Where do ethics come from? How do people make decisions when their own self-interest is at odds with the interests of another person or group? Would we be able to make ethical decisions without the benefit of religious teachings, philosophical principles and cultural mores? What if these sources of wisdom weren't around to guide our thinking and help us rationalize our actions?

Perhaps we'd be better off.

Humans, by and large, are a self-interested bunch. We generally want what's best for ourselves and for those around us. We care about our fellow people because their wellness often has a direct impact on our own, whether physical, mental, financial or otherwise. So it comes as no surprise that religious and philosophical teachings usually urge us to show altruistic concern for our neighbor simply because its the loving thing to do. Unfortunately, there's little room for altruism in the capitalist marketplace-when it shows up, it's often safe to assume that someone is losing money.

When an unethical decision is made, there are hosts of teachings, theories, principles, beliefs and ideals at the decision-makers' disposal to justify and rationalize his or her behavior. It's amazing how often people kill in the name of God. So even when we as ethical decision-makers apply a system of analysis such as the Potter box to our dilemma, there's still always a way to get the answer we want to hear.

In the fifth edition of Media Ethics, Christians, Fackler, Rotzoll and McKee, "insist that no conclusion can be morally justified without a clear demonstration that an ethical principle shaped the final decision" (p. 10). With the possible exception of Aristotle's golden mean, I'm ready to throw these ethical principles out the window. Kant's duty-based categorical imperative, for example, upholds moral absolutes that are often ridiculous in the context of real life. Telling a lie to save a life would still be "wrong." Kant leaves us no room to consider the consequences of our actions; the means always justify the ends.

Mill's utilitarianism, on the other hand, asks us to consider the ends without paying much attention to the means. Consequences rule this ethical principle, even though predicting consequences accurately is often an impossible task. Through-out Media Ethics, the idea of providing the "greatest good for the greatest number" is often invoked as a defense of the free market. But the consumptive lifestyle that the free market demands may be causing irreversible environmental and social damage that would offset the "good" that the market provides. Even within the principle of utilitarianism there is a dichotomy. "Act" utilitarians provide the greatest good on a situational basis (it is right to steal from the rich to feed the poor), whereas "rule" utilitarians are guided by moral absolutes like those Kant subscribes to (it is always wrong to steal).

John Rawls answered these moral ambiguities with his egalitarianism, seeking always to protect the weaker party. However, if his "veil of ignorance" were truly implemented in moral decision-making, our society would come to a fast and grinding halt. What poor urban neighborhood wants their streets littered with alcohol and tobacco advertisements? What criminal wants his or her name in the newspaper? What innocent victim of crime wants their plight to be made public? What parents want their child watching Deep Throat or listening to Ozzy Osbourne's "Suicide Solution" or viewing television ads for condoms, vodka, or God forbid, tampons? I'm all for egalitarianism, but it's simply too idealistic to have much bearing on reality.

The Judeo-Christian ethic is to be both praised and condemned for its vagueness. The idea of loving our neighbor is just ambiguous enough to be practicable. Mr. Rogers told us so. But which neighbor are we to love most? How must we love them? Is a passive love that causes no direct harm good enough? Or does love have to be a proactive, protective force? Is it loving to kill a doctor who performs abortions in order to save the lives of innocent babies? Is it loving to prey on people's insecurities by telling them they will be smelly social outcasts without the right hygiene products? Is it loving for Rupert Murdoch to buy up every newspaper, movie studio, record label, publishing company, sports team, cable network and magazine he can get his hands on? There's just not much room for ethics when big money is on the line.

Students in "Principles of American Journalism," an undergraduate journalism course at the University of Missouri-Columbia, are required to write an ethics paper based on a case study concerning some moral dilemma in the media. As a teaching assistant for four semesters, I watched as the Potter box and its philosophical principles were laid to rest by a pair of new instructors. Bumper-sticker versions of classical philosophy had only made students more confused about what makes a decision ethical. Perhaps a deeper exploration of Kant and company would have yielded a better understanding. But in the absence of the Potter box, the students' writing was clearer, their logic more sound, their arguments better supported. Now the course teaches Deni Elliot's systematic moral analysis, which is similar to the method taught by Joseph Fletcher in Situation Ethics. The students still cite professional codes of ethics as a guide, but most of their moral analysis is situational.

Perhaps the absence of philosophical principles helps the decision-maker avoid unconscionable rationalizations. I still don't know where ethics come from, but it seems to me that decisions are often best made with the support of critical analysis and reason, rather than religious teachings or philosophical principles. When we take our questions and turn to prefabricated absolutes, it doesn't take long to find the answers we want to hear.


All citations refer to Christians, Clifford G., et al., Media Ethics: Cases and Moral Reasoning. (5th ed.) New York: Addison-Wesley Longman, 1998. A 6th edition has been published. See p. 48.

* Seth Ashley, who recently received his master's degree from the Univ. of Missouri School of Journalism, is a freelance writer and editor.

The above article was published in Media Ethics , Fall 2003 (15:1), pp.19-20.