It’s been a long day at work, and you’re finally heading home. On your way past the supply closet, however, you notice your co-worker, Howard, filling a backpack with pens, paper, glue, chalk, a pair of scissors, and other office supplies. You catch his eye briefly, and Howard quickly ducks his head, zips his bag, and walks off in the opposite direction.
You think about the incident on your way home. What was Howard doing? That certainly looked like workplace theft. Should you go to the boss and mention what you saw? Talk to your coworkers? Talk to Howard? Is this any of your business at all?
What choice do you make?
Does your choice matter?
The truth of the matter is that there is no “Right-with-a-capital-R” way to resolve this situation. If you talk to your boss, your boss might decide to make an example of Howard. If Howard is fired, he loses his income, his family suffers, and you and your cohort are left with an employment vacuum that must be filled. If you talk to your coworkers, you may find that Howard is going through some financial problems right now. In doing so, however, you might accidentally start a gossip loop that ends up damaging Howard’s reputation. If you talk to Howard, you might find out that he’s got a young daughter, who has an art project due in school, but the family couldn’t afford to buy all of the materials she needs to do the assignment; or, you might find that this is none of your business, and gain a reputation for being nosy. If someone saw you see Howard stealing, and you do nothing, word may get around that no one cares about workplace theft. Pens and pencils slowly disappear, as do reams of paper, paperclips, and the myriad other incidentals that make up the everyday office. No Christmas bonuses this year—the money to replace all of these items has to come from somewhere.
No matter the choice, something will happen. No matter the choice, someone could be hurt. But this is an easy one—pens and paper, not greenhouse gasses and icecaps. How are we to know what the “Right” decision is when we’re playing with a world? More importantly, how are we to make the “Right” decision when we’re playing with a world populated by our fellow humans, all of whom have just as much a right to life and livelihood as the next?
Ethics offers us decisionmaking strategies that may lead us to new ways of thinking, new ways of seeing our world and the wonderful, messy, complex interactions we humans create. But ethics isn’t just what Mom and Dad taught us, or what we learn from religious texts. It’s not as simple as “Do the Right Thing,” as Spike Lee says, or the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” as we’re taught in Mathew 7, verse 12, and Luke 6, verse 31. Ethics is more complex than that—it has to be, because humans are complex creatures.
A Few Ways to Think About Ethics and Decisionmaking
We all make ethical decisions regularly—whenever we are confronted with a decisionmaking problem where we have a choice of possible responses we are faced with an ethical situation. Some cases are fairly simple. Some are complex, and the choices we make may have the possibility of impacting other’s lives. As scholars have noted, “ethics” isn’t just about our own internalized value system—“ethics” also refers to the study of value systems, judgment, and decisionmaking. At the risk of being highly reductionist, I offer snapshots of a few of the more common ethical systems.
Aristotelian ethics involve virtue-driven, rule based decisionmaking, and are derivative of Aristotle’s (384 – 322 BC) predecessors Socrates’ and Plato’s models. In this system of thought, the decisionmaker’s perspective is concerned with such concepts as goodness, truth, justice, and rightness. In virtue-driven, rule-based decisionmaking, one determines the most virtuous of possibilities from decisionmaking options, and then chooses that outcome, regardless of outcome or personal backlash. Virtue—according to Aristotle—is “concerned with emotions and actions, and it is only voluntary actions for which praise and blame are given” (1975, p. 117). Once virtue in a given situation has been established, a personal ethical rule is created. Should a similar decisionmaking choice arise in the future, the decisionmaker can simply follow the previously created rule. As ethicist Sam Dragga
has noted, this can be marked as an “all people should always” rule. Once precedent is set, all people should always follow precedent.
Kantian ethics (from Immanuel Kant, 1724 – 1804) is an extension of Aristotelian ethics we can mark as situational, rule-based, motive-driven decisionmaking. Kant’s decisionmaking process is governed by his overarching categorical imperative: that, simply put, one is duty-driven to base actions in relation to universal rightness and good will. Paul Dombrowski sums up Kant’s Imperative as follows: “Act in such a way that, if you had your way, the principle guiding your actions would become a universally binding law that everyone must act in accordance with (in relation to you), applying to everyone, everywhere, and always, without exception” (2000, p. 49). Kant’s process differs from the Aristotelian approach in that both situation and guiding principles play a significant role in the decisionmaking process. If a choice appears in an ethical question where, given the situation, one can maintain pure motives (not acting out of greed, for example), regardless of the apparent good of the action itself, then that should be the decisionmaker’s choice. As Sam Dragga notes, this is a, “given X, all people should always” situation.
