Image by Logan HotzImage by Logan Hotz“[I]f a stone which has been projected through the air, had consciousness, it would believe that it was moving of its own free will”—Arthur Schopenhauer, paraphrasing Baruch Spinoza, in The World as Will and Representation

In my media ethics class at Iowa State University, we discuss the power of family mottoes that are so ingrained in our psyches that they shape our values and perception of the world. Unless we analyze those mottoes, they might camouflage our notion of free will. We may think we’re acting independently when, in actuality, we are following a familiar and familial script.

To illustrate the power of mottoes, we explore corporate ones as part of brand management whose intent is to symbolize the quality of a product or service. Some famous brand mottoes are:

  • Nike: Just do it.
  • FedEx: When it absolutely positively has to be there overnight.
  • Ford: Quality is job one.
  • Avis: We try harder.
  • L’Oreal: Because I’m worth it.

According to Forbes, good mottoes “brilliantly capture a brand’s differentiation,” provoking an emotional response or compelling some kind of action on the part of consumers. The same occurs with family mottoes. They brand us psychologically and provoke emotional responses that govern our actions at critical times of our lives.

In the famous Schopenhauer quotation, cited above, he dissects humanity as a species according to intention and ideas. My intent is to show students that someone or something—parents, clergy, experience—projects ideas on the trajectory of their lives. In other words, students may think they have free will, but must explore who has shaped that will.

Here is a selection of family mottoes from one of my media ethics classes:

  • Treat others the way you want to be treated.
  • You never get a second chance to make a first impression.
  • Respect your elders.
  • Cheating is okay as long as you don’t get caught.
  • Even a blind squirrel finds an acorn once in a while.

I ask students to analyze those mottoes as “true,” “mostly true,” “mostly false,” “false.”

Treating others as we wish to be treated is, of course, the Golden Rule, and students typically cite that as being “true.” Respecting elders generally seems like a good idea but depends on the elder in question, so they label that “mostly true.” First impressions are important, but second chances can be successful, too. People rally, as one student says. So they label that as “mostly false.” They dubbed the last two mottoes as “false.”

I agree. Imagine a student who grew up with the blind squirrel motto. Every time he contacts a parent to share the latest achievement, he hears that debilitating sentence. Ouch.

To understand the history of mottoes, we analyze coats of arms associated with families and clans, especially in Europe and other parts of the world. For instance, the Bugeja coat of arms features a cow or bull in a pasture under a six-pointed star with the family motto: To the willing, nothing is impossible.

That phrase shaped the trajectory of my life. My parents ingrained it in my psyche. True, I am a first-generation American, so perhaps that motto is associated with immigration and success. Perhaps many such families with similar demographics embrace the same or similar motto. However, early in my professional career I had to explicate that motto as only partly true. Fact is, some things are impossible no matter how strong the will. Just ask Hillary Clinton.

Countries have mottoes, too. They display a diversity of values from ancient Greece to the current day around the globe. Here’s a brief selection:

  • Malta: Strength and consistency
  • Mexico: The Homeland is First
  • Indonesia: Unity in Diversity
  • Kenya: Let us all pull together
  • Greece: Freedom or Death
  • France: Liberty, equality, fraternity
  • Namibia: Unity, Liberty, Justice
  • India: Truth alone triumphs
  • United States: E pluribus unum; In God We Trust

States have mottoes. Iowa’s is: “Our liberties we prize and our rights we will maintain.”

To encourage my students to self-reflect and determine who or what shaped their values, I designed an exercise titled “Create Your Ethical Heraldry.” The goal is to help students explore family or cultural mottoes and conceive ones independently to represent their personal and professional ethics.

Here’s the template:

Students choose colors that represent their surname or heritage, adding a personal symbol beneath it associated with their ethnicity or lifestyle. They add professional icons to the left and right of the chevron illustrating their career path or aspiration. Their motto, or “moral brand,” goes under the chevron enhanced with another symbol that serves as their logo.

Here is an example:

Nada Aly, journalism and mass communication major, chose red because the primary color represents energy, strength, passion and love. “Turquoise is opposite: refreshing and calming,” she says. “It stands for creativity, balance, and spirituality.” Her personal symbols are the U.S. and Egyptian flags, “stitched together,” representing her identity. Her personal icon of the heart “stands for care, empathy, and dedication in my work.” Her ethical motto—“Make love, not war”—helps her “to stay positive, peaceful, and caring; not to create or continue problems, disagreements, or misunderstandings.” Her ethical symbol of an outstretched arm “represents people from all over the world uniting as one, hand in hand, while celebrating others’ beautiful cultures and differences. Simply put, finding common ground.”

Here are other ethical crests from my Fall 2019 classes at Iowa State:

Bryenna Raleigh

“I enjoyed this project. One thing I realized as I was doing this project was that it slowly was helping me to learn more about myself. As I was doing this project I really had to think about who I was and translate this. It took me a while to create this because it was a brainstorming process and made me dig deep into what I wanted to showcase/say about me. I decided on a motto that to me reflected on what I've been working on throughout the past few years ‘Breathe In Courage and Breathe Out Fear.’”

Riley Schweinebart

“Creating my own ethical heraldry forced me to evaluate my values and decide what I believe in and what is most important to me. It was hard to reflect on my own ethical beliefs and decide which ones I hold most highly. I am glad Dr. Bugeja encouraged us to look within ourselves, otherwise I would not have uncovered my own basic values.”

Megan Lutz

“What I learned: I have deep roots with nature and agriculture and the more I thought about my ethics, the more I realized they have so much to do with nature and other core environmentalist beliefs. I also believe that my ethics so strongly being tied together with nature has led me to pursue a career in agriculture communication. I learned from this project just how closely everything is connected for me. From my colors, personal icon, motto, and then professional icons, they each influence each other.”

Olivia Hanson

“I actually learned even more about my ancestry and what it means to me. I have a boyfriend that was in the Special Forces for quite some time. He taught me a lot about values and how you need to stand strong by them. This project really reiterated that. I think it’s also important for employees to see that you have these values, something just as important the skill set you gain.”

Logan Hotz

“This project really took me back to my core values and who I really am as a person. This is why I tried so hard on the design; it was just very exciting to me.”

As these testimonials show, creating ethical heraldry sparks an introspective process associated with symbolic learning. The American Psychological Association defines symbolic learning theory as “attempts to explain how imagery works in performance enhancement,” suggesting that imagery “develops a coding system that creates a mental blueprint of what has to be done to complete an action.” When applied to media ethics, the heraldry project evokes a value-based coding system that enhances performance at home, school and work via a mental blueprint of the evolving conscience.

Note: All student work reproduced in this article has been used after the course in question concluded and is used with the permission of the students involved.


  • Michael Bugeja teaches media ethics and technology and social change in the Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication at Iowa State University. His scholarship has been published in Journalism Quarterly, Journal of Communication, Journalism and Mass Communication Educator, Journalism Educator, Journal of Mass Media Ethics, New Media and Society, American Journalism, American Communication Journal, and other academic journals. Dr. Bugeja has published 24 books across genres, including three books by Oxford University Press: Interpersonal Divide: Searching for Community in a Technological Age; Interpersonal Divide in the Age of the Machine; and Living Ethics Across Media Platforms. He has twice won the distinguished Clifford Christians Award for Research in Media Ethics. His latest work is Living Media Ethics: Across Platforms, Routledge/Taylor & Francis, 2019. In 2019, Dr. Bugeja received Iowa State’s highest academic title of distinguished professor for his contributions to media ethics and technology.