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Validating the code of ethics.

Tom Peters, business management's answer to Indiana Jones, has characterized capitalism and democracy in society as "messy" and says that anyone not perpetually confused about ethical issues is out of touch with the richness of the world. From ancient times forward, one way -- perhaps the only way -- out of this behavioral temple of doom is the study of ethics.

For the past decade or more, business ethics has enjoyed a bull market in the marketplace and academia, with a proliferation of corporate credos, ethics courses, professional codes and some very high visibility transgressions. In his best-selling book on business ethics, "Business Ethics: Concepts and Cases," Manuel G. Velasquez, Ph.D. says: "Business ethics is applied ethics ... the attempt for each of us to apply what we believe to be good' and 'right' to every situation which confronts us at work, regardless of what the situation is or in what line of work we are engaged. In its simplest form, business ethics is a specialized study of moral right and wrong as it applies to business policies, institutions, and behavior."

Its applied nature makes business ethics so confounding. Simultaneously, it requires the most intellectually honest reasoning while dealing with the most anomalous of life's situations. Few people are so well-equipped, and organizations are nothing more than aggregates of people serving other people. And the more we study the applications without studying the philosophical underpinnings, the deeper into the morass we sink. We're simply looking through the wrong end of the telescope. Before we can become ethically efficient we must become ethically secure.

The foundations of ethics cannot be found by appealing to conscience since your conscience may differ from mine -- or one of us may not have a conscience at all. Religion, while helpful, falls short because it ultimately incorporates ethics into a belief system that goes where only angels dare tread. By including the legal axiom of prima facie equal rights (valuing the rights of others) the grail comes within reach. Ethics are no longer arbitrary, nor imposed from the outside, but become in the interest of individuals and society at large to maintain.

How communicators can promote ethical behavior

Organizationally, this notion refers to proper behavior toward each of the organization's stakeholders. And no one deals more closely with these constituent publics than the communicator. From research, Cornelius Pratt of Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, identified five reasons communicators play an important organizational role in ethical leadership:

1. Through two-way, symmetrical public relations, practitioners view their role as standard bearer for social responsibility;

2. Managers perceive ethics as crucial and important;

3. Business ethics is synonymous with practitioner ethics;

4. Practitioners are well-suited to drive corporate behavior in response to public need;

5. As boundary-spanners and communicators, their activities are most likely to be used as benchmarks for public perception of the organization.

According to John Budd, Jr., chairman of the Omega Group, New York City, "In the sense that we regularly deal with such intangibles as trust, credibility and reputation -- those abstract values that quantitative-minded executives have difficulty with -- we are helping executives make those ethical decisions. ... The real issue of ethics is not so much how well we know the rules and stipulations but how we counsel on the subject."

Examining the IABC Code

Alas, the enormousness of this ethical opportunity transforms the newsletter editor or media specialist into a guardian of the holy ark. To help shed some light through the inevitable gray areas, organizations establish codes of ethics or standards of conduct. Along with the guidelines come the issues of enforceability, the U.S. Constitution First Amendment concerns and other areas of potential litigation. The IABC Code of Ethics was developed to provide members and others with guidelines of professional behavior and standards of ethical practice. Adopted in 1976 and modified in 1985, the code addresses issues of honesty and integrity, the source, legal obligations, privacy, personal benefits, and the obligation to follow the Code. The IABC Code of Ethics is voluntary and sanctions generally are aimed at information and education rather than punishment.

However, as with all such codes, the question remains concerning the philosophical constructs underlying such an applied document. Unfounded ethical guidelines lead down the same murky trail as worshipping false idols or suffering bad laws on the books. In his 1992 master's thesis, San Jose State University (Calif.) graduate student Thomas Bernal subjected the IABC Code of Ethics to philosophical analysis, after synthesizing the schools of western thought which underlie today's business ethics (a harrowing experience in itself in today's politically correct environment). As a result he legitimizes a code that otherwise might have seemed to have sprung fully developed from the head of Zeus. Lost in the clamor of "business ethics" as a topic are thousand of years of foundation-building by some of history's greatest minds.

A pair of strong ethical traditions come together as 20th century business ethics are examined: Utilitarianism from the tradition of Realism, and

Kantian ethics from the school of Idealism. Completely different, the two schools, nevertheless, allow an examination of contemporary ethics from both an empirical and transcendental point of view. Both theories provide a concise way of determining whether an activity is ethical, and subsequently test the soundness of the code itself. The schools were synthesized in the late 19th century by Henry Sidgwick (1838- 1900), who concluded that social utilitarianism offers the true means of moral judgment but emphasized that it must be grounded in awareness of one's moral obligations.