Utilitarianism, which can be traced to the writings of Jeremy Bentham (1748 – 1832) and John Stuart Mill (1806 – 1873) is often described as seeking the greatest good for the greatest number, or referred to as cost-benefit analysis. This approach seeks to quantitatively assess —to the extent such a thing is possible—“good” vs. “bad” decision-outcomes in relation to the number of elements
involved. In order to do so, value must be assigned to inputs and outcomes. As Andre and Velasquez note, however, “it's often difficult, if not impossible, to measure and compare the values of certain benefits and costs” (2012, par. 9). How much is time worth? What is the value of a life? As opposed to the Aristotelian and Kantian models, which are concerned with the moral validity of a choice itself (a deontological approach, from the Greek “obligation” or “duty”), utilitarianism is primarily concerned with outcomes.
Feminist ethics offers an alternative to the male-dominated discourse which comprises the bulk of the history of ethical interrogation. Originally constructed as an alternative approach to male-dominated academic and scientific discourse, third-wave (and beyond) feminist ethics asks us to consider our decisionmaking in relation to repercussions and perceived social hierarchies. Under a feminist consideration of ethics, we should avoid making decisions based solely on traditional models of authority, the desire for control or subjugation, or gendered stereotypes. Additionally, decisions should be based in an awareness of how our actions ultimately ripple outward to others. While this model of ethics often seems quite complicated, Gesa Kirsch notes that:
"Ultimately, we have to learn to make political and ethical choices. These choices always entail risks—risks clarified by postmodern, postcolonial theories. We risk misrepresenting others (it is not a question of whether, but how much), we risk speaking for those who do not wish to be spoken for, and we risk speaking in voices that silence others. All this despite our best intentions. [...] But let me stress that such risks should not lead to intellectual paralysis." (1999, p. 63)
Under a feminist model of ethics, we strive to more carefully relate our decisions to both our perceptions of virtues and outcomes, and an awareness of how our choices affect others. As Dragga notes, under this model we must ask, “How does what I do affect the people affected by my decisions?”.
Ethic of Care:
An ethic of care, which has also been referred to as “feminine,” or “femininist,” ethics, further complicates feminist reconsiderations of repercussion and hierarchy by asking decisionmakers to show caring concern for all involved parties. An ethic of care is not rule-bound. Unlike Kant's Categorical Imperative, each action must be context-based, and contexts are immense and multi-faceted.
Though the ethics of care contains many voices, those most often associated with this approach are authors such as Carol Gilligan, whose In a Different Voice (1982) drew attention to differences between masculine and feminine approaches to problem solving, and Nel Noddings, who, as paraphrased by Dombrowski, “advocates an interdependent relationship of caring among equals that is mutually satisfying to all parties” (2000, p. 64). Under this ethical model, the decisionmaker doesn’t privelege the virtue of a decision over the outcome, or weigh costs and benefits, but strives to act in a way which shows caring concern to all involved parties—no one “wins,” no one “loses.” Instead, the decisionmaker explores alternative pathways which potentially ameliorate majority/minority, win/loss structures.
What are We Supposed to Do with All of This?
Ethical decisionmaking is not a simple, easy, clear-cut way to find the “right” answer in any given situation, and there are many more approaches and subsets than I’ve offered here. These basic overviews, however, do offer us an active way to confront the decisionmaking process. We passively make decisions all the time—this morning I got out of bed, let the dog outside, took a shower, poured myself a cup of coffee, let the dog back in, and sat down to write. I did not murder my neighbors, send out any hatemail, burn down any buildings, or usurp anyone’s authority—those would have all been active decisions requiring—for most people—consideration of motive and outcome. My passive decisionmaking lets me move through the mundane portions of my life with relative ease. Active decisionmaking adds a level of complexity that forces us to confront our own values, motives, morals, and potential outcome of our actions.
When we actively consider ethics, we work through systems of personal ethics, which are formed through associations with our family, our culture, and our faith; through social ethics, which involve consideration of socially-negotiated rights, systems of justice, and awareness of care for our fellow humans; and through conservation ethics
which ask us to consider the available resources of our surroundings, the ecology of our environments, and the sustainability of our actions.
So what happens when I’m faced with a relatively simple ethical scenario, and I want to actively consider my options?
