When discussing communication ethics, it is important to understand exactly what is meant by
‘ethics’. Sometimes, people confuse ethics with behaving in accordance with social conventions,
religious beliefs and the law. And, sometimes the terms ethics and morals are used
interchangeably, because they clearly are both related to “right” and “wrong” conduct. However,
they are not the same thing at all!
Ethics refer to rules provided by an external source. They are governed by professional and legal
guidelines within a particular time and place. Ethics are all about how we deal with ‘grey areas’.
Ethics therefore refer to the value judgments we make on bigger and smaller matters, in
communication as well as in other fields.
A concrete example of ethics are codes of conduct in workplaces. Lawyers, policemen, and
doctors all have to follow an ethical code laid down by their profession, regardless of their own
feelings or preferences. In a specific communication setting, we can say that The Society of
Professional Journalists Code of Ethics is a good example. In this code, several principles of
ethical journalism are included, with instructions on how to behave as an objective, transparent
and reliable journalist. In this code of ethics, we find principles such as ‘seek truth and report it’
and ‘minimize harm for sources, subjects, colleagues and members of the public’.
Morals refer to an individual’s own principles regarding right and wrong. For example, a
journalist may exaggerate a little to create a more sensational story. These principles are not
written in legal guidelines, but are subject to one’s own gut feeling about what is good or bad. Of
course, most decisions are not captured in a code of conduct, but ask for people’s personal
cultural norms for dealing with issues. Then you really must trust your own moral compass!
When we study people’s principles about what is good or bad, we find two forms of ethics:
Descriptive and prescriptive ethics. The crucial difference between these principles is describing
or explaining behavior, versus guiding or prescribing.
Descriptive ethics are concerned with ‘what is’. They are also known as comparative ethics. This
is the scientific study of moral beliefs and practices of different peoples and cultures in various
places and times, in order to describe how people behave and think when dealing with moral
issues and arguments. The essential question in this form of ethics is ‘What do people think is
right in a certain place, time or situation?’.
Prescriptive ethics are all about ‘what ought to be’. Therefore, this form is also known as
normative ethics. This is the study of principles, rules, or theories that guide our actions and
judgements, in order to determine what actually is morally right or wrong. The essential question in this form of ethics is ‘How should people act?’
And of course we need to apply this distinction between two forms of ethics in the field of
communication! For example, we could state that descriptive ethics would be used when
determining what proportion of tabloid journalists believe that it is no problem to invade the
personal privacy of celebrities in order to boost sales. On the other hand, normative ethics would
be used to determine whether it is correct to hold such a belief.
So, now you know more about morals and the different forms of ethics. In the next clip, we will
explain the difference between sophistry and relativism.
Course by Department of Communication , University of Amsterdam