Utilitarianism focuses on pleasure or hedonism. Aristotle (c. 384-322 B.C. viewed happiness as the ethical end. Epicurus (c. 341-270 B.C. equated pleasure with good and differentiated between healthful and harmful pleasure. Aquinas (1224-1274) added an eternal realm as the source of all happiness. Thomas Hobbes argued that natural law caused man to surrender individual rights in return for security under a social contract. Spinoza (1632-1677) advanced the idea of a necessary order that humankind pursues selfishly. Henry More (1614-1687) posited that humans experienced pleasure by doing good, and John Locke (1632-1704) defined good as that which most likely brought about pleasure and avoided pain. The French Encyclopedists believed self-centered pursuit of pleasure was the inescapable rationale behind any action. From this background John Stuart Mill (1808-1873) and jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) developed utilitarianism, which Mill further refined to conclude that the greater the number of people receiving pleasure from an action, the greater the good.

Unlike the utilitarians, Immanuel Kant (I 724-1804) held faith in abstract truths, a classical philosophical position (Socrates, Plato, Spinoza [who was comfortable in both camps], Descartes, and Berkeley before him). Diametrically opposed to the realists, Kant believed man creates reality from his own mind. From this premise Kant countered the utilitarians and established his ethical theory based on duty rather than pleasure. According to Kant's categorical cal imperative, an act is ethical when a reasonable person can will the behavior a universal law.

The IABC Code of Ethics satisfies both the Principle of Utility and Kant's categorical imperative within four of its seven articles. Minor modifications to Articles Two, Six, and Seven of the Code would bring them into philosophical compliance as well. Clearly, the IABC Code represents the 20th century synthesis of hedonism and idealism. The study also found that practitioners are obligated to many different objects, including the law, employers, profession, source, ethics, others, clients, customers, IABC and the Code itself. This supports Kant's theory that we ought to act in certain ways because of obligations beyond ourselves. The Code serves both society and the profession, although the PR industry tends to benefit more on an article by article examination. The Code categorically rejects the notion of situation ethics and is fairly specific in its interpretation (though note is made of the possibility of dialogue on the issues coordinated through IABC headquarters). Detailed findings of this study have been forwarded to the IABC Ethics Committee and Executive Board for further review and possible action.

Dean Kruckeberg, Ph.D., University of Northern Iowa, said: "The demands and challenges upon public relations ethics will increase exponentially -- because of our increasingly complex society and particularly as the 'global village' and world community become a reality. ... Codes in the future will have to take into deliberate consideration and be able to reconcile different cultural values and norms and will have to carefully consider regional issues and trends within a global community. It is highly questionable existing codes will be up to the task."

If public relations practitioners, and the academics who train and support them, are to practice ethically in the 21st century, they must become comfortable with the philosophies employed. Ironically, (Calif.) Silicon Valley's most visible public relations guru, Regis McKenna, credits his success in part to having been a philosophy major. Yet McKenna has taken great pain to distance himself from public relations in favor of relationship marketing. If ethical behavior can be generated by more grounding in theoretical philosophy, how does this become "operative" among a student population unwilling to read about Aristotle, let alone read Aristotle?

There can be no doubt that ethical inquiry is tough sledding. The blood pounds and the brain aches trying to fathom the logical arguments and intellectual debates of philosophers past and present. But if business communicators are to help define the boundaries of acceptable social behavior, they must first look through the right end of the telescope.


Article 2. Professional communicators will not use any information that has been generated or appropriately acquired by a business for another business without permission. Further, communicators should attempt to identify the source of information to be used....

Article 6. Communication professionals will not use any confidential information gained as a result of professional activity for personal benefit or that of others....

Article 7. Communication professionals should uphold IABC's standards for ethical conduct in all professional activity, and its designation of accreditation (ABC) only for purposes that are authorized and fairly represent the organization and its professional standards....

The IABC Code of Ethics is printed in its entirety on pages 77-80 of the 1992 WorldBook of IABC Communicators.

William Briggs, Ed.D., chair of the IABC ethics committee and incoming executive board member, is professor of public relations at San Jose State University (Calif.). Thomas Bernal received his master of science degree in mass
COPYRIGHT 1992 International Association of Business Communicators
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:includes related article; International Association of Business Communicators' Code of Ethics
Author:Bernal, Thomas
Publication:Communication World
Date:May 1, 1992
Previous Article:The changing role of today's communicator.
Next Article:Confusions & acquisitions: post-merger culture shock and some remedies.

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