giving equal rights to all sides concerned and lack of personal judgment. Many media have very strict rules concerning the behavior of their journalists that also define what they can or cannot do even in their free time.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

Ethical Issues in the Communication Process
J. Vernon Jensen.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1997
Political Communication Ethics: An Oxymoron?
Robert E. Denton Jr.
Praeger, 2000
Ethics in Intercultural and International Communication
Fred L. Casmir.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1997
Key Issues in Organizational Communication
Dennis Tourish; Owen Hargie.
Routledge, 2004
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 14 "Organizational Communication Ethics"
Resistance and Persuasion
Eric S. Knowles; Jay A. Linn.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2004
Librarian’s tip: "Ethics of Resistance and Persuasion" begins on p. 306
Handbook of Communication and Social Interaction Skills
John O. Greene; Brant R. Burleson.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2003
Librarian’s tip: "How Might 'Ethics' Enter into Conceptions of Communicative Competence?" begins on p. 38
Handbook of Health Communication
Teresa L. Thompson; Alicia M. Dorsey; Katherine I. Miller; Roxanne Parrott.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2003
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 30 "Ethics in Health Communication Interventions"
Public Relations: Theory and Practice
Jane Johnston; Clara Zawawi.
Allen & Unwin, 2009 (3rd edition)
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 5 "Ethical Practice"
Marketing Communication: Principles and Practice
Richard J. Varey.
Routledge, 2002
Librarian’s tip: Ethics is discusssed in chap. 17 "Professionalism"
The Dark Side of Interpersonal Communication
William R. Cupach; Brian H. Spitzberg.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1994
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 8 "Deception"
The Moral Media: How Journalists Reason about Ethics
Lee Wilkins; Renita Coleman.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2005
Ethics in Strategic Communication Campaigns: The Case for a New Approach to Public Relations
Botan, Carl.
The Journal of Business Communication, Vol. 34, No. 2, April 1997
PEER-REVIEWED PERIODICAL
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
Visual Ethics
Kienzler, Donna S.
The Journal of Business Communication, Vol. 34, No. 2, April 1997
PEER-REVIEWED PERIODICAL
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
American Pragmatism and Communication Research
David K. Perry.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2001
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 7 "Truth or Consequences: Pragmatism, Relativism, and Ethics"
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