Let’s say that I’m on my way to teach a class. I’m running late, and I’m forced to park across a busy street from the building where I meet with my students. There are 20 students in the class, all of whom have busy life/school schedules. By school policy, they are mandated to wait 15 minutes for me to show up, then they are free to leave. By social construction, they’ll most likely wait until one brave soul packs up and leaves, then rest are out of there. I have roughly two minutes to get to class by the time I park my car. Given no obstacles, I can make it to my classroom within a minute of the official start time. So here is the situation: as I run up to the intersection to cross the street, I see a little, old lady with her arms full of bags also getting ready to head across (the linguistic construction here, “little, old lady” is deliberate). I myself am a slightly-less-than middle aged male. Do I help her across the road?
If I consider the situation through the lens of Aristotelian ethics (virtue-driven, rule-based decisionmaking) I might decide that helping the woman across the street is a friendly thing to do. Given that “friendliness” is one of Aristotle’s 12 individual virtues of character,
my choice is virtuous. Thus, off we go across the street, and, in the future, I need not slow down to think—I’ve established a rule that helping little, old ladies cross streets is the right thing to do. If I consider my choice of actions through a Kantian lens, I might make a similar choice. Since under Kantian ethics one is duty-driven to act in good will toward others, I could choose to help her cross—unless, of course, my motives are impure, or there is no real need. If my choice to help the little old lady cross the street is motivated by my knowledge that there’s a group of students watching, I might decide that my actions could be entirely self-serving. Or, simply, there might be no traffic. The situation might not warrant action. If there is traffic, and if my motives are pure, however, off we go.
Under a utilitarian ethic I might stop to ask myself who potentially benefits from my actions, and what potential costs might be. If I help the old lady across the street, the little, old lady benefits. My students, on the other hand, all 20 of them, might leave before I could then make it to class. They would be out of a class, and our class would get behind schedule. They’d have wasted their time travelling to class on this particular day, and they would not be getting their money’s worth. At my institution, according to our 2012 – 2013 cost of attendance tables, resident undergraduates can expect to pay roughly $10,000 U.S. for 12 hours of tuition and fees, plus books and supplies. That’s roughly $833.33 per class hour, or $2500.00 per class. In the Fall, we’ll meet 29 times, so each class costs approximately $86.20 per meeting. At 20 students per class, I’ve wasted $1724.00 if I’m late, and they leave—more, if my class includes non-resident students. Sorry, little, old lady. No help today.
Under a Feminist ethic, I have to be aware of decision-making repercussions and social hierarchies, both real and perceived. Quite simply, being Southern, the first question I should ask is simply, “excuse me, Ma’am, do you need help getting across the road?”. If I ask because I am male, and because she is a little, old lady, however, I’m already at fault. In fact, my typification of her as a stereotypical “little, old lady” already creates a situation where I’ve removed power—I’ve used diminutive modifiers for “lady,” which instantiates a flawed decisionmaking cycle. Under a Feminist ethic I need to think outside of stereotyped roles, and instead consider the situation from a human/human perspective. If I remove all outside elements, and my fellow human needs, and wants, my help, then off we go. Even though I have 20 students paying money for my time, a feminist ethic asks that I consider actual repercussions of my choices—is there any decisionmaking calculus which warrants leaving a fellow human in potential danger? A feminist, and, I argue, a humanist, perspective says, “no, but only if she truly requires, and wants, help.”
Last, an ethic of care would build upon the decisionmaking scenario established through consideration of feminist ethics. If she truly needs help, but I truly can’t spare the time, then I look—quickly—for alternatives. Simply stopping another passerby to ask if they can help might be an option, as might offering to carry the woman’s load, so that we both make it across the street, her safely, though perhaps without my full attention, myself perhaps more slowly than usual, but still while helping my fellow human.
A Bigger Picture
The examples I offer here are imperfect, abbreviated, and full, perhaps, of logical holes. But ethics isn’t always about logic. It’s not always about book-bound, systematic decisionmaking, or comparative analysis of numbers. Ethics is messy, complex, human. For every action there is a reaction; reactions need not be equal or opposite.
