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«A Conversation about Communication Ethics with Christopher Lyle Johnstone How did you become interested in studying communication ethics? As an ...»

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A Conversation about Communication Ethics

with Christopher Lyle Johnstone

How did you become interested in studying communication ethics?

As an undergraduate student at UC Davis in the late 1960s, I was originally

drawn to both rhetoric and those fields in philosophy that dealt with “ultimate questions” of existence—metaphysics and ontology. After several years

and much study, I realized that my metaphysical questions didn’t really have

answers—or, at least, they didn’t have answers that satisfied me. That realization, though, turned my attention to more practical matters. Even if I could never be sure what “reality” was, I recognized that all of us still have to make choices every day about what to do and not do. This is where my interest in ethics originated—in my awareness that we all need some means of deciding how to behave. So, in graduate school at the University of Wisconsin, my outside course work gravitated toward moral philosophy.

Whereas my earlier reading in Aristotle, for example, had concentrated on his Metaphysics, I was now drawn to his Nichomachean Ethics. I also read other moral philosophers—Francis Bacon, Thomas Hobbes, John Stuart Mill, and Jeremy Bentham, for example. Sometime during my first few years in graduate school, I was encouraged to read John Dewey, and more than anyone else, he really engaged my thinking about ethics. Out of all this came my doctoral dissertation, which was entitled “Communication and Morality.” In it, I examined the connections between rhetoric and ethics in the writings of Aristotle, Bacon, and Dewey. My teaching and scholarship in communication ethics ever since have been an outgrowth of that study. In fact, two of my first publications on ethics and rhetoric—one on Aristotle and one on Dewey, both appearing in Philosophy and Rhetoric—were based on chapters of the dissertation. Even now, my interest in Greek conceptions of wisdom and their relation to speech and language is a manifestation of the work I started doing in graduate school.

How do you define communication ethics?

I’m fairly literal in how I frame things, starting with ethics, for example. The word “ethics” is basically a direct translation from the Greek ta ethika. Ta ethika is a plural noun, and it translates roughly as “things having to do with character.” Ethics, by its origin, is plural rather than singular, so I think that there are multiple “ethics” that might be applied to human communication.

Let’s go back to the meaning of the term and this notion of things having to do with character. Obviously ethics is related to ethos. The term ethos 2 Exploring Communication Ethics itself derives from an older term that appears in Homer, referring to the “customary dwelling place of animals,” their “haunts” or “abodes.” For example, the ethos of the sheep, so to speak, is the place where the sheep are accustomed to hanging out. If you go there, you would expect to find your sheep. If you've lost your sheep, you go to their customary place—down by the water hole, for example.

This notion of the “customary dwelling place” got metaphorically “stretched” over time. I’m borrowing an expression here from Eric Havelock, who talks about the “stretching” of the old Greek language to do the work of philosophy. One of the things I’ve been studying over the last twenty years or so is how the older terms from the mythopoeic tradition— from Homer and Hesiod and the other poets—were extended by the earliest Greek philosophers, like Thales and Anaximander and their successors, to express


concepts that hadn’t existed before their time. They took the language that was there and put it to their own use. Thus, the term kosmos, which was used by Aristotle to refer to the “ordered universe,” was derived from an earlier, Homeric term (kosmeô) that denoted the act of “ordering” or “arranging” an army into ranks. Likewise, as I mentioned earlier, the notion of ethos as “customary dwelling place” or “abode” morphed into the notion of “custom” or “habit,” and then into “character.” Certainly by the time we get to Aristotle, ethos as “character” refers to a person’s habitual or customary way of acting—to her or his “characteristic” modes of conduct. We come back to the notion of ethics as “things having to do with character.” Ethics has to do with character, and character can be conceived as what John Dewey, another influential thinker in my own intellectual development, called the “interpenetration of habits.” What he called “the moral self” or “self” in general—or what we would call “character”—is defined by the acquired tendencies, habits, predispositions, and so on, that lead one to act in particular ways rather than in others. What defines a person as a person is, by this conception, the things that one tends to do.

“How does one tend to behave in various kinds of circumstances?” “What can I count on you to do?” “What kind of person are you?” That led me, finally, to an interest in the processes by which conduct is chosen. When I think of ethics, and again I’m looking at starting points here, I can’t conceive of a meaningful sense of ethics without presupposing the phenomenon of choice. My starting point is this event. We are all confronted numerous times each day with decisions that we have to make: “Should I get up or stay in bed?” “Should I have cereal or toast?” Granting all the things Christopher Lyle Johnstone about the de-centeredness and instability of the self, the problems with agency, and the whole postmodernist critique of the Enlightenment project— nonetheless, we have the experience of deciding what to do. I have the experience of having to make up my mind on what to do. To me, ethics kicks in when that process is at work.

