Department of Communication


Ethics and Rhetorical Communication
Chapter 16


This chapter is a reflection of the author’s opinions; not necessarily the compilation of studies and other expert opinion.


The Ethics of Means or of Ends—
The question of judging something on the ends achieved or the means employed to reach those ends has been asked and debated seemingly forever. The difficulty arises when we use good means to achieve a bad ending or a bad means to achieve a good ending. Use of powerful emotions has been used many times to motivate people into action. This is sometimes done for just reasons, but sometimes for grossly unjust ones. We expect persuaders to be up-front with us about their intentions. But even if they are, that is no guarantee that what they say or do will be ethical. The Machiavellian ethic of “the ends justify the means” is universally rejected as being unethical. But it is much easier to say this if we are not the one employing that concept. What is unjustified behavior to one person (propaganda) might be good, effective persuasion to the next one. In the abstract it is easy to do the right thing, but in reality we often faced with many “gray area” choices and what might be theoretically thought of as living in a means-centered ethic, we find ourselves existing in an ends-centered one. In short, it’s not uncommon for someone to think that what the other guy does as being unethical, while what we do as necessary and proper. This so-called seeing the world through rose-colored glasses makes ethical decisions difficult at times.
Lying is another persuasive technique that we universally condemn as an unethical act. Yet in the short-term, liars sadly have proven to be just as effective or more so than those who are honest. Long-term lying will probably damage a source’s ethos beyond repair. So don’t do it!! The means-centered or ends-centered ethic systems can’t really work; it must be based on the source’s intent as a communicator.

An Ethic Based on Intent toward the Audience—
Ethical systems are concepts that must be taught to and learned by individuals. Until we know the rules of society with respect to ethical behavior, we cannot be ethical or unethical. Therefore, “ethics is a matter of the conscious choices a person makes.” People must choose to do wrong before we can condemn them as being unethical or immoral. The only meaningful way we can evaluate the ethics of a source is on the basis of intent. Our society says that good intent is the desire to do good for people. Or as Aristotle said, perform “goodwill.” This suggests that persuasive tools available to the communicator are neither ethical nor unethical. It is how they are used. If the person’s intent is not honorable, then the use of any persuasive technique will be unethical. In short, if the source seeks to protect the well-being of the audience then the act committed is moral. If the source seeks to do harm to the audience, the act is immoral. But if the source’s intent is neither to help nor harm, the act committed is amoral.

Ethics and Ethical Proof—
Ethics and Ethos; both important to the rhetorical communicator but they are not the same thing. If you are perceived by your audience to be a good person, your persuasiveness will be enhanced by your ethos. Ethical proof has little to do with ethics (your intent to follow the rules established by society). Ethics is really ethos misnamed.

Persuasion and Coercion—
Having the ability to force others to conform to our wishes is a major ethical problem. Using force to get others to comply is not part of rhetoric. Rhetoric implies a freedom of choice on the receiver’s end. Coercion removes that choice. Rhetorical communication understands that audiences can agree, disagree, or make no decision at all. All coercion is not inherently bad or evil. There are times we need to force people to do things that they would not do on their own. A child is unlikely to eat properly unless a parent ensures they do. Choice is not an option as to whether to eat chocolate or spinach. So, coercion and rhetoric are separate and distinct means of achieving the same ends. Once we start down the road of coercing people to do things, we greatly reduce our effectiveness at true persuasion. People will lose respect for us and fear us. In short, those who use coercion will only gain compliance out of fear not by choice.

Amoral vs. Moral Approaches to the Ethics of Rhetorical
Rhetorical techniques by definition are amoral…they are neither moral nor immoral. Intent is key; not what was or how it was said. The amoral perspective says that everyone should be allowed to speak and be trained as a rhetorical communicator. The moral view says that only good people should be trained as rhetoricians or be allowed to voice their opinions. In theory, it is easy to back the amoral perspective. In practice it is much harder. For example, the amoral view says that however objectionable the KKK is, they have a right to their views and can speak their mind. The moral view would say, the KKK stands for the ugliness, ignorance, and hate in our society. It is based on racist and immoral beliefs and therefore those members should not be allowed to speak such hatred.

