Ethical Communication: Moral Stances in Human Dialogue

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Proponents of professional ethics recognize the importance of theory but also know that the field of ethics is best understood through real-world applications. This book introduces students and practitioners to important ethical concepts through the lives of major thinkers ranging from Aristotle to Ayn Rand, John Stuart Mill to the Dalai Lama.

Some two dozen contributors approach media ethics from five perspectives—altruistic, egoistic, autonomous, legalist, and communitarian—and use real people as examples to convey ethical concepts as something more than mere abstractions. Readers see how Confucius represents group loyalty; Gandhi, nonviolent action; Mother Teresa, the spirit of sacrifice. Each profile provides biographical material, the individual’s basic ethical position and contribution, and insight into how his or her moral teachings can help the modern communicator. The roster of thinkers is gender inclusive, ethnically diverse, and spans a broad range of time and geography to challenge the misperception that moral theory is dominated by Western males.

These profiles challenge us not to give up on moral thinking in our day but to take seriously the abundance of good ideas in ethics that the human race provides. They speak to real-life struggles by applying to such trials the lasting quality of foundational thought. Many of the root values to which they appeal are cross-cultural, even universal.

Exemplifying these five ethical perspectives through more than two dozen mentors provides today’s communicators with a solid grounding of key ideas for improving discussion and attaining social progress in their lives and work. These profiles convey the diversity of means to personal and social betterment through worthwhile ideas that truly make ethics come alive.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780826218391
  • Publisher: University of Missouri Press
  • Publication date: 4/13/2009
  • Edition description: bibliography, index
  • Pages: 232
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Clifford G. Christians is Research Professor of Communications at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and his books include Media Ethics: Cases and MoralReasoning, now in it eighth edition.

John C. Merrill is Professor Emeritus of Journalism at the University of Missouri-Columbia and author or editor of more than two dozen books including most recently Media, Mission, and Morality.

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Ethical Communication

Moral Stances in Human Dialogue

By Clifford G. Christians, John C. Merrill

University of Missouri Press

Copyright © 2009 The Curators of the University of Missouri
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8262-7184-6


Tenzin Gyatso, the Dalai Lama

Universal Compassion


At the age of five, Tenzin Gyatso (1935–) was found in the small Tibetan province of Amdo, in the tiny village of Takster, and proclaimed the fourteenth Dalai Lama (Buddhist spiritual leader). He was recognized as the reincarnation of the thirteenth Dalai Lama, his predecessor. At the age of fifteen (in 1950) he was enthroned as head of state. The Dalai Lamas are the reincarnations of Compassion Bodhisattva who are returned to a life of service to the people. The Chinese at the time were beginning to occupy Tibet and, after Tibet finally fell to China in 1959, Tenzin Gyatso fled the country, going to India where he founded the Tibetan government in exile (Freedom in Exile, 23–30 passim).

Since the 1960s the Dalai Lama has become ever more active, speaking in many parts of the world, spreading Buddhist thought widely, and publicizing the cause of a free Tibet. His reputation as a man of peace has grown steadily in the West. He has introduced millions to the Buddhist philosophy and has consistently championed the virtues of peace and freedom. In 1989 he received the Nobel Peace Prize. He has been extremely popular wherever he appears, drawing massive crowds in the West when he speaks. In October 2007, in spite of stringent opposition by China, President George Bush presented him with the Congressional Medal of Honor in Washington, D.C.

The Dalai Lama's message has always been one urging understanding and respect among different segments of the population. He stresses the need for universal responsibility, love, compassion, and kindness. In his 1989 Nobel Prize speech (Les Prix Nobel) he said that "simple human-to-human relationships" were becoming urgent. He went on: "Today the world is smaller and more interdependent. One nation's problems can no longer be solved by itself completely." Thus, he said, "without a sense of universal responsibility, our very survival becomes threatened." We must, he insisted, feel for the suffering of others just as we feel for our own.

The Dalai Lama firmly believes that the reason for behaving ethically is to find happiness. His ethics center on compassion, concern, sympathy, forbearance, fortitude, and patience. In his 1999 book, Ethics for the New Millennium, he stated a principal belief that "ethical discipline is what facilitates the very qualities which give meaning and value to our existence" and that ethics should "be embraced with enthusiasm and conscious effort."

Every human act, for the Dalai Lama, has a universal dimension. And because of this, ethical discipline, careful discernment, and wholesome conduct are necessary for life to be meaningful and happy. One of the Dalai Lama's basic tenets is a deep concern for others, and he is much troubled by the fact that there is such a division between the rich and the poor in the world. He sees this situation as getting worse and considers it completely immoral. Self-indulgence generally follows wealth, the Dalai Lama believes, and as such an egocentric life is not a moral life. The wealthy have a tremendous opportunity to benefit others, he says, but too often "that opportunity is squandered on self-indulgence."

