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Ethics and Rhetorical Communication

COMS 3312
Chapter 16

This chapter is a reflection of the author’s opinions; not necessarily the compilation
of studies and other expert opinion.

The Ethics of Means or of Ends—

The question of judging something on the ends achieved or the means employed to
reach those ends has been asked and debated seemingly forever. The difficulty
arises when we use good means to achieve a bad ending or a bad means to achieve
a good ending. Use of powerful emotions has been used many times to motivate
people into action. This is sometimes done for just reasons, but sometimes for
grossly unjust ones. We expect persuaders to be up-front with us about their
intentions. But even if they are, that is no guarantee that what they say or do will
be ethical. The Machiavellian ethic of “the ends justify the means” is universally
rejected as being unethical. But it is much easier to say this if we are not the one
employing that concept. What is unjustified behavior to one person (propaganda)
might be good, effective persuasion to the next one. In the abstract it is easy to do
the right thing, but in reality we often faced with many “gray area” choices and
what might be theoretically thought of as living in a means-centered ethic, we find
ourselves existing in an ends-centered one. In short, it’s not uncommon for
someone to think that what the other guy does as being unethical, while what we
do as necessary and proper. This so-called seeing the world through rose-colored
glasses makes ethical decisions difficult at times.
Lying is another persuasive technique that we universally condemn as an unethical
act. Yet in the short-term, liars sadly have proven to be just as effective or more so
than those who are honest. Long-term lying will probably damage a source’s ethos
beyond repair. So don’t do it!! The means-centered or ends-centered ethic systems
can’t really work; it must be based on the source’s intent as a communicator.

An Ethic Based on Intent toward the Audience—

Ethical systems are concepts that must be taught to and learned by individuals.
Until we know the rules of society with respect to ethical behavior, we cannot be
ethical or unethical. Therefore, “ethics is a matter of the conscious choices a
person makes.” People must choose to do wrong before we can condemn them as
being unethical or immoral. The only meaningful way we can evaluate the ethics of
a source is on the basis of intent. Our society says that good intent is the desire to
do good for people. Or as Aristotle said, perform “goodwill.” This suggests that
persuasive tools available to the communicator are neither ethical nor unethical. It
is how they are used. If the person’s intent is not honorable, then the use of any
persuasive technique will be unethical. In short, if the source seeks to protect the
well-being of the audience then the act committed is moral. If the source seeks to
do harm to the audience, the act is immoral. But if the source’s intent is neither to
help nor harm, the act committed is amoral.

Ethics and Ethical Proof—

Ethics and Ethos; both important to the rhetorical communicator but they are not
the same thing. If you are perceived by your audience to be a good person, your
persuasiveness will be enhanced by your ethos. Ethical proof has little to do with
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ethics (your intent to follow the rules established by society). Ethics is really ethos

Persuasion and Coercion—

Having the ability to force others to conform to our wishes is a major ethical
problem. Using force to get others to comply is not part of rhetoric. Rhetoric implies
a freedom of choice on the receiver’s end. Coercion removes that choice.
Rhetorical communication understands that audiences can agree, disagree, or make
no decision at all. All coercion is not inherently bad or evil. There are times we
need to force people to do things that they would not do on their own. A child is
unlikely to eat properly unless a parent ensures they do. Choice is not an option as
to whether to eat chocolate or spinach. So, coercion and rhetoric are separate and
distinct means of achieving the same ends. Once we start down the road of
coercing people to do things, we greatly reduce our effectiveness at true
persuasion. People will lose respect for us and fear us. In short, those who use
coercion will only gain compliance out of fear not by choice.

Amoral vs. Moral Approaches to the Ethics of Rhetorical

Rhetorical techniques by definition are amoral…they are neither moral nor
immoral. Intent is key; not what was or how it was said. The amoral
perspective says that everyone should be allowed to speak and be trained as
a rhetorical communicator. The moral view says that only good people
should be trained as rhetoricians or be allowed to voice their opinions. In
theory, it is easy to back the amoral perspective. In practice it is much
harder. For example, the amoral view says that however objectionable the
KKK is, they have a right to their views and can speak their mind. The moral
view would say, the KKK stands for the ugliness, ignorance, and hate in our
society. It is based on racist and immoral beliefs and therefore those
members should not be allowed to speak such hatred.

