The field of communication has historical roots in the interplay of human speech and ethics. Our journals record scholarly investigation of communication ethics beginning in 1934 with Pellegrini’s Quarterly Journal of Speech essay, “Public speaking and social obligations.” The founding scholarly work on speech and ethics is Aristotle’s Nichomachean ethics. Aristotle’s public descriptive account of Homer’s narrative responsiveness to Athenian virtues in action establishes the enduring heart of communication ethics – responsiveness, commencing with responsiveness to the Athenian polis.
Responsiveness is part of a long heritage begun with phronesis, practical wisdom attentive to the interplay of the demands of the situation and a given virtue of the polis, whose application falls to the side of neither excess nor deficiency. Centuries later, this sense of responsiveness continues to propel the communication field’s commitment to democracy and the fight against propaganda spurred by World War II (Wallace 1955). Today, this responsive tradition continues with Michael Hyde’s call for communication ethics’ response to the emerging era of “post-human” genetic alteration. The communication field’s responsiveness to audience and context acts as a line of demarcation between the rhetoric of communication ethics and the philosophical study of ethics.
From Virtue Ethics To Tainted Ground
Contemporary communication ethics theory begins with Aristotle’s introduction of responsiveness and “virtue ethics.” Variations on virtue ethics exist in differing historical eras, each with a different locus that frames the standard for virtue: (1) the classical world – virtues and the polis; (2) the medieval world – virtues and the church; (3) the enlightenment – virtues and rationality; and (4) modernity – virtues and the individual. Virtue ethics now competes with other communication ethics theories that refute one view of virtues, rejecting the universal claim of “truth,” considering bias inevitable, and working hand-inhand with a postmodern context of narrative and virtue contention.
Communication ethics in a postmodern context recognizes that differing communication ethics live on biased ground where the rhetoric of competing “goods” shapes our discourse. Bias is unavoidable, as detailed by Hans Georg Gadamer (1986, 238–239). His understanding of philosophical hermeneutics assumes the ontological reality of bias; recognition of situated, tainted ground links communication ethics to learning about and discovery of different “goods” protected and promoted by those dissimilar to us. Alterity is key to Emmanuel Levinas’s understanding of ethics as first principle; the initial communicative gesture is recognition of radical alterity, an otherness different from “my kind” or “me.” Tainted/biased ground and engagement with alterity/difference requires rhetorical engagement of a communication ethic or “bearing witness,” as Amit Pinchevski (2005) suggests.
Tainted ground is the home of radical otherness, represented in a philosophical turn of consequence in the work of Heidegger and Nietzsche; they mark a “disputed” end to the reign of “virtue ethics”; virtue ethics continues without uniform acceptance as we move into an era marked by a “hermeneutic of suspicion.” Deconstructive and existential approaches open conversation to theories that openly claim tainted ground in work interestingly akin to that of early sophists, who argued that virtues are polis-dependent. Virtue ethics understood as nurtured by biased ground, whether of a given polis, church, “universal” principle, or individual, rests upon the socially constructed approval of Sandra Harding’s (1991) metaphor of standpoint theory. Standpoint, the admission of tainted ground, rejects conventional thinking, countering individualism, a term coined by Alexis de Tocqueville (2002) in Democracy in America. Individualism advocates that one can stand above history, securing a vision of “truth” imposed upon another with universal assurance.
Individualism, according to Tocqueville (2002), is not selfishness, which can unite collective self-interest. Selfishness works with a knowledge of taintedness that individualism rejects. Selfishness permits Franklin to warn us that we must all hang together or hang separately. Individualism proclaims and tells, based upon an assumptive arrogance of untainted perception, missing the pragmatic need for association and the admission of bias.
Concepts such as standpoint, ground, embeddedness, situatedness, social–cultural limits, and the unavoidable bias of tradition place human feet on provincial soil that generates difference. Communication ethics as cosmopolitanism in the twenty-first century must attend to the local and engage learning as the bridge to the other, disclaiming the assumption that we can stand above our own historicity. Communication ethics as responsiveness in this historical moment rests on tainted, biased ground, whether that of speaker, audience, context, and/or content, moving rhetoric to the forefront – a persuasive task responsive to audience and context that provides a public map of the “why” and “how” of a given communication ethics position. Communication ethics, thus, takes a pragmatic rhetorical turn, pivoting on tainted ground, forming a public map of the “for,” the “by,” and the “about” of communication ethics. Calvin Schrag’s (1986) articulation of communication praxis, called in this essay a rhetoric of prepositions (“for,” “by,” and “about”), frames communication ethics in the interplay of biased/tainted ground and the historical moment, attentive to a rhetorical turn responsive to otherness, context, communicators, and message.