It would be somewhat of a stretch to believe that the Dalai Lama's ethics would be very useful (as a general philosophy) to the realistic communicator of today who sees more communication as better. The basic concept of a kind of mystical separation from the practical, held by Buddhists, would fly in the face of the modern technological communicator struggling for profits and power. Self-indulgence seems built into communication, especially institutional communication, and the concept of responsibility is largely ignored.

For the Dalai Lama the elimination or reduction of social friction is paramount. For the modern communicator the publicizing of social friction is considered essential. In many ways the Buddhist idea of communication is one of silence not chatter, of meditation not polemics, of harmony not friction, of cooperation not competition, of peace not hostility. Unlike the communicator of today who thinks that messages must be loud and numerous, the Buddhist looks on the calming and subdued whisper as paramount.

A universal sense of responsibility to others is key to the Dalai Lama's thinking—a kind of megacommunitarianism. He speaks of "intercommunity": international cooperation, with the interests of every person and nation being considered important. He also considers peace essential. In all our communication we should seek peace, promote peace, report peaceful efforts, and take strong positions against killing and war. Simply put, these would be the Dalai Lama's communication ethics.

As for his religion, His Holiness (as he is widely referred to) maintains that it is very simple: "My religion is kindness." No need for temples, and no need for a complicated philosophy. All we need is our brain and our heart—they are our temple, and our philosophy is kindness. His Holiness sees all religions as teaching love, compassion, and forgiveness and making those virtues part of our daily lives. Religion's purpose, then, is to teach self-control and the importance of refraining from criticizing or harming others. Self-criticism, however, is also important. Ethics cannot be separated from religion; a person with an ethical awareness is one who has a religious consciousness.

Buddhism, unlike other religious traditions, is not based on the existence of God. Rather it offers practical guidelines for spiritual growth. As exemplified by the Dalai Lama, Buddhists stress living so as to overcome human suffering caused by hatred and greed in a way that leads to insight, happiness, and peace. It is important to Buddhists that all good or ethical actions—karma—that one does today will determine the kind of person one becomes tomorrow. Consequences are important, and Buddhists encourage breaking out of the bonds of hatred and ignorance and cultivating gentleness, serenity, and compassion.

The Dalai Lama's ethical philosophy might be said to largely evolve from the following negative admonitions: not destroying life; not being dishonest; and not giving a false impression. In addition, a person should develop four mental states: love of self and others; pity (compassion) for all suffering; joy in the happiness of others; and serenity (freeing oneself from anxiety). This nontheistic ethical system should prove valuable to the communicator, especially considering the emphasis placed on honesty and not giving misleading information. A deep longing for peace and a desire to suffer with others (compassion) would definitely force the communicator into a more liberal demeanor.

An ethical communicator according to these standards would have a basic concern for the good of others. A sense of compassion will undergird his or her messages. Also, there would be a lack of criticism in the communication. A constant self-analysis or insightful criticism would be the norm. The communicator would form messages with restraint and moderation, and would not incite others to anger or violence. Communication would strive to embrace others, to empathize with them, to support them, to inspire them, to calm their anxieties, and to bring them comfort.

This is in itself a big order. In interpersonal communication, perhaps, it is possible. But one wonders if a journalist, for example, can really do the job of news presentation and analysis with such a fundamental ethics. Wouldn't a journalist's story be biased by an attempt to empathize, to evade criticism, or to calm anxieties? Perhaps, but His Holiness would say that the presentation of an objective news story is not as important as maintaining peace and compassion.

Ethics, then, for the Dalai Lama is more important than simply providing a truthful and full message. Consequences, in other words, are more important than the nature of the reporter's message. In this, the Dalai Lama is a teleologist, and would agree with John Stuart Mill that one's communication should bring the greatest happiness to self and to others. The ethical communicator would be happy if others were happy.

"If you want others to be happy, practice compassion," His Holiness advocates. "And if you want to be happy, practice compassion." Compassion, he says, is not a sign of weakness, but a sign of strength, and it is through the showing of compassion, of caring for others, that a person grows and develops into a complete human being. Compassion, for His Holiness, means more than "feeling sorry" for someone else. It implies an action, some outward sign of help for that other person, some manifestation of care and sensitive consideration. But it starts with communication—intrapersonal communication or thinking—based on words of compassion (Ethics for the New Millennium, chapter 5).

Actions are very important for Buddhists. In fact, according to Buddhism, a person's actions constitute God or the creator. As we act compassionately, we become (or are) God. As His Holiness says, Buddhism can be looked at as not a religion but "a science of mind."

