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According to the Oxford English Dictionary (1963)The Oxford English Dictionary. (1963). Oxford, Britain: At the Clarendon Press., the word “ethicsThe philosophical study and evaluation of the means and ends of human behavior.” is derived from the Greek ethos or the nature or disposition of a culture. Ethics is further characterized as both a field of study concerned with moral principles and the moral principles that govern or influence human behavior. Parhizgar and Parhizgar (2006)Parhizgar, K. D., & Parhizgar, R. (2006). Multicultural business ethics and global managerial moral reasoning. Lanham, MD: University Press of America. define ethics as the:
…critical analysis of cultural values to determine the validity of their vigorous rightness or wrongness in terms of two major criteria: truth and justice. Ethics is examining the relation of an individual to society, to the nature, and or to God. How do people make ethical decisions? They are influenced by how they perceive themselves in relation to goodness and/or excellence. (p. 77)
Based on this definition, the study of ethics is “concerned with cultural value systems that are operable, either with intending to do something or actually doing something in the realm of goodness” (Parhizgar & Parhizgar, 2006, p. 77). As we shall see in this chapter, making this determination of “goodness” is not always black and white. To help illustrate this point, we will now examine four scenarios:
When examining these four ethical scenarios, you’ll notice that each scenario can be broken down into two clear parts: means and ends. According to McCroskey, Wrench, and Richmond (2003)McCroskey, J. C., Wrench, J. S., & Richmond, V. P. (2003). Principles of public speaking. Indianapolis, IN: The College Network. “meansComponent of ethical analysis where one examines the tools or behaviors that an individual or group of individuals employ to achieve a desired outcome.” are the tools or behaviors that one employs to achieve a desired outcome, and “endsComponent of ethical analysis where one examines the outcomes that an individual or group of individuals desire to achieve.” are those outcomes that one desires to achieve. Both “means” and “ends” can be evaluated as either good or bad. Remember, the definition of ethics by Parhizgar and Parhizgar (2006) involves the intention to behave or actual behavior in the realm of goodness. McCroskey (2006)McCroskey, J. C. (2006). An introduction to rhetorical communication: A Western rhetorical perspective (9th ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon. takes the idea of ethics one step further and explains that examining the intent of the behavior is only half of the ethical equation. McCroskey believes that examining the “goodness” of the outcome of the behavior is also important when examining ethics. McCroskey’s (2006) ethical frame work, which was later expanded upon by McCroskey, Wrench, and Richmond (2003), can be seen as the combination of “good vs. bad means” and “good vs. bad ends” (Figure 2.1 "The Ethical Matrix").
Figure 2.1 The Ethical Matrix
The first ethical dilemma discussed earlier is an example of a “good” mean leading to a “good” end, or what is termed ethical behaviorComponent of the ethical matrix where an individual employs good means that lead to a good end. in the ethical matrix. In this case, the presenter developed a clear argument based on facts in an attempt to persuade a client (mean). As a result of signing on with the presenter’s company, the client increased her or his share of the market (end). In essence, the presenter had a good mean (persuasive argument) that lead to a good end (increased market share). Behavior that contains both a good mean and a good end is considered ethical behavior.
In the second ethical dilemma, we have an example of a “bad” mean leading to a “bad” end, or what is termed unethical behaviorComponent of the ethical matrix where an individual employs bad means that lead to a bad end. in the ethical matrix. Specifically, in order to gain business, the presenter lied to the client (mean). Unfortunately, after the client was duped into signing with the presenter’s company, the client lost part of the market share he or she had before getting involved with the presenter’s company (end). In this case, the presenter had a bad mean (lied to client) that lead to a bad end (decreased market share). When a bad mean leads to a bad end, the behavior is considered unethical.
The first two quadrants in the ethical matrix are obvious and are easily discerned in the world of business. Often times, however, determining the ethical nature of behavior is not as clear as the first two examples. The next two examples provide the last two variations of means and ends combinations.
In the third example, there was a “bad” mean that lead to a “good” end, or what is termed the Machiavellian ethicComponent of the ethical matrix where an individual employs bad means that lead to a good end. in the ethical matrix. In this case, the presenter purposefully lied to the client in an effort to sign the client. After the client signed with the presenter’s business, the client’s share of the market increased. Here we have a situation where there was a bad mean (lied to client) that lead to a good end (increased market share). When a bad mean leads to a good end, we refer to this as the Machiavellian ethic. According to Wrench, Thomas-Maddox, Richmond, and McCroskey (2008)Wrench, J. S., Thomas-Maddox, C., Richmond, V. P., & McCroskey, J. C. (2008). Quantitative methods for communication researchers: A hands on approach. New York: Oxford University Press., the term “Machiavellian ethic” derives its name from:
…Niccolò Machiavelli [who] believed that the ends justify the means. Machiavelli’s greatest work, The Prince, written in 1513, created much controversy because Machiavelli wrote that princes should retain absolute control of their lands and should use any means necessary to accomplish this end, including deceit. This notion was so outlandish that Pope Clement VIII described it as heretical. (pp. 27–28).
