The Pragmatic Necessity of Communication Ethics

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Chapter One, after the long, detailed preface, opens with what I shall call a thesis statement:

We begin with a simple assumption: We cannot assume that any given person— not even a neighbor— protects and promotes the same goods as we do. The clashing of goods or views of what should be “ethical” defines our time.

Arnett, Ronald C.; Fritz, Janie; Bell, Leeanne M. (2008-08-04). Communication Ethics Literacy: Dialogue and Difference (Kindle Locations 429-431). SAGE Publications. Kindle Edition.

The chapter then moves through a four-step process the author describes.

The first step is the good: a central set of values. By definition our age does not agree on which good is the greatest. At the same time each of us seeks to protect and promote the understanding of the good that we have. But our current historic moment encourages us to also learn from the good that others seek to protect and promote. We don’t have to promote their good, but we should learn from it and about it. We should also show up to engage in the communication process on behalf of the good we believe in.

The author puts forward a good case that showing up is an important part of communication, of learning. We can see this in classes: just reading the books doesn’t cut it, one must show up to class, to truly participate in the communication and learning process. Not showing up removes you from communication, and also from the necessary reflection on the materials, the communication.

Most of our communication isn’t made with reflection about these things. Adding reflection broadens our perspective, and increases our reach:

Emphasis upon communication ethics literacy shifts discussion of ethics from the position of weapon and condemnation to questions about learning and deliberation.

Arnett, Ronald C.; Fritz, Janie; Bell, Leeanne M. (2008-08-04). Communication Ethics Literacy: Dialogue and Difference (Kindle Locations 559-560). SAGE Publications. Kindle Edition.

We can go from a win-loss to a win-win model. This is theoretical, but also practical. As the authors note:

A communication ethics literacy position is pragmatic: (a) We will not agree with everyone on what is good; (b) all communication has an ethical dimension; and (c) the commonality of ethical differences requires one to learn to read what good a given communication ethic seeks to protect and promote.

Arnett, Ronald C.; Fritz, Janie; Bell, Leeanne M. (2008-08-04). Communication Ethics Literacy: Dialogue and Difference (Kindle Locations 568-570). SAGE Publications. Kindle Edition.

Which brings us to the second step is mapping communication ethics in the historical moment. What is a historical moment? A moment that presents questions that require our attention and reflection. We draw the map to understand where we are, to guide us, but not to provide answers. Answers come in the listening and learning.

The third step is titled Postmodernity. It is less a time that a state of being — an inability to agree, and hopefully the decision to agree to disagree, while learning from each other.

One of the interesting elements the authors mention in this phase is the idea of “third places.” In the more structured past, people had the centers of work and home that embodied their ideas of the good. But we have seen the resurgence of “third places”, outside of work and home — coffee shops and book stores — where people can connect around common interests, and develop other ideas of the good.

Finally, we have step four: Learning. As the authors state:

The study of communication ethics as situated within an understanding of the good shaped by differing historical moments acknowledges that in today’s postmodern moment, multiple goods compete for allegiance, and learning and dialogue are keys to communication ethics in this historical moment. As we seek to understand the ground that situates our own understanding of the good and that of the Other, we engage the pragmatic heart of communication ethics in an age of difference— we begin to privilege learning.

Arnett, Ronald C.; Fritz, Janie; Bell, Leeanne M. (2008-08-04). Communication Ethics Literacy: Dialogue and Difference (Kindle Locations 793-796). SAGE Publications. Kindle Edition.

And thus the authors pull their example from Les Miserables to illustrate their point. Here I find what they wrote to actually be quite good. For this chapter they go through pretty much the entire plot of the book, showing how episode after episode is an example of conflicting goods, and how the choice of one or the other affects each of the parties.

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