John Merrill’s "questions without answers" are some of the thoughts he had over the years, and are presented without answers to give readers the opportunity to think about them at their own speed—and come up with answers they can live with. The "nswers without questions" are the other side of the coin: a collection of aphorisms Merrill designed to be catalysts for thought and discourse—almost every one of which can be parlayed into a healthy discussion. These questions and answers originally were published in Controversies in Media Ethics (3rd ed.) (New York: Routledge, 2011) and are reprinted here by permission of the copyright holder, Routledge/Taylor & Francis.
Questions without Answers
Any discussion of applied ethics usually resolves itself into a series of difficult questions. For the most part, the most important core question is this one: who or what determines what is ethical?
Many answers to this question have been given, in this book and elsewhere: the individual person, the peer group, a religion, the government, society at large, and philosophers.
A companion—perhaps even more important—core question, and one I will deal with mainly in the following remarks, is: what does it mean to be ethical?
There are a myriad of sub-questions that spin off from these core ones. Here are a few:
*Is what is ethical that which is believed by a large majority of the people? Or what the significant opinion leaders believe? Or—whatever the person feels is best for the human needs of a person or a group? Or—whatever conscience, instinct, or religious belief says is ethical?
*Is ethics purely subjective or is it rational or objective? If ethics has no monolithic meaning and is relative, then how can we come up with a definition that is absolute and universal? (If we cannot define it, then all we can say about ethics is that it is personal and that it is contextual or relative. And if this is true, then we should limit our ethical opinions to specific times, contexts, and cases, and never generalize.)
*Am I unethical if I, as a reporter, put my opinion in the story? (After all, I don’t hesitate to insert other people’s opinions.)
*If I am a conservative reporter, is it all right for me to quote only conservative sources in my story, or should I (to be ethical) balance the conservative sources with liberal ones?
*Is the following sentence ethical in a news story? "Right-wing conservative Ben Bosser will debate Democrat Hugh McGrath tomorrow at the Community Center."
*If my keeping a confidence results in permitting a guilty criminal to escape, is it ethical for me to keep it?
*If I work in a poor and less developed country and make very low wages, am I unethical to moonlight in another media job at night?
*Is it more ethical for a reporter to do what he or she is told to do—even if it is thought to be unethical—or to do what he or she thinks is the right thing to do? Which is more important, freedom or obedience to authority?
*Let’s carry the preceding question further: If my family is starving, is it ethical for me to steal to feed them? How about slanting a story to serve the interests of my employer even if I haven’t been instructed to do so?
*Is it ever right to think that one's own ethical decision is better than one coming from one's boss (e.g., an editor or the managing partner in an advertising agency)?
*Is something like a slight misquoting in a direct quote an unethical act—or simply sloppy reporting—or just clarifying the source's sloppy language?
*Is eliminating a word (perhaps one that's vulgar or racist) from a direct quotation always an unethical thing to do?
*What is plagiarism? Is it the theft of someone else's words without attribution, or could it be merely the usurping of someone else’s idea and style? Suppose synonyms rather than specific words are used? Is it unethical to use a direct quote gathered by someone else?
*If a reporter knows that secret information held by a corporation or government is vital for the public's safety, is it ethical to try to get this information by any means possible?
*Is it unethical to use an indirect rather than a direct quotation in a story (with attribution) since the reporter's paraphrasing of the actual wording is subjectivizing the statement?
*Is it ethical for a reporter to falsify—even for laudable reasons—reality in a story?
Answers without Questions: Some Catalytic Aphorisms about Freedom and Ethics
Freedom, if taken seriously, negates any kind of group-determined normative ethics. Freedom, if individually defined, will usually lead away from ethics. Freedom as libertinism is freedom for the insane. Ethical action is others doing what I would do. Freedom justifies all kinds of relativism. Ethics is one step away from authoritarianism.
Freedom leads to anxiety, ethics to peace. The seeker after ethics is a conservative, hoping to find safety in sheltered waters. Freedom found is security lost. Freedom and ethics are from different conceptual worlds. Who would seek freedom would shun ethics, and is open to all ideas blowing by. The only measure of goodness is success. Both freedom and ethics demand action, not words.
Character is superior to ethics; an immoral person can be ethical. The only thing that is certain is uncertainty. This I know—that I don't know. I sought freedom, got it, and now long for order. Ethics is a mask that the coward wears. Thank God I am free to shun freedom.
