Interpersonal Communication, Ethics and

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In 1984, on behalf of more than 130 petitioners, James Jaksa from Western Michigan University submitted a request to the administrative committee of the Speech Communication Association— now known as the National Communication Association (NCA)—to establish a Communication Ethics Commission. In the petition, Jaksa noted that "ethics is central to [the communication] field and has been an indispensable part of our tradition since our beginnings." Jaksa went on to add the following:

[The] search for truth, truthfulness in communication, and the moral obligations of speakers, listeners, third persons, and society as a whole are concerns of scholars in communication. However, events in contemporary society have presented a real threat to confidence in "the word."…The tendency to accept lies and deception as the norm in parts of our society is increasing. Yet truthfulness must be the norm for communication to exist and for society to survive. This includes private and public settings across the entire spectrum of our discipline: interpersonal, business and professional, organizational, mediated and mass communication, political and intercultural communication, and other specialized areas.

In 1985, the Communication Ethics Commission was officially established.

The NCA Communication Ethics Commission

The NCA Communication Ethics Commission continues to be an active hub for scholarly activity in the field of ethics and interpersonal communication as well as in other areas of interest to its members (e.g., ethics in contexts such as the media, the classroom, and in organizations). The commission distributes the quarterly newsletter ethica and cosponsors (with the Western Michigan University Department of Communication, Western Michigan University Center for the Study of Ethics in Society, and Duquesne University) a biannual National Summer Conference on Communication Ethics. This conference, held in Gull Lake, Michigan, draws together scholars from around the country to discuss issues of scholarly and pedagogical importance in communication ethics.

In 1999, after a year-long process of extensive examination, comment, and discussion (with numerous contributions from members of the Communication Ethics Commission), the NCA adopted the following "Credo for Ethical Communication":

Questions of right and wrong arise whenever people communicate. Ethical communication is fundamental to responsible thinking, decision making, and the development of relationships and communities within and across contexts, cultures, channels and media. Moreover, ethical communication enhances human worth and dignity by fostering truthfulness, fairness, responsibility, personal integrity, and respect for self and others. We believe that unethical communication threatens the quality of all communication and consequently the well-being of individuals and the society in which we live. Therefore we, the members of the National Communication Association, endorse and are committed to practicing the following principles of ethical communication:

  • We advocate truthfulness, accuracy, honesty, and reason as essential to the integrity of communication.
  • We endorse freedom of expression, diversity of perspective, and tolerance of dissent to achieve the informed and responsible decision making fundamental to a civil society.
  • We strive to understand and respect other communicators before evaluating and responding to their messages.
  • We promote access to communication resources and opportunities as necessary to fulfill human potential and contribute to the well-being of families, communities and society.
  • We promote communication climates of caring and mutual understanding that respect the unique needs and characteristics of individual communicators.
  • We condemn communication that degrades individuals and humanity through distortion, intimidation, coercion, and violence, and through the expression of intolerance and hatred.
  • We are committed to the courageous expression of personal convictions in pursuit of fairness and justice.
  • We advocate sharing information, opinions, and feelings when facing significant choices while also respecting privacy and confidentiality.
  • We accept responsibility for the short-and long-term consequences for our own communication and expect the same of others.

Additional Rules, Guidelines, and Perspectives

In his book Ethics in Human Communication (1996), Richard Johannesen built on the work of John Condon and set out the following guidelines for interpersonal communication:

  1. Personal beliefs and feelings should be shared in a candid and frank manner.
  2. Keeping social relationships harmonious may be more ethical than speaking one's mind in groups or cultures where interdependence is valued over individualism.
  3. Communicate information accurately, with minimal loss or distortion of the intended meaning.
  4. It is generally unethical to deceive someone intentionally.
  5. There should be a consistency in the meanings that verbal and nonverbal cues, words, and actions communicate.
  6. It is usually unethical to block the communication process intentionally with behaviors such as cutting off people before their point has been made, changing the subject when another person obviously has more to say, or using nonverbal behaviors to distract people from the intended subject.

Lana Rakow (1994) proposes an interpersonal communication ethic that emphasizes norms of trust, mutuality, justice, and reciprocity. She suggests three ethical rules for achieving healthy relationships: (1) inclusiveness or being open to multiple perspectives on truth, an encouragement of them and a willingness to listen, (2) participation or ensuring that all people must have the means and ability to participate, to be heard, to speak, to have voice, to have opinions count in public decision making, and (3) reciprocity so participants are considered to be equal partners in a communication transaction and there is a reciprocity of speaking and listening.

