BY JUSTIN PEHOSKI
An Encyclopedia of Communication Ethics: Goods in Contention, edited by Ronald C. Arnett, Annette M. Holba, and Susan Mancino. New York, New York: Peter Lang, 2018. 582 pp. ISBN 9781433152443. $144.95 (hardcover).A review of
One sign an academic field is achieving a critical mass in general interest is the appearance of books providing a broad survey of that field, books with titles such as “Handbook to,” “Companion to,” and “Encyclopedia of.” By that measure, the field of communication ethics is flourishing. Several years ago, Routledge published The Handbook of Communication Ethics, others have since followed, and now more recently we’ve seen the publication of An Encyclopedia of Communication Ethics: Goods in Contention, edited by Ronald C. Arnett, Annette M. Holba and Susan Mancino.
Arnett, Holba, and Mancino have taken a distinctive, perhaps surprising, but ultimately valuable approach with their Encyclopedia. This is not the kind of encyclopedia that deals in general categories or exhaustively covers every branch of knowledge in the field. That is to say it does not provide an overview of communication ethics theory, application, and contemporary issues in the way that Routledge’sHandbook does. Instead, An Encyclopedia of Communication Ethics examines “103 scholars who explicitly and implicitly contributed to our understanding of this crucial subject matter.” By examining the selected “key figures,” we are intended to understand how communication ethics evolved through history and how it impacted thought and culture. An important premise of the book is the “ongoing necessity of acknowledging ethical goods in dispute”—a point the subtitle of the book, Goods in Contention, underlines. The idea is that communication ethics is “perspective laden,” historically situated, and “diverse.” Given this, it will always be the case that people of different orientations will need to negotiate and compromise regarding ends in view and the path toward their fulfillment.
For some scholars who remember their childhood pursuit of learning, encyclopedias hold an undiminished allure—a promise of new knowledge and discovery within their pages. Skimming the table of contents gave me that feeling again. There is an arguably fair diversity in the figures here with perhaps a few surprises. Many of the expected ancients, moderns, and contemporaries are present; classical, pragmatist, and continental philosophers occupy quite a few entries; and importantly, many thinkers from outside of the Western tradition are also included. These 103 figures are simply organized by name in alphabetical order rather than chronologically or by theme and orientation, such as feminist, classical, Marxist, or postmodern. As an example of the book’s choices, we can look at the thirteen figures whose last names end in G and H: Hans-Georg Gadamer, Mahatma Gandhi, Carol Gilligan, Marjorie Grene, Jürgen Habermas, Thich Nhat Hanh, Stanley Hauerwas, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Martin Heidegger, Agnes Heller, Thomas Hobbes, David Hume, and Edmund Husserl. Each figure in this volume is treated in a concise and consistent fashion that offers a fair overview of their thought. The entries average between three to four pages, yet in this short space most of the 85 scholars who contributed entries succeed in providing salient observations and sympathetic interpretations that at the least serve as introductions and provocations to readers for further study. All the entries consist of three parts, beginning with an overview of the figure’s work, followed by central themes and communication ethics implications.
Even with over 100 figures comprising the range of this book’s scope, there will be exclusions. This is understandable, as ethics across various cultures is too big of an endeavor to exhaustively capture in one volume. The editors are upfront and transparent about their processes of selection for this work. As stated in the book’s brief introduction, figures were chosen for their “(1) dialectical and dialogical engagement with other scholars and perspectives; (2) the performative praxis of ethics in the interplay of theory and the public domain; and (3) examination of the connection between history and questions with a constitutive ethical theory offering a connecting response.” These criteria are “central” to four “privileged” ethicists: Seyla Benhabib, Judith Butler, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Charles Taylor. This privileging is not evident in the four ethicists’ entries, which do not look different from all the others, but one does sense their influence on the editors’ framing of this book, especially the relative weight given to historicity and praxis. For example, Mancino authored an entry for Dorothy Day, touching on her social work, pacifism, and writing in which central themes included:
the performative and pragmatic nature of communication ethics practices to inspire value and respect for all persons, to accept the responsibility to assist those most in need, and to recognize the necessity of social action in the face of these issues. Day’s performative communication ethics practices shaped her work with the Catholic Worker Movement, which exemplifies praxis in action with her theory-informed response to social justice issues (108).
The Day entry goes a fair way to connect the person and her work to communication ethics. A handful of the other entries struggle to do this satisfactorily, leaving the communication implications more or less implicit.In some cases, this is due to the thinker in question not primarily writing about ethics in the idiom of communication, even though their thought clearly has relevance to the area of communication ethics. The overwhelming majority of the entries, regardless of their thinker’s orientation toward communication per se, make both the communication and ethical implications clear, sufficiently stimulating the reader’s thought as a synoptic account of communication ethics should. Definitively, this is an excellent book for browsing—both for established scholars and for those wishing to gain an expansive view of the history and breadth of ideas within communication ethics. The very structure of this figure-focused work makes it very useful as a resource for one to quickly gain an overview of, say, Victoria Welby and the meaning of her term “significs.” I imagine any careful reader almost certainly discovering an idea for further investigation. In that regard, it is worth noting that a good index in a book like this is highly desirable, and we certainly find an extensive, detailed one here.
As media technology and societal divides increase our communicative problems, we need more resources expanding on what ethical communication may look like. An Encyclopedia of Communication Ethics represents a welcome, timely companion to those thinking and teaching about how to create more ethical communicators.