Some ethicists claim that a bad mean is always unethical while others claim that the end result is what matters when determining the goodness of a behavior.
In the final ethical scenario, there was a “good” mean that lead to a “bad” end. In this case, the presenter developed a clear argument based on facts in an attempt to persuade a client (mean), or what is termed the subjective ethicComponent of the ethical matrix where an individual employs good means that lead to a bad end. in the ethical matrix. Unfortunately, after the client signed with the presenter’s company, the client lost part of the market share he or she had before getting involved with the presenter’s company (end). When a good mean (well-honed argument) leads to a bad end (decreased market share), we refer to this as the subjective ethic. This specific ethical stance is deemed “subjective” because the intent of the presenter is ultimately only known to the presenter. In essence, under the subjective ethic, there are two possible implications. In one case, the presenter used a perfectly good mean (well-honed and honest argument) to sign the client and then purposefully decreased the client’s market share; whereas in the second case the presenter used a good mean and the subsequent decreased market share was an unintended outcome. In the first case there is evidence of malice on the part of the presenter, and in the second case there are uncontrollable outcomes.
While a discussion of means and ends is a helpful way to frame ethical thoughts, there are many philosophical traditions that have explored the nature of ethics. Table 2.2 "Major Ethical Perspectives" lists eleven major philosophical perspectives used to determine what is and what is not ethical.
Table 2.2 Major Ethical Perspectives
|Ethical Perspective||Basic Premises||Business Application||Communication Application|
|Altruism||The standard is based on doing what is best or good for others.||Ethical business behavior must be good for other people.||Communicative behavior must lead to a good end for the receiver.|
|Categorical Imperative / Deontology||The standard is based on the notion that moral duties should be obeyed without exception. This perspective is very clear on what is good and what is bad—no middle ground.||There are clear business behaviors that are and are not ethical, so all individuals should avoid behaving unethically in business.||There are some communicative behaviors that are never ethical (e.g., deception).|
|Communitarianism||The standard is based on whether behavior helps to restore the social fabric of society.||Business must behave in a manner that helps the social fabric of society.||Communicative behavior must help the social fabric of society.|
|Cultural Relativism||The standard is an individual’s cultural or legal system of values. These standards differ from culture to culture.||1) The law determines business ethics.||Our legal system and cultures/co-cultures define ethical communication.|
|2) One’s nationalistic culture determines what is ethical.|
|3) One’s organizational culture determines what is ethical.|
|Ethical Egoism||The standard is an individual’s self-interest. Emphasis is on how one should behave, or it encourages people to look out for their own self-interests.||People in business should behave in whatever manner is most effective to achieve their self-interests.||People should communicate in whatever manner is most effective for achieving their communicative goals.|
|Justice||The standard is based on three principles of justice: 1) each person has a right to basic liberties; 2) everyone ought to be given the same chance to qualify for offices and jobs; and 3) when inequalities exist, a priority should be given to meeting the needs of the disadvantaged.||Business decisions should be made on how the decisions will affect all relevant stakeholders equally. However, when stakeholders’ needs are in conflict, priority should be given to meeting the needs of those in subjugated stakeholder groups.||People should communicate in a manner that is consistent with a range of stakeholders.|
|Nihilism||Ethics innately prevent individuals from creating new ideas and values that challenge the status quo, so individuals of superior intellect should disavow any attempt by others to subject them to an ethical perspective.||Smart business people should not be hampered in their behavior by any archaic or contemporary notions of good and bad business behavior.||Smart communicators know that what matters is achieving one’s communicative goals, so they should not adhere to any prescribed notions of good and bad communicative behavior.|
|Psychological Egoism||The standard is an individual’s self-interest. Emphasis is on how one actually behaves, or in everything we do is influenced by self-interested motives.||People in business actually behave in whatever manner is most effective to achieve their self-interests.||People actually communicate in whatever manner is most effective for achieving their communicative goals.|
|Social Relativism||The standard is the interests of my friends, group, or community.||People in business should behave in a manner that is consistent with the interests of their social networks and communities.||People in business should communicate in a manner that is consistent with the interests of their social networks and communities.|
|Subjectivism||The standard is based on an individual’s personal opinion of moral judgment. For this reason, perceptions of ethics differ from person to person.||Whatever an individual in business determines is ethical for her or his behavior is ethical for that individual.||Individual communicators determine what is and is not ethical from their own individual vantage point.|
|Utilitarianism||The standard is the greatest good for the greatest number of people.||People in business should behave in a manner that does the greatest amount of good for the greatest number of people.||People should communicate in a manner that does the greatest amount of good for the greatest number of people.|
The eleven philosophical traditions discussed in Table 2.2 "Major Ethical Perspectives" help to illustrate how varied the perspectives on ethics have been by various philosophical thinkers (Lewis & Speck, 1990). Unfortunately, there is not one clear determination for what is or what is not ethical. The rest of this chapter will focus on three contexts where ethical thought has been applied: business, human communication, and organizational communication.