Communication is inherently a moral enterprise, and we ought never forget that fact as we teach, conduct research, work in and talk about this field.
When we label something a "moral enterprise," we invoke ethical principles and describe moral practices. Moral philosophers-ethicists-are fixated on the following sorts of questions:
* How do we establish and maintain functional, trusting relationships?
* What are the consequences of our choices-to ourselves, to others, and to the environment?
* How do we come to understand and operationalize our duties and obligations to one another and to our institutions (including but not limited to colleagues, sources, subjects, audiences, the general community, and posterity)?
* What do we "owe" one another merely by virtue of sharing space on this biosphere?
* To whom ought we be loyal, in both the short run and the long run?
* What virtues do we respect in ourselves and in others?
* What values do we hold, and how do we sift and sort among conflicting and equally compelling values such as truthtelling and loyalty, justice and mercy, independence and accountability, etc.?
* What is the nature of power, how is it developed, and how does it flow within assumed, contracted, and voluntary relationships?
It is absolutely appropriate that we, as students, professors, and practitioners of the myriad fields of communication, focus on those same questions. To the extent that we are fully engaged in this body of scholarship and the real-world ramifications of the above questions, we are engaged in doing ethics. And we have the intellectual and moral obligation to do it as correctly as we possibly can.
Some say these investigations should be conducted in a value-free fashion, but I would maintain that is neither possible nor feasible. Our communications discipline, more than most, is-and should be-a values-based enterprise. The formal and informal curricula reside within a moral framework. Our classroom and informal interactions with students, and our connections with the institutions we teach about, have moral overtones and reflect an ethics agenda. Consciously or not, we are engaged in the teaching (and, to some extent, the researching) of values, moral character, and "good" behaviors. It is incumbent upon us to "get it right," to clarify the values we, our students, and various communications institutions hold and should hold, and to make clear-headed, morally defensible decisions about complex issues in our fields.
Moral Philosophy and Moralizing
If it's important to care about the issues, it's equally important to articulate them properly. We can approach the communications agenda either as moral philosophers or as mere moralizers. The distinction is significant.
Moral philosophy entails philosophical thinking about morality, moral problems, and moral judgments. It differs in critically important ways from moralizing. Whereas moral philosophy consists of "thinking about ethics," moralizing is "giving advice" on a particular issue. In thinking about ethics, we are dealing with general advice, advice that is consistent: over time, from case to case, from rule to rule, from person to person. This process demands consistency between what we say and what we do. Moral philosophy also involves dialectical, analytical, and cathartic thinking, talking, and enacting of ethical principles. On the other hand, when we moralize we merely give advice-specific, particular advice that lacks consistency over time, from case to case, etc.-and advice that may well be inconsistent with what we do. Whereas moral philosophy is dialectical, analytical, and cathartic, moralizing tends to be dogmatic, pragmatic, and advisory. In short, moral philosophy fosters openness, searching, and intellectual cleansing, whereas moralizing is reflective of closed-mindedness and narrowness.
I mention this distinction because of its significance in our pedagogy: There is a major difference between helping students learn how to become autonomous moral agents and imposing a teacher's (or department's or profession's) value systems on them. It is the difference between moral philosophy and moralizing, between doing ethics and doing propaganda. There should be little room in the university setting for the latter. To appreciate this is to have articulated our curriculum, our answer to society's question about what is most worth knowing.
Conscientious teachers, fully aware that education is a values-based enterprise, will note when values and virtues are absent or "fuzzy" in the readings and in the classroom and beyond, reinforcing and honoring their appearance, encouraging students to constantly sift and sort through values choices. They will recognize that ethical decision-making is not just the arbitrary acceptance of one value or virtue and the rejection of all others, but the diligent rank-ordering of values and virtues, making what some educators call the "right versus right" choices. To do so is to help educate students for life.
As Michael J. Collins argued in Teaching Values and Ethics in College:
"We cannot teach people to be virtuous. We cannot eradicate evil and injustice with a liberal arts education. But when we develop in bright, talented young men and women the skills to succeed in the marketplace, we give them power, and we should, therefore, as Socrates recognized in The Gorgias, give some attention to how they will use it-help them, through our teaching, to become just, generous, and compassionate."1
Ask, and Answer, Good Questions
Ethical decision-making is not a science, but it can be a highly refined art. And, like other arts, it gets better with practice. Someone committed to making good choices will work through questions of value, loyalty, and principle, and will learn how much to rely upon precedent, emotion, authority, or logic while doing so. Educators can help their students master the process by providing them with a constant series of teachable moments from the formal and informal curricula, from the textbooks and from everyday experiences. They will ask, and help students answer, a series of questions that focus attention on the choices at hand. I'd like to recommend the following justification model or decision-making matrix, as a way of "doing ethics":
* Why am I concerned about making this decision?
* Are there some rules or guidelines I should be following?
* Do other people see the dilemma the same way I do?
* What values, loyalties, and principles seem to be in conflict here?
* What are the possible consequences of my actions?
* Can I defend my decision to others-classmates, teachers, parents?
The study of media must be especially concerned with encouraging students to consider long-term consequences as well as immediate action, tolerate ambiguity and unresolved dilemmas, slowly and deliberately come to judgment, invocate principle, and nurture a sense of moral obligation.2
Certainly it is a goal of professional education to provide immediately usable skills and attitudes valuable on the job. But it has a companion purpose-to preserve and protect those more humane considerations sometimes trampled in our various professions' tendencies to be trapped by the rush to meet deadlines, the controlled pandemonium of the communications work environment (particularly, in mass communication, the newsroom or the broadcast control room, and all the ramifications of 24/7 media in a corporate world).3 Of even greater importance, I believe, is the need to use the classroom-a safe, nurturing environment-as a place to carefully and systematically front-load the decision-making processes that will be of crucial importance to our students once they leave us and enter the so-called "real" world.
One final observation. Engaging students in true ethical decision-making is not for the faint of heart. The discussions will be lively. Sensitive topics will be explored. Authority is likely to be challenged. New rules may be created by the students. The "professor" may have to give way to the mentor or facilitator.
1 Michael J. Collins, "Values and teaching." In Michael J. Collins (ed.), Teaching Values and Ethics in College, New Directions for Teaching and Learning, No. 13. San Francisco: Josey-Bass, Inc., 1983, p. 8.
2 The Hastings Center, Institute of Society, Ethics and The Life Sciences, The Teaching of Ethics in Higher Education. Hastings-on-Hudson, New York: Institute of Society, Ethics and The Life Sciences, 1980.
3 Clifford C. Christians & Catherine L. Covert, Teaching Ethics in Journalism Education. Hastings-on-Hudson, New York: Institute of Society, Ethics and The Life Sciences, 1980.
* Jay Black is editor of the Journal of Mass Media Ethics. While in phased retirement from the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, he is Park Distinguished Visiting Professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the Univ. of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. This article is drawn from addresses to the Australia New Zealand Communication Association in July 2004, and the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication in August 2004.
The above article was published in Media Ethics , Fall 2004 (16:1), pp. 13,33-34.he above article was published in Media Ethics , Fall 2004 (16:1), pp. 13,33-34.