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2.3 Communication Ethics

PLEASE NOTE: This book is currently in draft form; material is not final.

Learning Objectives

  1. Explain Johannesen, Valde, and Whedbee’s (2008) three factors for understanding ethics in human communication.
  2. Understand Andersen’s (2007) three audiences for communication ethics.
  3. Differentiate among the three ways individuals understand ethics described by Arnett, Harden Fritz, and Bell (2009).

Johannesen, Valde, and Whedbee (2008) note that ethical issues may arise in human communication when three factors exist: 1) when the communicative behavior “could have a significant impact on other persons;” 2) when the communicative behavior “involves conscious choice of means and ends;” and 3) when the communicative behavior “can be judged by standards of right and wrong” (p. 1). The notion that human communication ethics is multi-faceted is also noted by McCroskey (2006) who wrote that an endless debate about means and ends is not sufficient for a “viable systems for evaluating the ethics of human communication” (p. 239). Andersen (2007) also notes that “ethics is a dimension in all the communication process” (p. 132).Andersen, K. E. (2007). A conversation about communication ethics with Kenneth E. Andersen. In P. Arneson (Ed.), Exploring communication ethics: Interviews with influential scholars in the field (pp. 131–142). New York: Peter Lang. Andersen goes on to explain, “It [ethics] is a dimension that is relevant to all the actors in the communication process—the source or the originator, the person that initiates communication; the person who receives, interprets, hears, reads the communication; and the people who, in effect, are further agents of transmission” (p. 132). In essence, Andersen sees communication ethics as something that needs to be examined from both the source and receiver’s point of view, but he also realizes that understanding ethics from a societal viewpoint is important.

The source’s ethical choices involve her or his basic intent toward her or his receiver(s). The first individual to really write about the ethical nature of communication from a source’s perspective was Aristotle. Aristotle realized that depending on the originator of the message, a message could be either virtuous or used for mischief. Aristotle’s writings on source ethics were summed up by McCroskey (2006) who noted, “The effect of a message cannot be used as the primary means of evaluating the ethical quality of an act of communication. Furthermore, the means of persuasion themselves are ethically neutral” (p. 295). Instead, “ethical judgments in rhetorical communication should be based exclusively on the intent of the source toward the audience” (p. 295). In other words, when determining whether a specific communicative interaction was ethical from a source’s perspective, the goodness of the source’s intent is what should be examined instead of examining the message itself.

The receiver’s ethical choices involve how the individual decides to process the message being sent by the source. The idea of a receiver ethic starts with the notion that being a receiver of a message should be an active process and not a passive process. As Andersen (2007) notes, “So you [the receiver] have a 100% responsibility to listen, to be critical, to evaluate, to reject, to demand more information, to reject, whatever the case may be” (132). However, there is another aspect to receiver ethics that must also be considered. As noted by McCroskey, Wrench, and Richmond (2003), receivers must attend to a message objectively. Quite often receivers attend to messages depending on either their initial perception of the message or their initial perception of the sender. When these initial perceptions interfere with our ability as a receiver to listen, be critical, evaluate, or reject a message, we are not ethically attending to a message.

The larger society is the term Andersen (2007) uses to discuss the idea of third-party individuals who are not directly involved in the communicative exchange, but nonetheless are ethically attending to messages being sent by a source to a receiver. Whether eavesdropping on a conversation at a table next to you in a restaurant or inadvertently hearing the neighbors fighting at 3AM in the morning, third-party receivers of messages also have ethical considerations. In both of these cases, the overarching ethical dilemma is what should one do with the information they are receiving. If you overhear gossip at the table next to you, is it ethical to pass on that information to others? If you hear one partner physically abusing another partner, do you have an ethical obligation to call the police? Andersen (2007) realizes that these situations call for different responses, “Now those responsibilities in every case will be unique to the situation, unique to one’s ability to fulfill the role of intermediary” (p. 133).

Overall, Andersen (2007) summarizes his position by stating, “So, one begins to say that in all the activity of communication, in whatever role we may happen to be in at the moment, there is an ethical dimension” (p. 132). While clearly each of the roles described by Andersen has different ethical responsibilities, an individual’s perception of her or his ethical responsibilities created differently. Arnett, Harden Fritz, and Bell (2009) believe that an individual’s ethical schemata is derived by a combination of commonsense, theories, and learningArnett, R. C., Harden Fritz, J. M., & Bell, L. M. (2009). Communication ethics literacy: Dialogue and difference. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage..

Common Sense

The term “commonsense” is used quite readily in modern society. Whether the issues are commonsense to drive on the right side of the road or commonsense to not lie to a police officer, individuals rely quite heavily on their perceptions of commonsense. Arnett et al. (2009) define commonsense“The commonly understood, taken-for-granted assumptions about the way the world works and expected communicative behaviors one will meet in navigating that world in daily life” (Arnett et al., 2009, p. 62). as “the commonly understood, taken-for-granted assumptions about the way the world works and expected communicative behaviors one will meet in navigating that world in daily life” (p. 62). Unfortunately, commonsense can be historically and culturally based assumptions. Commonsense communicative behaviors of the 1300’s are not the same behaviors that are perceived as commonsense today. Furthermore, what is considered commonsense can vary greatly from culture to culture. It is commonplace in many Middle Eastern cultures for woman to not speak to men that they do not know. One of our co-authors favorite examples of the problem of “commonsense” comes from the MTV television show Road Rules: The Quest. In one episode, one of the contestants, Ellen, is walking around in Marrakech, Morocco wearing very short shorts. In an Islamic country, woman wearing revealing clothing is a violation of Islamic law. Ellen was clearly violating the culture’s “commonsense” dress code. To this end, some of the villagers in Marrakech took it upon themselves to correct Ellen’s nonverbal behavior by throwing rocks at her. Ultimately, the “loss of agreed-upon commonsense expectations is neither good nor bad, but simply a defining reality of our time” (Arnett et al., 2009, p. 68).