Communication Ethics Praxis
Calvin Schrag (1986) defines rhetoric of prepositions, “by,” “about,” and “for,” offering basic coordinates for a rhetoric of public accounting. The key to the use of Schrag’s rhetoric of prepositions is that it offers a public accounting of a given communication ethics situated upon tainted/biased ground. Communication ethics praxis unites communication ethics vocabulary with Schrag’s communicative praxis, a rhetoric of prepositions: (1) responsiveness – “for”; (2) the human face – “by”; and (3) the good – “about.”
Responsiveness: “For” assumes that communication ethics engages and influences others. Aristotle’s connection of speech and ethics responded to the virtues of the polis, with further responsiveness required by phronesis, practical wisdom responsive to unique circumstances/context and ever attentive to dialectical danger of excessive response or deficiency. Aristotle framed “the golden mean” as a moving ethical aim responsive to both excess and deficiency. The golden mean responds to known public virtues and is responsive to the polis and to the “proper” proportion of response. Aristotle’s ethics moved phronesis or responsiveness to a recognition of the “proper” sense of “taste” (Gadamer 1986), suspicious of communicative actions of gluttony and/or deprivation.
The communication ethics assumption today is that wariness of communicative acts of excess and deficiency recognizes multiplicity and the rhetorical contention of competing goods. Tainted ground moves us from the “taste” of communication ethics to recognition of “tastes.” Communication ethics in a postmodern context meets the historical moment without confidence in universal truth that assures the one “right” response – the “for” of responsiveness lives in the mud of everyday life (Buber 1955), not pristine clarity. This lack of clarity moves from theory and proclamation alone to Levinas’s connection of ethics as first principle as responsiveness to the human face.
The human face: “By” lives through authors who continue to make a case for communication textured by its ethical implications. Major review essays by Chesebro (1969), Arnett (1987), Johannesen (2001), and Arnett et al. (2006) and journal scholarship continues through human faces situating communication ethics in the forefront. The study and practice of communication ethics rests on biased ground, engaged by a human face embedded in unique historical situations and responsive to others.
The contemporary marker for the study of communication ethics in the US is the theme bestowed upon the annual conference of the Speech Communication Association (now the National Communication Association) in 1983 by vice president Kenneth Anderson. Anderson’s proclamation energized James Jaksa’s spearheading of a national commission (1984) and later a National Communication Association Division entitled Communication Ethics. Jaksa and Michael Pritchard began the communication ethics summer conference at Northern Michigan University/Gull Lake (1990) with the summer conference moving to Duquesne University (2004). The conferences gave birth to numerous articles, including five edited book projects: (1) Jaksa & Pritchard’s (1994) Communication ethics: Methods of analysis; (2) Makau and Arnett’s (1997) Communication ethics in an age of diversity; (3) Bracci & Christians’s (2002) Moral engagement in public life; and (4) Pat Arneson’s (2007) Exploring communication ethics. Finally, two of the major Carroll Arnold addresses on communication ethics were delivered at the National Communication Conference by Kenneth Anderson (2003) and Michael Hyde in 2007. Their addresses and ongoing scholarship announce the enduring importance of communication ethics.
The good: The “about” of communication ethics, the protection and promotion of a given understanding of the “right” communication act, begins with knowledge of tainted/ biased ground. We live in the rhetorical encounter of multiple communication ethics, each protecting and promoting a given good. Recognition of multiplicity necessitates one basic assumption – there is no one agreed-upon entity entitled “the communication ethic.” There are multiple communication ethics, each providing rhetorical protection and promoting a given sense of the good. In the field of communication, six major approaches to communication ethics have dominated the scholarship: democratic; universal/ humanitarian; codes, procedures, and standards; contextual; narrative; dialogic. Each one protects and promotes a particular good (Arnett et al. 2006).
The “about” of communication ethics in this historical moment assumes that we live and communicate in an era of multiple rhetorical and ethical coordinates: (1) contending understandings of the good; (2) contrasting goods that display themselves in communicative action; and (3) tainted/biased narrative ground(s) upon which communicators, context, and message rest. It is the rhetorical contending of goods and the pragmatic necessity of learning about different goods that shape postmodern engagement with communication ethics (Arnett et al., in press).
The problems that shake local and global communities often rest with contrary commitments to the good, played out in communicative behavior. Differing interest groups work at protecting and promoting different understandings of the good. In an age of diversity and contentiousness “about” what goods should claim our loyalty for protection and promotion, communication ethics begins with learning and asks, “What does the Other seek to protect and promote as a given good?” Additionally, communication ethics in this era abides within an existential reminder, “What one considers a communication ethic will not necessarily meet with the approval of another.” The rhetoric of communication ethics in an era of narrative and virtue contention seeks to understand what good is protected and promoted by a given communication ethic.
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- Aristotle (1962). Nicomachean ethics (trans. M. Ostwald). Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill.
- Arneson, P. (2007). Exploring communication ethics: Interviews with influential scholars in the field. New York: Peter Lang.
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- Pinchevski, A. (2005). By way of interruption: Levinas and the ethics of communication. Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press.
- Schrag, C. (1986). Communicative praxis and the space of subjectivity. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.
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