So how could any of this help save the world? By giving us ways to think about actions and reactions that force us to confront both our own humanity and the humanity around us. By offering us decisionmaking strategies that invite us to consider how human action has the potential to alter the land, then consider how altering the land has the potential to alter humanity. Aldo Leopold, for example, asks us to rethink our actions through a land ethic—an ethic that “simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land.” This ethic, he notes, “changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such” (Leopold, 1968, p. 204). Wendell Berry offers similar advice. In “Think Little,” he notes that:
"The principle of ecology, if we take it to heart, should keep us aware that our lives depend upon other lives and upon processes and energies in an interlocking system that, though we can destroy it, we can neither fully understand nor fully control. And our great dangerousness is that, locked in our selfish and myopic economics, we have been willing to change or destroy far beyond our power to understand. We are not humble enough or reverent enough." (p. 89)
Berry’s argument is of Promethean recklessness. Our tools and technologies allow us unprecedented power: we can build, destroy, and communicate faster than ever before, but those who create technologies aren’t always those who use technologies, and, quite frankly, we’re reckless. We make decisions which literally alter the face of our planet without every really thinking about long-term inclinations, either for ourselves, or for our children, or for the planet. We need to be humble enough to think of others—all factions of government, all views on land use and human interaction. We need to consider that we need to use resources pulled from the earth, but we need to consider that we want an earth that sustains us. We need to consider our own pleasures and livelihood, but we need to consider the pleasures and livelihood of others. We need to find our own peace through God, or spirituality, or something else entirely, but remember that others need to find their peace as well. We need to be reverent enough to realize that some knowledge is outside of our control.
Recall Howard, who, at the beginning of this essay, we think we caught stealing. Perhaps if we thought of his actions as those enacted by a fellow human, for some potentially necessary reason, we might treat him as a human in need, instead of an objectified thief. That doesn’t make the decision any less complicated, but it gives us a starting place. We’ve had the ethical tools to apply to complex decisionmaking for a long time—consideration of virtues; consideration of universalist philosophies; an awareness of the costs of our actions against the benefits we, or our fellow humans, enjoy; an awareness of humanity stripped of often falsely-privileged social rankings; an awareness that, perhaps, our actions don’t always have to be about “winning” or “losing.” But we often haven’t employed them. Perhaps as long as we can remember that our actions alter other people’s lives and livelihoods we will be able to make choices that give us a better, cleaner, more symbiotic world in which to live. Ethics is no panacea, but, by carefully considering our actions, by being able to justify our actions to others—and ourselves—we might begin to see positive change.
This overview models the structure used by Paul Dombrowski in his book, Ethics in Technical Communication.
I had the pleasure of taking a class on ethics from Sam Dragga while pursuing my PhD at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas. References to his thoughts are drawn from that class and my class notes, unless otherwise noted.
Many views consider only the number of humans involved, a view with particular ethical connotations when we attempt to use cost-benefit analysis to assess ethical choices in relation to human vs. environment situations.
Note that while conservation terminology often associated with environmental rhetoric concerned with the state of nature and the World, the terms apply just as functionally to the workplace environment, which involves resource use and best-practices.
See Richard Johnson-Sheehan’s, Technical Communication Today, pp. 99 – 103, for an extended discussion of these entwined systems.
From Nicomachean Ethics, Book II, Chapter VII. Aristotle lists 12 individual virtues of character: Courage, also called bravery; Temperance; Liberality, also called generosity; Magnificence; Greatness of Soul, also called magnanimity; a nameless virtue concerned with appropriate concern for honor, defined in excess as ambition, and in deficit as unambitious, where the virtue lies in the middle; Gentleness, also called mildness; Truthfulness; Wittiness; Friendliness; Modesty, or proneness to shame; and Proper, or righteous, Indignation (Aristotle, 1975, pp. 97 – 105).
Andre, C., & Velasquez, M. (2012). Calculating Consequences: The Utilitarian Approach to Ethics. Retrieved October 2, 2012, from Santa Clara University: http://www.scu.edu/ethics/publications/iie/v2n1/calculating.html
Aristotle. (1975). The Nicomachean Ethics. (H. Rackham, Trans.) Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Berry, W. (2002). Think Little. In W. Berry, The art of the common place: The agrarian essays of Wendell Berry (pp. 81-90). Washington, D. C.: Counterpoint.
Dombrowski, P. (2000). Ethics in Technical Communication. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn and Bacon.
Gilligan, C. (1982). In a Different voice: Psychological Theory and Women's Development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Johnson-Sheehan, R. (2007). Technical Communication Today (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Pearson Longman.
Kirsch, G. (1999). Ethical Dilemmas in Feminist Research: The Politics of Location, Interpretation, and Publication. Albany, New York: State University of New York Press.
Leopold, A. (1968). A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Derek G. Ross, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor of Technical and Professional Communication at Auburn University, Auburn, Alabama, USA. His current research interests include environment-related rhetoric in popular and modern culture, investigation of modern perceptions and use of commonplaces in environment-related rhetoric, and audience analysis techniques related to understanding perceptions of environment-related communication. He was recently invited to become the ethics columnist for Intercom, the monthly magazine of the Society for Technical Communication.