Critical Thinking and Business Ethics

By Mahin, Linda | Business Communication Quarterly, September 1998 | Go to article overview

Critical Thinking and Business Ethics


Mahin, Linda, Business Communication Quarterly


The discipline of business communication has historically suffered from suspicions that business writing somehow differs from other forms of composition. In addition to being transactional in nature, memos, letters, and reports are seen as modeled on specific formats delineated by usage. Business communication textbooks are typically organized by such genres as routine messages, goodwill messages, persuasive requests, proposals, and reports.

However, I would argue that business communication uses the same forms - causal analysis, classification, process analysis, evaluation - as other forms of composition and that the very act of communicating in the social context of a business culture implies an ethical basis, a respect for persons.

Three unrelated activities that I undertook over the past year alerted me to the correlations between composition, business communication, critical thinking, and ethics. The first activity was the experience of teaching freshman composition after a long hiatus. The second was my service on a faculty team striving to wed several sections of Towson University's English 317 (Writing for Business and Industry) with CBEC 302 (Business Cornerstone), a junior-level prerequisite required of all management students. The third activity was my involvement in a campus ethics workshop.

The Norton Reader, which I used in my freshman composition class, breaks down assignments by topics, such as casual analysis and classification. These forms seemed closely allied with critical-thinking skills taught in 317 and 302 and with the business formats of writing assignments for a management class. I therefore developed a matrix depicting some of the relationships and possible pairings of assignments, not only for actual writing but grammatical and stylistic pairings as well (ABC home page). Table l shows some of the more obvious morphological links.

[TABULAR DATA FOR TABLE 1 OMITTED]

However, the process of critical thinking involves more than adopting a prescribed format or topic. Rather, it involves adapting form to the needs of the situation, a consideration of audience, purpose, and exigency. A recent study by Gibson-Goshon and Mahin (in press) explains that even routine reports require a constant pull-and-tug between exigency, audience, and purpose and that any authority, including textbooks, serves only as a starting point for even the most elemental types of communication.

If we define critical thinking as "identifying and challenging assumptions and exploring and imagining alternatives" (Brook field quoted in Penner, 1995), we can see that business communication is an active reflective process that moves from authority to indeterminacy and then from indeterminacy to decision-making based on synthesis. This developmental model, which poses choices to the critical thinker within a social context, evolves from an individual's growth or maturity with a special context that is not only cognitive but ethical as well.

To better grasp this notion of ethical growth or moral maturity as it relates to business communication theory and praxis in the context of higher education, consider ethicist Deni Elliott's explication of social psychologist William Perry's theory. Elliott is Director of the University of Montana's Practical Ethics Center and executive board member of the Association for Practical and Professional Ethics.

In her keynote address at a recent Towson University ethics workshop, Dr. Elliott argued that higher education is inextricably linked to moral development, that is, all teaching is value-laden. The moral component is implicit in a liberal arts education; teaching ethics is "a means of enabling systematic values analysis," or consciousness-raising. …

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