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Noumena whirl unseen through universal expanses, dropping some of their characteristics to form phenomena for the empirical perceptors devoted to sensing creatures and things-and maybe ideas-in the world. Creative forms, as Plato called them, serve as perfect patterns for a materialistic world. In this ideal or noumenal sphere there is no change; even without anyone hearing or seeing it, the noumenal or metaphysical tree is there. The phenomenal tree, in its temporal and materialistic limitations, does not really fall unless there is empirical confirmation by the knower. This is extreme idealism, but it is pertinent to the reportorial and ethical journalist.

In the metaphysical moral world beyond ours ideal or perfect ethical principles abound, shedding some of their reality or configurations as phenomena when the occasion arises. This "reality" is composed, not of universal rules and norms, but spiritual mega-concepts that rise from individual consciousnesses to guide moral actions. This accounts for the varying answers to moral questions that often frustrate us. This is consistent with the Gnostic view of morality, with existentialism, and the depth psychology of Carl Jung.

So we might say that communication ethics is no more than descriptive ethics, focusing on the individual person's gnosis, not on normative group-established morality. And the communicator, for example, finds this consistent with the idea of freedom of expression. The ethical authoritarian, on the other hand, converted to a Platonic call to order, sees this personal or egocentric ethics as socially disruptive and indicative of a decaying society.

There is news-news events-occurring constantly and everywhere, but most of them are neither noted nor perceived. News phenomena (however you define them) are mostly beyond empirical confirmation. The building burns, but the story of its burning is not written. No reporter perceives it; empiricism is voided and, as Bishop Berkley believed, there is no burning building. Fires, most of us know instinctively, are burning everywhere, although we don't see them. God or some transcendental force may know it, we can say. But God lives in a noumenal world; and we live in a phenomenal world.

For Bishop Berkley and other idealists, perceiving makes it so. This is because perceptions turn noumena into phenomena, and morph ideals into realities. Now in the burning building story, we have two possible phenomena here-the fire (that could be reported) but isn't, and the story of the fire that is reported. But then the question: How do we know there was a fire that could be reported unless someone sees it and can confirm it? One answer: It can still be a phenomenon even if not reported; it is simply an unreported and unrecognized one. But it is, of course, a useless phenomenon for the journalist and audience members who never know about it. The world is full of billions of events (phenomena)-we speculate-but they are not news events until they are reported. But they are "events" nevertheless-events that are capable of being reported.

An important point remains: The phenomenal world is created second-hand, largely by the communications media. Nothing else actually exists, says idealistic philosophy. We create, through media exposure and personal experiences, the world that we know. Perception and empirical knowledge is the proof of (maybe even the creator of) phenomena. The reporter is the creator, in this sense, not only of the news-story but, for the idealist, the news event behind it. The event precedes the story just as the story precedes the perception. The preceptor of the story is like the journalist who is the preceptor of the event. The reader of a news story is like the person in Plato's cave who sees only a shadow of the real event.

The empirical phenomenologist's light shifts about, focusing here and there on various entities and thereby bringing them into existence What is not caught in this empirical light is absent from the world of phenomena and therefore from the world of "reality." The noumenal world beyond the phenomenal must be like the trillions of stars in the universe, assumed and unknown. So much we don't know!

The reporter's story itself is a phenomenon. This would mean, say the idealists, that if it is not read by Mr. Jones it does not exist. The printed story is to the reader what a phenomenal event (like a car accident) is to the reporter. But at least the reporter knows that the car accident actually occurred and that Mr. Jones' reading or not reading about it has nothing to do with its reality. In this case the reality is established by the journalist and not by the newspaper reader. There is much truth in the statement that journalism creates the real world for us-or at least the world that we are privy to. This is not completely true, of course, because we are privy to many things that are never even known to journalists.