The main Buddhist ethical guidelines can be stated in these four admonitions:

(1) do not destroy life (having an attitude of loving kindness)

(2) do not indulge in dishonest action (being generous)

(3) do not bear false witness (avoiding lying)

(4) keep the mind clear (so as to be alert to other people's feelings).

A Buddhist should be careful in all expression. For the Dalai Lama, talking (or writing) is an action. It may not be the final or most important action, but it is an action. Therefore the communicator must be most careful in the framing of the message. It must be conceived of as something that, like a missile aimed at a target, can be very destructive. This is where self-restraint and a sense of responsibility becomes increasingly important. This is also where a compassionate attitude is manifested and where possible consequences are considered. Ethical thinking leads to ethical action. And ethical action leads to happiness.

Specifically related to the media of mass communication, the Dalai Lama stressed that they should be committed to a concern for others. The media have great power, he says, and this power confers to them great responsibility. Media should be socially concerned and dedicated to presenting useful information and hope, but unfortunately they are often consumed with trivial, superficial, or often degrading content, presenting a view of the world that is unrealistically negative (Ethics for the New Millennium, 180).

Governmental corruption and other wrongdoing needs to be exposed, says His Holiness, but far too few positive acts appear in the media. Too many stories involving crime and sex appear, placing too much emphasis on the shady side of life. Sensationalism and sexploitation denigrates civility and undermines a realistic picture of society. And the constant and widespread concern with the military, police, drug culture, and criminals have an ethically unwholesome effect on the public.

Millions of kind and considerate acts occur each day, but these are barely reported. The media are consumed with stories of the deviants and the millionaires of society, with the politicians and the athletes, with the fancy homes and yachts of the rich and famous, ignoring the middle and lower classes. The media need more self-control and positive direction. In a free country, this can only come about through the individual communicator's determination to reform, to revolutionize mass communication with an ethic of compassion and an emphasis on uplifting news and views.

Peace, as would be expected, is a big issue with the Dalai Lama. In addition to the Nobel Peace Prize he has received numerous peace awards and honorary doctorates for his promotion of peace around the world. Communication, for him, is very important for peaceful relationships. "The need for simple human-to-human relationships is becoming increasingly urgent," he said in his Nobel speech. And he continued:

One nation's problems can no longer be solved by itself completely. Thus, without a sense of universal responsibility, our very survival becomes threatened. Basically, universal responsibility is feeling for other people's suffering just as we feel our own. It is the realization that even our enemy is entirely motivated by the quest for happiness. We must recognize that all beings want the same thing that we want. This is the way to achieve a true understanding, unfettered by artificial consideration." (

His Holiness would have communicators give more attention to the people and groups that advocate peace in the world. This could be through transmitting the peace message as widely as possible, by persuading political leaders to champion peace, and to use the ballot to reward those who support peace. Disarmament is a basic tactic of the Dalai Lama's ethics. Militarization is rampant and only by a systematic and sincere disposing of weapons can we ever have assurance of peace. At least this is the view of the Dalai Lama.

In many ways the Dalai Lama's ethics is akin to that of Mohandas Gandhi, the Indian leader who also was a proponent of nonviolence and a believer in expanding human dialogue. He is a believer in concerted activity of a political, but peaceful, nature that is designed to raise the consciousness of citizens and natural leadership to the many inequities and widespread failure of general social progress (Ocean of Wisdom, 21–30 passim).

If the Dalai Lama were a newspaper editor or TV anchor, he would find the typical Western style unsuitable for his message of social harmony and pacifism. He would have qualms about using polemics and repetitive persuasive techniques to change society. He would, as he has in his speeches, recommend diplomacy and condemn any form of force or colonialism. And he would support any government policy that did not smack of terrorism itself. Truth, for him, is important, but in many cases—especially national security and social stability—truth may be limited or eliminated. Compassion, he believes, should always trump truth (Ethics for the New Millennium, chapter 5).

Among the outstanding communicators of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, the Dalai Lama is one of the most prominent. In accord with Buddhist philosophy, he does not talk much, but his language is clear and to the point. His English is good and he engages audiences with his calm, thoughtful, and caring rhetoric. He is an animated speaker who blends a nimble mind with a spiritual demeanor that captivates the audience. His writings are also seductive. He stands as a great example of the ethical communicator in today's word-ridden world of superficiality.



Loving Neighbors


To write about Jesus is to invite critique. Those who believe he is the Son of God will take issue with the recitation of cold facts, as if he were simply someone who lived long ago and whose teachings remain influential even to this day. To those who believe that he was simply someone who lived long ago and whose teachings remain influential to this day, any nod toward his life as salvific or his death as a sacrificial necessity will raise eyebrows if not hackles.

