The problem facing [the world] is the separation of the economy from society and the absence of any effective regulation of the market place. . . . [T]he critical issue is the absence of a set of professional ethics. (Turner, 1996 , pp. xxxi–xxxii)
Why We Wrote This Book
Probing “Morality” and Prodding “Ethics” Sometimes a word is worth a thousand words. Or an entire book.
“Ethics” is one of those words, with no shortage of book-length treatments.
The idea for a communication-centered investigation of ethics and its relationship to professional life arose during the opening session of George’s ethics class in the spring of 2003. Although the students weren’t terribly excited by the idea of ethics, they became much more animated when the discussion shifted to the term “morality.” They saw the latter term as more relevant to their lives, including work. In fact, many of these same students shared an implicit assumption that doing ethics is a kind of work —work in a pejorative sense. Was this merely a game of semantics? Or was it in fact more revealing? Further classroom discussion about the meanings students associated with each of those two labels proved very informative.
A number of the students associated ethics with chores that were far from captivating. They suggested that ethics were dry, abstract, were suggestive of “don’ts” rather than “do’s,” and were unrelated to their everyday lives, including their careers. Talk of morality, on the other hand, got the students visibly excited: they recognized the prominence of the term in contemporary public discourse in the United States concerning everything from politics to entertainment; they also commented on the link to religion, values, and deep personal concerns. This single classroom episode said a lot, not only about the students but also about contemporary public discourse. The fact is that morality has come to trump ethics as a label: “(im)moral” has become more rhetorically compelling than “(un)ethical.” In our everyday discourse we often consider moral questions without reference to ethics at all. As we will discuss throughout this book, the way we frame such issues, broadly speaking, has implications for which issues will be addressed, how salient they will be, and how they will be evaluated (Kellaris, Boyle, & Dahlstrom, 1994 ).
For us, of course, this classroom discussion is about much more than a preference for one term over another. It reminds us of the importance of how we talk about ethics—both with respect to specifi c issues (such as deception or confi dentiality) and in terms of how we frame or approach ethics (or professional ethics) in general. That is, what sorts of things do we associate with ethics? Where do we position ethics vis-à-vis other dimensions of our lives? To which domains of activity do our ethical principles apply? When do we “locate” ethics in a distant place that we visit only occasionally, rather than as something integral to our day-to-day lives? In which situations do we call others’ attention to ethics? What do we mean when we describe someone else as “an ethical person”? What does it mean for an organization or a profession to have integrity? How is trust central to the effective functioning of the market and, indeed, how does it refl ect the health of our economy in general? (On the burgeoning interest in trust research, see Lewis & Einhorn, 2009 .) Language, visual imagery, and communication in general are of great importance for ethics, as we will see. Now, let’s consider why some people are paying greater attention to the study of ethics at work today, and just how they are talking about it. None of this is to suggest that symbols are everything, or that rhetoric is the whole of reality. Still, we will show how words and images make real practical differences in our pursuit of ethical grounding for a good life.