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3.1: Sources of Ethical Stances on Communication and Public Speaking

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  • As discussed in Chapter 1, there are many reasons to take a public speaking course. Among its numerous benefits, a public speaking course will create more self-confidence; the creation of good arguments will build your critical thinking and research skills; and you will meet new people in your class in a different way and be exposed to their ideas. Also, the course will prepare you for presentations you will be expected to give in later classes (and believe us, there will be many) and for your eventual career.

    Another very important reason to take a public speaking course such as this one goes beyond these immediate personal benefits. Public speaking, or “rhetoric” as it was originally called, has long been considered a method in Western culture of building community, facilitating self-government, sharing important ideas, and creating policies. In fact, these are the reasons the ancient Athenian Greeks emphasized that all citizens should be educated in rhetoric: so that they could take part in civil society. Aristotle said that if a man was expected to defend himself physically, he should also be able to defend his ideas rhetorically, that is, through persuasive public speaking:

    It is absurd to hold that a man ought to be ashamed of being unable to defend himself with his limbs, but not of being unable to defend himself with speech and reason, when the use of rational speech is more distinctive of a human being than the use of his limbs. (Book I, p. 6).

    Therefore, public speaking has a social as well as a personal purpose and function. For that reason, the ethics of public speaking and communication in general should be addressed in any study of public speaking. A public speaker, whether delivering a speech in a classroom, board room, civic meeting, or in any other venue must uphold certain ethical standards to allow the audience to make informed choices, to uphold credibility as a source of information, and to avoid repercussions of bad ethical choices.

    To this end, this chapter will deal with the subject of ethics. Ethics refers to the branch of philosophy that involves determinations of what is right and moral. On a personal level, it is your own standard of what you should and should not do in the various situations or in all situations. Although ethics are personal decisions, they are influenced by factors outside of you. Over the next few pages, we will look at various ways ethics, particularly ethics related to speech, have been thought about. In reading, you should seek to determine how you would explain your own ethical standard for communication. Along with being able to articulate what you would not do, you should have an appreciation for why doing the right thing is important to you.

    One of “right things” and most important ways that we speak ethically is to use material from others correctly. Occasionally we hear in the news media about a political speaker who uses the words of other speakers without attribution or of scholars who use pages out of another scholar’s work without consent or citation. Usually the discussion of plagiarism stays within the community where it occurred, but there is still damage done to the “borrower’s” reputation as an ethical person and scholar.

    Why does it matter if a speaker or writer commits plagiarism? Why and how do we judge a speaker as ethical? Why, for example, do we value originality and correct citation of sources in public life as well as the academic world, especially in the United States? These are not new questions, and some of the answers lie in age-old philosophies of communication.

    Legal Origins of Ethics in Public Speaking

    The First Amendment to the Constitution is one of the most cherished and debated in the Bill of Rights. “Congress shall make no law abridging freedom of speech . . . or of the press” has been discussed in many contexts for over two hundred and thirty years. Thomas Emerson, a Constitutional scholar and Yale Law Professor, asserted that freedom of expression is more than just a right. It is a necessity for having the kind of society we want as Americans. Although we think of “freedom of the press” today as referring to mass media and journalism, “press” here refers to publishing of books, magazines, or pamphlets by anyone.

    One of the bases of the First Amendment is an essay written by John Milton in the 1600s, Aereopagitica. This essay on freedom of speech is where the phrases “free marketplace of ideas” and “truth will arise from debate of all ideas” originated. Milton lived in a time when the King of England or Parliament could “censor” published material or speakers, either by keeping it from being published and distributed (called “prior restraint”) or by punishing the producers of the content.

    In the twentieth century, “freedom of speech” has been generalized into a freedom of expression. This was especially true in the important Supreme Court cases on the First Amendment in the 1950s through 1970s. According to Emerson (1970), such expression is important to our development as human beings individually and in a democracy. Thanks to these historical precedents, we can express ourselves freely in our communities and classrooms, keeping in mind ethical responsibilities to present serious, honest, factual, and well-supported speeches as a matter of respect to your listeners. Additionally, although the First Amendment to the Constitution is usually interpreted by the Supreme Court and lower courts to mean almost no restrictions on freedom of expression, there are a few instances in which the government is held to have a “compelling interest” in controlling, stopping, or preventing certain types of free expression.

    One of these instances has to do with threats on the life of the President of the United States, although threats of physical harm against anyone might result in penalties. Another instance of restrictions on freedom of expression is in those cases where the speaker has the opportunity and means and likelihood of inciting an audience to violence (this is the old “yelling ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre” example). The government has also allowed local governments to have reasonable requirements to avoid mobs or public danger or to uphold community standards, such as permits for parades or limiting how many people can meet in a certain size of building. “Reasonable” is sometimes a matter of debate, as history of Supreme Court cases on the First Amendment shows.