Many scholars of ethics and interpersonal communication offer a dialogic perspective in which sustaining and nurturing dialogic interaction is one of the most important values in a communication encounter. In a dialogic perspective, both participants in an interaction are considered to be worthy of respect and should be allowed to express their own points of view. Theorists such as Ronald C. Arnett (1992) explore the value of dialogue in maintaining interpersonal communication encounters. Extending philosopher Martin Buber's analysis of the need for dialogue, Arnett does not call for a "perfect dialogue"; instead, he discusses the importance of a position of humility in which the interactants argue for their own ideas while respecting the rights of others to do the same. Johannesen (1996) lists the following six characteristics of a dialogue: authenticity, inclusion, confirmation, presentness, a spirit of mutual equality, and a supportive climate. Authenticity refers to being direct, honest, and straightforward but not necessarily saying everything that comes to mind. Inclusion refers to trying to see other people's viewpoint without sacrificing one's own convictions. Confirmation occurs when people express positive warmth for each other. Presentness occurs when people concentrate completely on the encounter and demonstrate that they are willing to be completely involved in the interaction. A spirit of mutual equality exists when the participants view each other as people and not as objects to be manipulated or exploited. A supportive climate exists when the participants avoid value judgments that stifle understanding and instead encourage each other to communicate freely.

Feminist and Interethnic Scholarship

Feminist scholarship has had a great influence on the theorizing about ethics and interpersonal communication. One of the major contributions of these scholars has been to highlight and explicate the concept of care. Carol Gilligan, in In a Different Voice (1982), proposes that women are more likely to base their decisions on an "ethic of care" in which relationships with others and responsibility for them is paramount and that men are more likely to use an "ethic of justice" that emphasizes hierarchical principles and issues of right versus wrong. Julia Wood (1994) has criticized this perspective for promoting the stereotype of women as nurturers, and Nel Noddings (1984) contends that any person (female or male) is capable of being either the caring one or the cared for. Rita C. Manning (1992) maintains that a reciprocal web of caring is created in day-to-day interactions with others and that although one may be free to choose who to care for at what point in time, roles and responsibilities (such as parenthood) set up an obligation to respond in a caring manner. Nevertheless, Gilligan made a major contribution to theory in the field of interpersonal communication ethics by (1) emphasizing that neither the care perspective nor the justice perspective is a more morally developed perspective and (2) including the voices of women in an area in which they were not well represented previous to her theorizing.

In extending the consideration of ethics in interpersonal communication beyond the bounds of Anglo-American culture, Anthony Cortese argues in Ethnic Ethics: The Restructuring of Moral Theory (1992) that morality based on justice cannot be purely subjective (derived from the principles of individuals alone) nor purely objective (based, for example, on universal rules). Instead, he calls for "communication without domination":

[R]elationships, not reason nor justice, are the essence of life and morality.… Relationships provide the context and the basis for any type of justice, any code of moral principles for which we live. Relationships provide the context for all of our sets of belief, value systems, and behavioral norms. Justice must always refer to some type of relationship; justice is meaningless without its application to relationships. If we do not comprehend the social fabric of our relationships with others, then justice is merely a set of empty mathematical, reified formuli. Justice then hangs dangerously devoid of meaning, like a trapeze artist without a safety net. That is, without relationships justice contains no system of checks and balances. It becomes primary and an end itself without regard to the purpose of morality [pp. 157-158].

Questions for Further Study

In a 1997 presentation to the NCA, Johannesen raised several questions that are faced by scholars who study ethics. First, can communication ethics survive the devastating critique posed by postmodernism (i.e., the contemporary idea that life is fragmented in many ways and there is no ultimate moral authority guiding ethical action in all contexts)? Can interpersonal communication ethics survive if there is no individual moral agent, there is no autonomous self that can decide ethical questions objectively, there are no absolute moral values, and there is only fragmentation and alienation? After reviewing several approaches to the notion of self, Johannesen concluded that even in a postmodern context it is possible to have a self that is unique and individual, capable of acting responsibly. Second, do transcultural ethical values block the search for minimum ethical standards for communication? Johanessen points to Ethics in Intercultural and International Communication (1997) by Fred Casmir and Communication Ethics and Universal Values (1997) by Clifford Christians and Michael Traber as examples of works that successfully identify universal ethical principles. Third, can people recognize the roles that diversity and marginalization (i.e., people who do not have equal access to political and other types of power in a society) play in developing communication ethics? Johanessen responded that, as other scholars have noted, honoring diversity must also include respect for common values and respect for all human beings.

See also:Feminist Scholarship and Communication; Interpersonal Communication.


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Lea P. Stewart

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Interpersonal Communication, Ethics and

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