The Essence of Free Speech—
The US Constitution subscribes to the amoral position on ethics and assumes that everyone should have right to free speech; that the public should have the right to hear all sides of an issue. In theory we all subscribe to this view, but it’s much harder to swallow when someone is spouting hate words (in our opinion). It’s easy to start thinking that such speech needs to be curtailed so that it more closely “fits” our point of view. Some governments will impose control over what is and what is not “free” speech. The US keeps a hands-off approach, at least to a large degree. Subtle pressure can and is applied to keep people “in line.”

The Advocate System—
Lawyers should be classic examples of rhetorical communicators; arguing facts and principles of law to sway the legal system to see an issue their way. How effective they are will influence the outcome of the legal issue. We tend to like this system until someone we think is guilty is found innocent or someone we are convinced is innocent is found guilty.

Ghostwriting of Messages for Rhetorical Communication—
Some will argue that writing a message for someone else is little more than plagiarism and definitely unethical or immoral. But those in need of a ghostwriter (like any President of the United States) do so for practical reasons. It is impossible to fulfill the duties of the job while also writing the speech or letter. Probably best to view this as amoral since those who ghostwrite try to closely approximate the feelings, attitudes, and words of the source as possible.

The Totalitarian Ethic vs. the Democratic Ethic—
Totalitarian governments endorse the moral ethic of rhetorical communication. In short, they determine what is moral and what is proper and acceptable speech. Democratic governments endorse the amoral ethic of communication and let the public decide what is and what is not the truth. The main distinction between the two ideologies is in their control of fee speech. Totalitarian regimes will use laws and coercion to influence behavior. Democratic governments will use social pressures to influence such behavior. There are instances in our past when we have used totalitarian tactics to control behaviors (the McCarthy era) and there have been times when people have tried to force others via violence to conform to their views (student demonstrations in the 1960s against the Vietnamese War). The only way to ensure speech for ourselves is to guarantee it for everyone.

Ethical Obligations in a Free Society—
To speak—we have an ethical obligation to speak when we sincerely believe we know what is right. When we see injustice, we have an ethical responsibility to speak out against it. But most of us fail to live up to this high standard. It is easier to remain quiet; to compromise our beliefs in order to protect ourselves from criticism or other reasons.
To speak well—it’s not enough to just speak up, but we need to do so effectively. Our society says we have an obligation to learn to communicate well and opportunities exist to accomplish that. But this is sometimes hard to do. It requires effort and practice to learn to be a good communicator. Many times we just too lazy to take the time to learn to communicate well.
Not to Speak—Just as it is important to speak up when we know we are right, it is equally critically not to do it if we suspect we are wrong; or are unsure of our argument. In a slight variation of the quote, “it is best to be thought the fool than to open one’s mouth and remove all doubt.” Not exactly the same situation here but the basic premise is the same. Yet all too frequently our self-interests get the best of us over our ethical values. Even when we know something is not good for someone else, we are apt to argue the point if it serves our interests instead of the good for the whole.
To Listen—Most of communication time is spent listening; not writing or speaking. We have an ethical obligation to let others speak and voice their opinions while we pay attention to them. We don’t have to agree; but we need to listen so our evaluation can be based on solid principles as opposed to biased opinions. One of the challenges is our tendency for selective exposure. Fight off the urge to only watch or read the views of those who already agree with your point of view or your values. The more we fall victim to selective exposure, the less we can uphold our ethical responsibility to listen objectively.

Final Word on Ethics—
The author takes an amoral view on ethics; arguing that an informed and educated public will ultimately root out those who are unethical and reward those communicators who are. He claims that where ethical violations occur, a credibility gap will emerge and the source of ethical breeches will no longer have the authority or effectiveness to persuade an audience. But this will only happen if and when the audience is vigilant in its ethical duty to critically evaluate the source and the tools used in the persuasion. How well did the Germans do in evaluating Hitler’s rhetoric in the 1930’s and 1940s? Can be expect today’s audiences to be any more (or less?) vigilant with today’s messages? We can afford to listen and believe our leaders only as long as we are convinced that their arguments are ethical and delivery in our best interests as a society and country.