So this piece will attempt to walk between these perspectives. It offers the facts and reviews the teaching while noting that understanding Jesus' teachings differs for those who believe that he was the Son of God.

Jesus was born in Bethlehem, a small village just south of Jerusalem, in the year 4 BCE. (An error in a monk's calendar has his actual birth off by four years; because of this most scholars do not believe that Jesus was born in the year 0.) His parents fled from Bethlehem to Egypt to avoid the wrath of King Herod, a Roman underling who, having heard from astrologers that a new king had been born, threatened death to all boys in Bethlehem who were two years of age or younger.

Jesus' parents, Mary and Joseph, returned to the region after Herod's death and eventually settled in Nazareth, a village west of the Sea of Galilee. It was here that Jesus was trained in the Jewish faith, though little is known about the years of his childhood. It is apparent from his later teaching that he was trained to be a rabbi, and the trajectory hinted at in the Gospels follows the normal route prescribed for rabbis: learn a trade from one's father while also being trained in the Jewish scriptures, become apprenticed to a rabbi, and then launch into a teaching career in one's early thirties.


Excerpted from Ethical Communication by Clifford G. Christians, John C. Merrill. Copyright © 2009 The Curators of the University of Missouri. Excerpted by permission of University of Missouri Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Introduction Clifford G. Christians Christians, Clifford G. John C. Merrill Merrill, John C. 1

Pt. I The Altruistic Stance: Loyalty to Others 9

1 Tenzin Gyatso, the Dalai Lama: Universal Compassion John C. Merrill Merrill, John C. 11

2 Jesus: Loving Neighbors Mary Hulst Hulst, Mary 18

3 John Stuart Mill: Utilitarianism Raphael Cohen-Almagor Cohen-Almagor, Raphael 25

4 Carol Gilligan: Ethics of Care Lee Wilkins Wilkins, Lee 33

5 Martin Luther King, Jr.: Ethics of Personalism William Babcock Babcock, William 40

6 Mother Teresa: The Ethics of Sacrifice Janice Hume Hume, Janice 46

Pt. II The Egoistic Stance: Loyalty to Self 53

7 Aristotle: Self-Development Lee Anne Peck Peck, Lee Anne 55

8 Friedrich Nietzsche: Becoming an Ubermensch Clifford G. Christians Christians, Clifford G. 61

9 Machiavelli: Pragmatic Realism John C. Merrill Merrill, John C. 68

10 Camus: The Rebellious Spirit David J. Gunkel Gunkel, David J. 74

11 Kautilya of India: Social Egoism John C. Merrill Merrill, John C. 81

12 Ayn Rand: Rational Self-Interest John C. Merrill Merrill, John C. 86

Pt. III The Autonomy Stance: Loyalty to Freedom 93

13 Henry David Thoreau: Value of Solitude Stephanie Craft Craft, Stephanie 95

14 John Locke: Natural Rights Patrick Lee Plaisance Plaisance, Patrick Lee 102

15 Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Courage versus Authority Ronald C. Arnett Arnett, Ronald C. 109

16 Paulo Freire: Face Saving and Communication Ronald C. Arnett Arnett, Ronald C. 115

17 Hannah Arendt: Public as Authority Maurine Beasley Beasley, Maurine 121

Pt. IV The Legalist Stance: Loyalty toAuthority 127

18 Plato: Elite Norms Lee Anne Peck Peck, Lee Anne 129

19 Muhammad: Honor-Centered Morality Mohammad A. Siddiqi Siddiqi, Mohammad A. 136

20 Immanuel Kant: Importance of Duty Lee Anne Peck Peck, Lee Anne 145

21 Moses: Deontological Norms William Babcock Babcock, William 151

22 Thomas Hobbes: The Ethics of Social Order Stephen J. A. Ward Ward, Stephen J. A. 158

Pt. V The Communitarian Stance: Loyalty to the Community 165

23 Confucius: Ethics of Character Virginia Whitehouse Whitehouse, Virginia 167

24 Mohandas Gandhi: Fellowship of Power Lee Wilkins Wilkins, Lee 173

25 Karl Marx: Transcending Alienation Jon Bekken Bekken, Jon 180

26 John Dewey: Democratic Conversation Lee Wilkins Wilkins, Lee 186

27 Jurgen Habermas: Consensus and Citizenship David S. Allen Allen, David S. 193

28 Emmanuel Levinas: Priority of the Other Ronald C. Arnett Arnett, Ronald C. 200

Contributors 207

Index 211

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