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He's invisible, but every ethics instructor feels him.

It's that 800-pound gorilla that stalks ethics classrooms, marking the divide between the rule followers and the utilitarians.

The first group is largely deontological (though perhaps conditioned or even thoughtlessly so) with a firm belief in the virtue of solid and dependable rules in governing actions, rules that precisely draw behavioral boundaries. Those rules may have been made for them by anyone from deity to peers. They see clear, bright lines between right and wrong.

The second group tends to teleology with a more relaxed, virtue-based outlook that suggests rules and conventions are valuable, but may not be ironclad: There truly may be no all-inclusive rules, in their view. Consequences are the consideration.

The first group cannot understand how rule-breaking (broadly defined) can be ethical and done in good conscience, producing a visceral disdain for the selfish and undisciplined utilitarian. The second group tends to be scornful of the narrow-minded rule-bound as dogmatic and moralistic, avoiding the responsibility of decision-making.

And when the two collide they just don't understand each other. Instructors are frustrated by these intractable groups because, mirroring the current U.S. political climate, a middle ground is elusive and fruitful discussion very difficult.

A typical rule-bound response dampens exploration by declaring there is no dilemma and that the solution is clear, either by law or by professional or social dogma. This moralistic approach rejects discussion when the outcome should be pretty obvious.

Indeed, it may not be unwillingness so much as an inability to deal with the complexity of conflicting concepts that hardens this attitude. Kohlberg warned years ago that Stage 4 (Law and Order) moral level individuals were not able to understand the thinking of the Stage 5 (Moral autonomy) person.

A recent book highlights this in an interesting way, examining President Bill Clinton's political decision-making style-a contrast to the current president's apparent approach to serious moral decisions.1

A crucial element of moral decision-making is the ability to deal with two conflicting notions (ideas, concepts) at the same time. Bill Clinton, in doing that, (typically) appeared indecisive and often seemed to delay decisions. President George W. Bush, on the other hand, does not readily demonstrate that deliberative facility and appears inclined to make quick decisions. Many of these decisions appear to be simplistically mandated by a faith-based (rules-oriented) background.

And that contrast is truly bad news for conscientious ethics instructors, since a morally complex person must be able to consider and make good faith arguments on both sides of a question, a logical goal for an ethics course.

The inability to deal with conflicting concepts may explain, for example, why suggestions to authors submitting to the Journal of Mass Media Ethics often fall on deaf ears. We suggest that they make good faith arguments for both principal positions in outlining a dilemma. But it would appear that, for those writers, dealing with conflicting concepts is a foreign notion. They most often have an agenda they are set on advancing. A thoughtful approach to moral decisions tends to draw derision from rule followers for its apparent indecision, widening the gap between the two groups. A rule-bound decision-maker sees thoughtful deliberation as a weakness.

The thoughtful teleologist will recognize the dilemma and search the soul for a workable response. Reasoned reactions should, of course, be distinguished from the egoist whose answer is likely to be self-serving and may defy either reason or dogma. The egoist subscribes to utility or rule-following out of self-interest. The teleologist is frequently accused of egoism and relativism (in their worse senses) and the line between egoism and reasoned moral judgment may indeed sometimes appear thin.

If an inability to deal with two concepts is a failing in education, then those who supposedly are educated (graduation from elite prep schools and Yale in the case of Pres. Bush) may have actively resisted the educational experience available to them, or perhaps the system truly does not typically produce a capacity to reason. In either case, the result, among other things, is an inability to engage in sophisticated moral reasoning and is an indictment of an educational system charged with teaching its students how to think-a process that involves dealing with ambiguity.

Further compounding the problem, but critical to the teaching of media ethics, is the assumption derived from the First Amendment that, if laws regulating media are largely prohibited, media professionals must make their decisions being considerate of but independent from prevailing journalistic or media dogma or orthodoxy. This naturally suggests a teleological approach to ethics instruction, one that teaches concepts-principles and reasoning-and emphatically rejects the absolutist approach. And it may even be argued that one who naturally and unthinkingly obeys laws and ethics codes abandons a precious freedom guaranteed under the First Amendment.

If media ethics were to be governed by tradition or history (as it tended to be in the 1920s and 1930s), an ethics course would be little more than an articulation of dogma, hardened in prescriptive ethics codes so practitioners would understand the rules they must follow. Little discussion is possible in this event and the course becomes a relatively simple exercise in "these are the rules, now follow them." Surely this would sanitize and pull the claws from any ethics course.

This need for a principled relativism is one fundamental difference in ethics instruction between media people and other professions or avocations. Business ethics, for example, has evolved primarily into a following of regulations, with corporate compliance officers to understand and interpret Federal and other regulations and see that employees follow them. Law enforcement officers are probably the group most immersed in rules, often excusing even the shooting of suspects if officer(s) followed accepted police procedures. (Some rules are unwritten, such as the prohibition in many police departments against "ratting" on fellow officers.)

Full discussion in media ethics necessarily proceeds from introduction of principles (such as: information distribution is an essential function of a participatory society, which is the first item of the current Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics) and articulation of reason (e.g., under what conditions is it more important to protect a person's privacy than to distribute information about that person?).

For perplexed instructors faced with a divided group, one way to appeal to the rule-bound may be to instill sensitivity by emphasizing that even the best rules must periodically be examined, and pummeled, for their validity. This approach should spell out to individual students the importance, both to them and to society, of maintaining the sense of agency and individualism necessary in a dynamic society by either making certain the rules are valid or that principles and reason are applied-necessitating discussion in either case. Thus, following rules, per se, is not necessarily a negative thing, but that validating rules is a crucial step for wise rule following.

Utilitarians, with warnings about the morally corrosive effects of ego, can be taught in traditional ways, invoking the use of principles and reason and extensive discussion in resolving dilemmas. Perhaps some instructors are dealing creatively and effectively with this perennial problem and would be willing to share their strategies in these pages.

REFERENCE 1Ehrenhalt, Alan, "Measuring his success," The New York Times Book Review, June 12, 2005, pp. 1, 12-13-a review of The Survivor: Bill Clinton in the White House by John F. Harris.

* Ralph Barney is professor emeritus in communications at Brigham Young University and a founding editor of the Journal of Mass Media Ethics. His e-mail address is This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

The above article was published in Media Ethics, Fall 2005 (17:1),pp.3,14-15.