    Another type of restriction on freedom of speech is defamatory speech, which is defined in the United States as:

    a false statement of fact that damages a person’s character, fame or reputation. It must be a false statement of fact; statements of opinion, however insulting they may be, cannot be defamation under U.S. law. Under U.S. defamation law, there are different standards for public officials [and public figures] and private individuals. (U.S. Department of State, 2013)

    With the Internet and social media, these issues become more complicated, of course. In the past someone could express himself or herself only in limited ways: standing on a street corner, attending a public meeting, putting the words on paper and distributing them, or maybe getting on radio or television (if allowed or if wealthy). Today, almost anyone with a laptop, a webcam, an ISP, and technical know-how can be as powerful in getting a message to the masses as someone owning a newspaper one hundred years ago. While most people use technology and the Internet for fun, profit, or self-expression, some use it for hurt—bullying, defamation, even spreading terrorism. The judicial system is trying to keep up with the challenges that the digital age brings to protecting free expression while sheltering us from the negative consequences of some forms of free expression.

    Cultural and Religious Origins of Ethics in Communication

    It is hard to separate life aspects such as legal, cultural, religious, and social. Many Americans would say they hold to the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do to you.” The Golden Rule is seen as a positive expression of fairness, equity, and trust. Even if there is no legal ruling hanging over us, we expect honest communication and return it. The Golden Rule is related to and a step beyond the “Law of Reciprocity” that determines so much of our social interaction. We also value straightforwardness; respect for the individual’s freedom of choice; getting access to full information; consistency between action and words; taking responsibility for one’s own mistakes (sometimes necessitating an apology and accepting consequences); and protection of privacy. We fear public humiliation and do not want to violate community norms.

    What matters is how a person internalizes the norms and makes them work for him or her. Upbringing and family teachings, religious values, experiences, peers, and just plain old “gut reaction” contribute to and are sometimes far more important to the individual than the First Amendment or historical values.

    Philosophers and Communication Ethics

    Philosophers throughout history have also written on the subject of communication and public speaking ethics. In fact, one of the first philosophers, Plato, objected to the way rhetoric was practiced in his day, because “it made the worse case appear the better.” In other words, the professional public speakers, who could be hired to defend someone in court or the assembly, knew and used techniques that could deceive audiences and turn them from truth. Aristotle responded to this concern from his teacher Plato in his work, Rhetoric. Later, Quintilian, a Roman teacher of rhetoric, wrote that rhetoric was “the good man speaking well,” meaning the speaker must meet the Roman Republic’s definition of a virtuous man.

    In more modern times, English philosophers John Stuart Mill (1806- 1873) and Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) introduced utilitarianism, which presents the ethic of “The greatest good for the greatest number;” that is, whatever benefits the most people is right. A related philosophy, pragmatism, was first discussed by Charles Sanders Pierce (1839-1914). Pragmatists judge actions by their practical consequences. Some ethicists would differ with the pragmatic position, claiming it supports an “ends justify the means” philosophy. When we say “the ends justify the means,” we are saying that a generally unethical action (intentional misstatement of truth, withholding information, or taking any someone’s freedom of choice) is ethical as long as something good comes from it. Many scholars of ethical communication would disagree with the “ends justify the means” philosophy.

    The philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) proposed what was been called the Categorical Imperative: “Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it would become a universal law.” To paraphrase, any behavior we engage in should be what we think everyone else on the planet should do ethically. In the twentieth century, JeanPaul Sartre and others called “existentialists” emphasized that the ability and necessity to freely choose our actions is what makes us human, but we are accountable for all our choices. Jurgen Habermas, a more recent scholar, emphasizes the “equal opportunity for participation” of the communication partners (Johannessen, Valde, & Whedbe, 2008).

    This very brief overview of ethics in general and in communication specifically is designed to let you know that the best minds have grappled with what is right and wrong when it comes to expression. But what is the practical application? We believe it is respect for your audience: in this case, your classmates, peers, and your instructor. Whether you take the Categorical Imperative approach, the pragmatic philosophy, the Judeo-Christian view of “thou shalt not lie” and “speaking the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15), the Golden Rule, freedom with accountability, or some other view, respect for your audience means that you will do your best to present factual, well-documented information designed to improve their lives and help them make informed, intelligent decisions with it.

    In addition to respect for the humanity, intelligence, and dignity of your audience, you should be conscious of two other aspects related to ethics of communication: credibility and plagiarism.