The Essence of Free Speech—

The US Constitution subscribes to the amoral position on ethics and assumes
that everyone should have right to free speech; that the public should have
the right to hear all sides of an issue. In theory we all subscribe to this view,
but it’s much harder to swallow when someone is spouting hate words (in our
opinion). It’s easy to start thinking that such speech needs to be curtailed so
that it more closely “fits” our point of view. Some governments will impose
control over what is and what is not “free” speech. The US keeps a hands-off
approach, at least to a large degree. Subtle pressure can and is applied to
keep people “in line.”

The Advocate System—

Lawyers should be classic examples of rhetorical communicators; arguing
facts and principles of law to sway the legal system to see an issue their way.
How effective they are will influence the outcome of the legal issue. We tend
to like this system until someone we think is guilty is found innocent or
someone we are convinced is innocent is found guilty.
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Ghostwriting of Messages for Rhetorical Communication—

Some will argue that writing a message for someone else is little more than
plagiarism and definitely unethical or immoral. But those in need of a
ghostwriter (like any President of the United States) do so for practical
reasons. It is impossible to fulfill the duties of the job while also writing the
speech or letter. Probably best to view this as amoral since those who
ghostwrite try to closely approximate the feelings, attitudes, and words of the
source as possible.

The Totalitarian Ethic vs. the Democratic Ethic—

Totalitarian governments endorse the moral ethic of rhetorical
communication. In short, they determine what is moral and what is proper
and acceptable speech. Democratic governments endorse the amoral ethic
of communication and let the public decide what is and what is not the truth.
The main distinction between the two ideologies is in their control of fee
speech. Totalitarian regimes will use laws and coercion to influence behavior.
Democratic governments will use social pressures to influence such behavior.
There are instances in our past when we have used totalitarian tactics to
control behaviors (the McCarthy era) and there have been times when people
have tried to force others via violence to conform to their views (student
demonstrations in the 1960s against the Vietnamese War). The only way to
ensure speech for ourselves is to guarantee it for everyone.

Ethical Obligations in a Free Society—

• To speak—we have an ethical obligation to speak when we sincerely
believe we know what is right. When we see injustice, we have an ethical
responsibility to speak out against it. But most of us fail to live up to this
high standard. It is easier to remain quiet; to compromise our beliefs in
order to protect ourselves from criticism or other reasons.
• To speak well—it’s not enough to just speak up, but we need to do so
effectively. Our society says we have an obligation to learn to
communicate well and opportunities exist to accomplish that. But this is
sometimes hard to do. It requires effort and practice to learn to be a good
communicator. Many times we just too lazy to take the time to learn to
communicate well.
• Not to Speak—Just as it is important to speak up when we know we are
right, it is equally critically not to do it if we suspect we are wrong; or are
unsure of our argument. In a slight variation of the quote, “it is best to be
thought the fool than to open one’s mouth and remove all doubt.” Not
exactly the same situation here but the basic premise is the same. Yet all
too frequently our self-interests get the best of us over our ethical values.
Even when we know something is not good for someone else, we are apt
to argue the point if it serves our interests instead of the good for the
• To Listen—Most of communication time is spent listening; not writing or
speaking. We have an ethical obligation to let others speak and voice
their opinions while we pay attention to them. We don’t have to agree; but
we need to listen so our evaluation can be based on solid principles as
opposed to biased opinions. One of the challenges is our tendency for
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selective exposure. Fight off the urge to only watch or read the views of
those who already agree with your point of view or your values. The more
we fall victim to selective exposure, the less we can uphold our ethical
responsibility to listen objectively.

Final Word on Ethics—

The author takes an amoral view on ethics; arguing that an informed and
educated public will ultimately root out those who are unethical and reward
those communicators who are. He claims that where ethical violations occur,
a credibility gap will emerge and the source of ethical breeches will no longer
have the authority or effectiveness to persuade an audience. But this will
only happen if and when the audience is vigilant in its ethical duty to critically
evaluate the source and the tools used in the persuasion. How well did the
Germans do in evaluating Hitler’s rhetoric in the 1930’s and 1940s? Can be
expect today’s audiences to be any more (or less?) vigilant with today’s
messages? We can afford to listen and believe our leaders only as long as we
are convinced that their arguments are ethical and delivery in our best
interests as a society and country.