What does all this rather esoteric and pretentious philosophizing have to do with ethics? Are there not, somewhere out there in the noumenal or metaphysical world, ideal moral principles unknown to our empirical selves? Perhaps. But if so, they have to be ascertained through some kind of intuition, not through empirical methods. But then the question rises: My intuition may not be your intuition. If this is so, then where can we find these unchanging noumenal or absolute moral principles-or even get close to these ideal moral principles? Various moral philosophers, of course, would answer such questions in different ways-or maybe not at all.

Rationalists say we can use our ability to reason to find universal moral ideas and principles. Intuitionists, evading intuitional relativity, maintain we can receive such ideas outside materialist philosophy-through inculcation of transcendental or metaphysical "feelings" or spiritual insights. With Immanuel Kant, intuitionists believe that moral laws are knowable through non-rational and non-empirical means. They, however, may be tested or supported by empirical cases, largely through induction.

For Kantians, moral phenomena are revealed to us through partial inculcation of noumena that come to us, not through our senses, but through transcendental intuitions. That they are natural, not utilitist, was what Kant was saying. We do not prize the truth because of what it can accomplish, or because of its utility in the realm of happiness or anything else. We seem to be born with the knowledge that truth is valued over falsity: this is a natural moral law. And this moral law of truth will come to us naturally or instinctually from time to time and will serve as a guide that needs no proof. Portions of the noumenal truth will appear to us as the "truth" signifying, like shadows on Plato's cave wall, a partial image of the real truth transcending our phenomenal world.

Ethical decisions in specific cases are the moral phenomena we are talking about. And the more scientific moral philosophers (such as David Hume, Jeremy Bentham, and J. S. Mill) would maintain that empiricism, testing, looking at specific cases, and the consideration of consequences must be used in making ethical decisions. Such thinking, of course, leads to relativism in ethics. Intuition is simply too mystical for such philosophers who have little patience with absolutism and formalism of more idealist theorists like Kant and Hegel, more aesthetic, romantic thinkers such as Goethe and Schiller, and more existentialist thinkers such as Kierkegaard and Nietzsche.

So here we have ethics caught between reason and intuition, between realism and romanticism, between absolutism and relativism. The journalist and the information media can get their ethics directly in an intuitive Kantian manner or from case-by-case rational and empirical analysis. They can determine their ethical action teleologically (by considering consequences) or they can find their ethical rules deontologically (following an a priori maxim or rule which they accept on faith). Nothing much has been proposed to substantially improve on these two theories. But what it does point out is that it will ever be a monumental (perhaps insurmountable) problem in deciding on a universal code of ethics for the communicator-or for anyone else.

Beyond the substantial problems, perhaps it is enough to say that about all we can do is to try to get as close to the noumena (if there be such ideal or perfect entities or concepts) as possible by trying to capture the important aspects of the in-the-world phenomena or by getting at them through intuition. This would mean that we should find the true essence of the incomplete phenomena (material or moral) that we deal with in our mundane social living and integrate it into our daily ethical acts.

This, of course, is not easy. It may be impossible, for the "truth" of ethical principles (and acts) may lie in the ideal or form somewhere, but they fail to manifest themselves in the actual world around us. Ethics, then, goes beyond relativity and semantic obscurity. It ultimately resides in partial phenomena or mental insights that filter down from the real and complete noumenum or Platonic form that stands beyond reality. And each of us has a different set of partial truths and ethical insights, resulting in the moral indecisiveness and vagueness that confront us. Kantian legalism won't suffice, for a willingness to universalize one's actions might lead to catastrophe. Neither will his instinctivism since instincts are relative. And Mill's utilitarianism won't suffice, for the greatest happiness of the many may throw others into despair. Also, it should be noted that Mill's consideration of consequences, like the instinctivism of Kant, is relative, differing from person to person. We are thereby kept in ethical darkness, relying alternately on utilitarianism or on intuitive inspiration to guide us toward the noumenal moral light.

John C. Merrill is Professor Emeritus of Journalism in the University of Missouri School of Journalism, and is the author of dozens of books and too many articles to count. He may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..