Ethical theories are an abstract step above the commonsense approach to communication ethics. “A communication ethics theory, like any theory, both opens the world, permitting us to see with clarity, and simultaneously occludes our vision. A theory both illuminates and obscures” (Arnett et al., 2009, p. 70). As we saw in Table 2.2 "Major Ethical Perspectives", there are many different theoretical perspectives an individual can adhere to when determining whether a communicative behavior is ethical. Each of these different theories shapes how communicative behavior is viewed and understood.


Arnett et al. (2009) argue that learning is the first principle of communication ethics because “we cannot trust the old ‘commonsense’ notions” of ethics. “If we fail to connect the loss of agreed-upon commonsense with learning, we fall prey to discounting or making fun of those different from ourselves, those with dissimilar backgrounds, experiences, and practices” (p. 68). In essence, ethical communicators must avoid perceiving their commonsense perceptions of ethics as being universal perceptions of ethics adhered to by all people. Therefore, individuals need to seek out and analyze how varying cultures perceive and understand communicative ethics. Ultimately, ethical communicators need to see that “learning and understanding different standpoints is a pragmatic communication ethics act” (p. 62).

Clearly, the study of communication ethics is simply not a black-and-white endeavor. Often there are clear-cut, easy answers to determining ethical communicative behavior. For example, while some may think lying is always unethical (this is the 9th Commandment of the Bible after all), is it always unethical to lie? Would it be ethical to lie to someone to save his or her life? While having ethical absolutes may make life easier, in today’s world drawing these fabricated lines in the sand make no sense. As Arnett et al. (2009) discussed, the best way to learn how to be an ethical communicator in today’s world is to explore and learn. To help with this learning process, the National Communication Association (NCA) approved a Credo for Ethical Communication in 1999. In Note 2.22 "National Communication Association Credo for Ethical Communication", you will see a copy of the NCA credo. While more fully fleshed out in this form, most of the items discussed within the credo have been referenced earlier in this section.

National Communication Association Credo for Ethical Communication

Questions of right and wrong arise whenever people communicate. Ethical communication is fundamental to responsible thinking, decision making, and the development of relationships and communities within and across contexts, cultures, channels, and media. Moreover, ethical communication enhances human worth and dignity by fostering truthfulness, fairness, responsibility, personal integrity, and respect for self and others. We believe that unethical communication threatens the quality of all communication and consequently the well-being of individuals and the society in which we live. Therefore we, the members of the National Communication Association, endorse and are committed to practicing the following principles of ethical communication:

  • We advocate truthfulness, accuracy, honesty, and reason as essential to the integrity of communication.
  • We endorse freedom of expression, diversity of perspective, and tolerance of dissent to achieve the informed and responsible decision making fundamental to a civil society.
  • We strive to understand and respect other communicators before evaluating and responding to their messages.
  • We promote access to communication resources and opportunities as necessary to fulfill human potential and contribute to the well-being of families, communities, and society.
  • We promote communication climates of caring and mutual understanding that respect the unique needs and characteristics of individual communicators.
  • We condemn communication that degrades individuals and humanity through distortion, intimidation, coercion, and violence, and through the expression of intolerance and hatred.
  • We are committed to the courageous expression of personal convictions in pursuit of fairness and justice.
  • We advocate sharing information, opinions, and feelings when facing significant choices while also respecting privacy and confidentiality.
  • We accept responsibility for the short- and long-term consequences for our own communication and expect the same of others.

For the purposes of this chapter, we are concerned with providing guidance about organizational communication ethics. Previously, the basics of the philosophical field of ethics, business ethics, and communication ethics were discussed. In the next section, we will turn our attention toward organizational communication ethics.

Key Takeaways

  • Johannesen, Valde, and Whedbee’s (2008) noted three factors for understanding ethics in human communication: (1) when communicative behavior impacts others, (2) when communicative behavior is a conscious choice of means and ends, and (3) when communicative behavior can be judged as either right/wrong, good/bad, moral/immoral, etc.
  • Andersen (2007) argues that ethical decisions about communicative behavior must analyzed at the source of the message’s level of understanding and interpretation of ethical behavior., the receiver of the message’s level, and the greater society’s level.
  • Differentiate among the three ways individuals understand ethics described by Arnett, Harden Fritz, and Bell (2009).


  1. Look at a recent copy of Business Week, The Wall Street Journal, Fast Company, Forbes Magazine, or another business-oriented publication. Find an example of communication ethics and then evaluate that example through each of the three levels of ethical understanding (source, receiver, & society) discussed by Andersen (2007).
  2. Why do you think Arnett, Harden Fritz, and Bell (2009) argue that learning is the first principle of ethics? Why is learning more valuable than either commonsense or theories?