Freedom, like ethics, is no more than a shadow, consoling the lonely and the hopeful. The wise person runs from the voice of the people. The wisest person runs from every voice. The ethical person is one who looks in a fuzzy mirror.
The person who seeks the right path will forever wander. Why does Ethics (with an "s") seem plural, although used as if singular? Freedom implies confusion and encourages chaos, while also permitting the disciplined person to dominate and bring order. Ethics will never win over power and self-interest. The ethical person is a certain loser in worldly matters. Might does not make right, but it does lead to success.
Freedom is a kind of insurance against imposed equality. Ethics is human-made, not transcendental, therefore inferior in goodness. The soul grows with ethics; the ego grows with worldly success. Freedom allows the person to choose slavery and to succumb to immorality. Ethics is the attempt to fight the impossible fight, to confront the invincible windmill.
Freedom opens the door to ethical frustration, and ethical certainty closes the door to freedom. I had rather meet an ethical person than a free person, although they both may harm me. A "free" political society may be more corrupt and harmful than an autocratic one. There are no really free societies; they are all authoritarian; finding the locus of the authority is the problem.
Kant may be right in dismissing consequences as unimportant when determining ethical action, but he is only partially right. John Stuart Mill looked to possible consequences in making ethical decisions, but utilitarians can only speculate. (Relationships between the ideas of Kant and Mill about rules and consequences are complex. . . .)
Societies are by nature composed of unfree people, but they—the societies —have considerable freedom. Codes of ethics are no more than public relations statements, resembling little more than "look at us, how good we are." Codes of ethics are good for hiding holes in the wall. Ethical codes must be internalized and normative, silently observed. Freedom from the press is a real problem. Ethics is what you do, not what you don’t do.
Ethics rides on freedom's back, and will not be thrown off. Ethics, like a missile, sounds good before it lands. Freedom is a temporary respite from reality. Machiavelli used his freedom to win without ethics, believing success more important. Freedom to be secure is obtained by losing it. Egoism exalts freedom and ignores ethics.
Rousseau revered prehistoric man for his natural goodness. One wonders how many prehistoric men Rousseau knew. Voltaire would defend freedom even if it killed him.
Nietzsche would have us be beyond good and evil—in a kind of good-evil world of self-determination. If it works, embrace it, for it is ethical, say the pragmatists, reminding one of Machiavelli. Could John Dewey have been a Machiavellian? Christianity prescribes freedom while endowing it with norms. Hinduism enthrones inner-freedom that leads to total discipline. Ethical talk is like a flag waved to indicate good intentions—or a coming attack.
Ethics walks the walk; pseudo-ethics talks the talk. Freedom instills anxiety while ethics dissolves it—but is that true? The only road to freedom is death; but even then, you're trapped. How can I know myself when I am constantly changing? If one wants to find God, one needs to find one’s self.
The fact that it is "the press" obviates its freedom by having a name. Freedom is a disjointed moment in reality, especially in social systems. Who can be "self-reliant," Mr. Emerson, except the person dying alone? The person who is, never is; the person who was, never was. The only truth is that there is no truth—at least in this world. Ethical freedom is the objective, but an impossible one. Expression can be free only for the hermit.
Cooperation is the gateway to mediocrity. Democracies assume ignorant governance. Individualists of the world should unite. Ethics, like news, is indefinable and is only personally relevant. When freedom and ethics sit at the peace table, societies cease to progress. A free society is an oxymoron. Libertarians are weak-willed anarchists, hobbled by caution. Conservatives want order while crying for freedom, and liberals want to conserve and increase their socialistic tendencies.
Arguments about ethics close minds rather than open them. What a person does is usually considered ethical—by him or her. Vulgarity is in the ear of the beholder.One must have words in order to think: how, then, were the first words formed? Political correctness is neither political nor correct. A funeral director is an undertaker who thinks language bestows status. An ethics discussion is like a wind in the trees. If God is dead, as Nietzsche said, there is no need for ethics. If Kant did not base his ethics on consequences, one wonders how his formal maxims came into being. John Dewey saw virtue, not in the successful results of action, but in the pragmatics of the attempt. If the existentialist worships freedom, ethics must not have much value.
Now it is your turn to have at these simplifications; I hope they will lead you to new ideas!