Print

"More is better" in the teaching of media ethics. Few mass media and journalism professors would disagree with this proposition, at least in the abstract. It becomes more problematic, however, when we get down to brass tacks-the difficulty of squeezing a few more lectures and readings into the already-crowded syllabus of a reporting or mass communication course. The proposition gets even dicier when I suggest that "more ethics" also means a heavier dose of historical philosophers. Students are pragmatic, and what does Aristotle have to do anyway with getting that first job in journalism, public relations, or marketing?

This critical essay will not show you how to provide an extra week for ethics in your semester schedule. Instead, it will suggest that ethical philosophy can play a role in most weeks of your semester. And it will offer what I think are some compelling reasons for your students to immerse themselves in ethical philosophy.

I hope you have your own clear understanding of ethical philosophy. However, a particular notion of ethical philosophy and its implications is critical to my arguments. Ethics is here construed as virtuous behavior and as a component of the larger notion of what constitutes a good life. At least since the Socratic dialogue The Meno, the definition of virtue has been a persistent question in western philosophy; so too has the question of what constitutes a life well-lived. Aristotle, for example, begins "The Nicomachean Ethics" with an analysis of human happiness, which he suggests should be the aim of virtuous behavior.

This is not to say that traditional western philosophy and "dead white males" such as Socrates, Aristotle, and their heirs are the only sources of ethical wisdom. But their thinking on ethics and the nature of the individual is a powerful application of reason to questions about our lives, our actions, and our purposes. Socrates and Aristotle placed virtue and other fundamental human questions at the forefront of their thinking, and they used a form of inquiry that attacked "received knowledge," assumptions, and prejudices with rationality.

Most journalism and mass communication professors whom I know take, directly or indirectly, a humanistic approach to their teaching and scholarship; they address the media's potential to serve-or undermine-human values and fulfillment. And they attempt to do so in a rational, systematic manner. Even if the immediate goal is to train inquisitive reporters or persuasive publicists, thoughtful academics understand how these skills can fit within a larger, altruistic framework, i.e., the watchdog role of the press or the marketplace of ideas. Such frameworks, in turn, serve notions of human fulfillment such as political participation, individual freedom, or intellectual engagement.

This is a mission to be proud of and it can be informed by long traditions of rationalism and humanistic thought. However, you may also have seen this intellectual mission run aground on your students' career anxiety and appetite for "practical" skills. These imperatives are not necessarily in conflict, especially when we mine ethical philosophy. There are even some convincing arguments for this from the "real world" of the marketplace.

In an essay that is striking (and blunt), Matthew Stewart argues that much of management theory is inane and that those who wish to succeed in business would be better off studying philosophy. Stewart is well-positioned to make such judgments: he has a doctoral degree in philosophy and was a principal founder of a management consulting firm that eventually employed 600 people. His case for philosophical education is two-fold; it stimulates clearer, more robust reasoning and it introduces a humanistic approach to activities that are often perceived as taking place in their own, discrete regions (frequently that of the marketplace) that apparently operate on internal rules.

After achieving success in the business world-without an M.B.A. degree-Stewart conducted his own survey of business school curricula and management literature. He concluded that the case study, a core approach to business education, trains students to solve problems through limited, generic frameworks; it does not encourage the supple reasoning necessary to master the sweep and chaos of reality. A recent article in the New York Times supports Stewart by identifying successful business figures who have turned to humanistic ideas: "Serious leaders who are serious readers build libraries dedicated to how to think, not how to compete." The chairwoman and CEO of the advertising giant Ogilvy & Mather reads for pleasure and ".to find other perspectives on how to think or solve a problem." Sidney Harman, founder of a $3 billion company that produces sound systems, professes a lifelong interest in epistemology and learning. His books have helped him develop a way of thinking critically in business and (he adds) golf.

Stewart also makes a second, more fundamental claim about philosophy, ethics, and the workplace:

Beyond building skills, business training must be about values. As I write this, I know that my M.B.A. friends are squirming in their seats. They've all been forced to sit through an "ethics" course, in which they learned to toss around yet more fancy phrases like "the categorical imperative" and discuss borderline criminal behavior, such as what's a legitimate hotel bill and what's just plain stealing from the expense account, how to tell the difference between a pat on the shoulder and sexual harassment and so on. But, as anyone who has studied Aristotle will know, "values" aren't something you bump into from time to time during the course of a business career. All of business is about values, all of the time.

As examples of how values permeate management decisions, Stewart suggests that seemingly straightforward strategies to promote worker productivity and teamwork (drawn from classic management studies) in fact have strong ethical dimensions that have been overlooked. How many tons should (as well as can) a worker be required to lift in a certain amount of time? How much of a worker's sense of identity and well-being does a business have a right to harness in order to build teamwork?

Teachers of mass communication and journalism will attest that Kant's "categorical imperative" also appears frequently in media textbooks and case studies, sometimes offered in contrast to utilitarian ethics. Typically, these philosophies are applied to problems of journalism: what are the reporter's obligations for telling the truth, for protecting sources, or for balancing other societal interests against unrestrained reporting? The ethical frameworks of both rule-based deontological reasoning or consequence-based greatest-good-for-the-greatest-number-of-people utilitarian (or teleological) reasoning are germane to such questions and they encourage systematic thinking about them. However, Stewart's claim about the pervasiveness of values in business poses a challenge to media educators: can we identify ethical questions throughout our field? Can we address ethical questions that arise outside of journalistic practices?

I offer media regulation as an example of a topic that is seldom taught or researched as an ethical issue. Scholarship on U. S. media policy often focuses on questions of diversity and concentration in media ownership and the related question of the proper role of markets in shaping the mission and structure of mass media. These are substantial questions that deserve the attention that they receive. It is also possible, however, to explore more thoroughly their ethical underpinnings and implications. Here again, my particular notion of ethics comes into play: virtuous behavior that is defined and animated by a concept of human fulfillment.

An ethical critique of media policy can emphasize the explicit and implicit values in arguments about deregulation. Kuttner asserts that market ideology casts individuals as consumers to the core, beings whose fulfillment hinges on material gain. It is also possible, however, understand some pro-market arguments as grounded in values more profound than a materialist caricature of human needs. Market ideology still has echoes of Enlightenment values of individual rationality and freedom. Whether or not contemporary scholars and students find them compelling, these values are more fundamental than simple assertions about market efficiency. Locke, in particular, defined labor-and its byproduct of property-as an inviolable possession of the autonomous person. Do contemporary media markets, through the mechanisms of subscription, advertising, and audience ratings, actually serve the Enlightenment values of individual autonomy and of rational, self-interested choice? Conversely, what notions of human fulfillment justify media regulation that purports to serve a common good? Dewey, for example, argued that we should value "publicity" because of its role in cultivating democratic communities. His view of media also contains an ethical idea: Dewey believed that participation in a democratic community is, in itself, a form of human fulfillment. This notion, as well, may or may not be convincing to contemporary media students and scholars, but it is one worth considering. I do not pose ethical questions about media policy because they are susceptible to easy answers. Rather, I ask them because they exemplify the ethical complexity that we can find throughout media studies-including areas which are seldom viewed through an ethical lens.

Philosophers honor Socrates because he put humans and virtuous behavior at the forefront of inquiry. As I have argued, our branch of scholarship and teaching confronts some of the same problems that engaged Socrates. Media studies present many questions that are essentially ethical, philosophical puzzles. These questions can help students sharpen their minds for the workplace. Better still, they can challenge students to examine their own ethical systems.

John Armstrong is an assistant professor in the Department of Communication Studies of Furman University. His E-mail address is This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.