When we are studying ethics, what we are studying, it seems to me, is those factors—psychological, conceptual, emotional, and philosophical— that bear on the process of choosing conduct. To me, it has to do with the ways in which we make our deliberate choices. When I think about the process of choosing an action, I think of the experience of deliberating, of thinking something through. “Should I do A or B?” We make those kinds of decisions in different ways, but nonetheless there is some sort of thought. If we’re acting purely on impulse or reflex, where there is no opportunity for reflection, then I’m not sure that ethics is an issue. Also, if I’m in a situation where I have literally no choice—or only one choice—I’m not sure ethics applies there, either. There must be the operation of some sort of choice making, of some deliberate selection of action from among realistic alternatives. Aristotle discusses this in his Nichomachean Ethics (Bk. III) when he distinguishes merely “voluntary” action from action that is “deliberately chosen.” The very idea of human moral experience is very complicated; there are no simple answers. It’s full of irresolvable tensions. There is just no way around them. John Dewey said it really well, too. He said that the fundamental fact of moral life is uncertainty. We can never be sure that we’re doing the right thing. He wrote a book called The Quest for Certainty, and his basic position was that, in the moral realm, there is no such thing as certainty. We act always, we decide always, we choose always in the face of uncertainty, always with a risk and always with an awareness that we might be wrong.

Decision-making is a conscious process; it involves cognitive and affective elements. Some people obviously do act impulsively, even when they have the opportunity for reflection. I would want to say that raises ethical problems. I think that people ought to reflect when circumstances permit, that they ought to consider the potential ethical aspects of the various alternatives for action that lie before them. For me the central ethical question when I’m trying to decide what to do is ask, “What are my obligations here?” The process of ethical or moral decision making as the manifestation of moral selfhood is discussed in John Dewey’s Ethics and in his Human Nature and Conduct. There are some discussions in these books on the moral 4 Exploring Communication Ethics life and the concept of moral selfhood. It seems to me that the most appropriate and ethically necessary move for me to make is to think about what my obligations are.

There’s an article by Ralph Eubanks called the “Reflections on the Moral Dimension of Communication” in the Southern Speech Communication Journal that I use in my communication ethics course. He opens this up with a quote from W. D. Faulk, which goes as follows: “There is one commitment whose ground is intimately personal and which comes before any other personal or social commitment whatsoever: The commitment to the principled mode of life as such. One is tempted to call this the supreme moral commitment.” That, to me, is a really important starting point, because it suggests that the first ethical choice we have is the choice of whether or not to try to be ethical. This is indeed a moral choice that reflects who we are and how we approach the task of living and decision-making and choice-making.

That decision, about the commitment to the principled mode of life, is another way of saying the first ethical choice I have to make is, “What sorts of things should I be thinking about when I’m making up my mind about whether to act one way or another?” The most important central ethical question to raise, for me, is, “What are my obligations to myself, to the Other, to the earth, to God, to Being?” and so on. “What ought I to be trying to do? What am I bound to do in my actions?” There are, of course, questions that are logically prior to “What are my obligations?” For example, “Do I have any obligations?” If so, “Why? What creates obligation?” John Caputo, in his book Against Ethics, asserts that “obligation exists,” but he doesn’t want to answer the question, why is this so? Caputo’s position isn’t philosophically satisfying to me. I want to know why. This curiosity is what led me on to my philosophical track, on to the line of inquiry I’ve been pursuing for almost 30 years: “What is the source of obligation?” “Why do we have obligations?” “Where do they come from?” One of the things I’ve done in my reading and writing and teaching is to explore various approaches to the sources of obligation and of principles.

This has been part of my ethical project. I’ve tried to examine various ways of understanding the grounds of obligation, of understanding why I ought to do one thing rather than something else.

Christopher Lyle Johnstone Would you talk about the themes in your scholarship related to communication ethics?

My own sense is that there are various sets of ethical standards that may be applied to communication and different systems and/or ways of looking at ethical issues in human communication. We have multiple approaches to identifying those issues and to resolving ethical questions in communication activities. In fact, a lot of my work has really been devoted to exploring different approaches to communication ethics, as opposed to coming up with “the ethic” for communication. I do think about it pluralistically: “What happens if we start here?” In 1980 I had an article published in Philosophy and Rhetoric that examined connections among ethics, politics, and rhetoric in Aristotle’s thinking. I was interested in seeing how one of the first Western thinkers who taught and wrote systematically about these subjects might have viewed such connections. Among the things I found that were interesting to me were, first, that for Aristotle the idea that humans are “political animals,” designed by nature to live in communities, was the foundation of morality. I also discovered that, in Aristotle’s view, the essential activity of moral decision making is deliberation—excellence in deliberation is the essence of phronêsis or “practical wisdom”—and since rhetoric is used when we deliberate about practical actions, it seemed to me that moral deliberation and the operation of phronêsis are fundamentally rhetorical. Beyond this, Aristotle stipulates certain moral or ethical constraints in his theory of rhetoric, so I was able to perceive some important linkages between rhetoric and ethics.

A few years later, I wrote an article on John Dewey (also published in Philosophy and Rhetoric) called “Dewey, Ethics, and Rhetoric,” where I tried to look at communication ethics and indeed at rhetorical ethics from a Deweyan perspective. I found that there’s a certain amount of overlap among his conceptions of selfhood, habit, and the instrumental uses of communication. In fact, the central feature of what I found in Dewey's thought had to do with what he called “practical intelligence” but what I aligned with phronêsis, “practical wisdom.” This is what I had also seen as a central feature in Aristotle’s thinking about ethics, rhetoric, and politics in the “Aristotelian Trilogy” essay. In the end, these two studies led me to many of the same conclusions—for example, that ethics is concerned with human conduct insofar as it is chosen or deliberate; that rhetoric, both as a form of 6 Exploring Communication Ethics deliberate conduct and as a form of conduct concerned with deliberation, is intimately connected with ethics; and that public deliberation in the service of democratic decision making is the process by which individual members of society construct the shared moral visions that are supposed to guide our communal life.

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