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Updated on December 2, 2011

How To Do This?


Ethics is the branch of philosophy that deals with issues of right and wrong in human affairs. Questions of ethics arise whenever we ask whether a course of action is moral or immoral, fair or unfair, just or unjust, honest or dishonest.

We face such questions daily in almost every part of our lives. The parent must decide how to deal with a child who has been sent home from school for unruly behavior. The researcher must decide whether to shade her data “just a bit” in order to gain credit for an important scientific break through. The shopper must decide what to do with the $5 extra change mistakenly given by the clerk at the grocery store. The student must decide whether to say anything about a friend he has seen cheating of a final exam. Question of ethics also come into play whenever a public speaker faces an audience. In an ideal world, as the Greek philosopher Plato noted, al public speakers would be truthful and devoted to the good of society. Yet history tells us that the power of speech is often abused—sometimes with disastrous results. Adolf Hitler was unquestionably a persuasive speaker. His oratory galvanized the German people into following one ideal and one leader. But his aims were horrifying and his tactics despicable. He remains to this day the ultimate example of why the power of the spoken word needs to b guided by a strong sense of ethical integrity.

As a public speaker, you will face ethical issues at every stage of the speechmaking process—from the initial decision to speak through the final presentation of the message. This is true whether you are speaking in the classroom or the courtroom, whether you are participating in a business meeting or a religious service, whether you are addressing an audience of two people or 2,000 people. And the answer will not always be easy. Consider the following example:

Felicia Robinson is running for school board in a large eastern city. Her opponent is conducting what Felicia regards as a highly unethical campaign. In addition to twisting the facts about school taxes, the opponent is pandering to racial prejudice by raising resentment against African-American and newly arrived immigrants.

Five days before the election, Felicia, who is slightly behind in the polls? Learns that the district attorney is preparing to indict her opponent for shady business practices. But the indictment will not be formally issued until after the election. Nor can it be taken as evidence that her opponent is guilty—like all citizens, he has the right to be presumed innocent until proven otherwise.

Still, news of the indictment could be enough to throw the election Felicia’s way, and her advisers urge her to make it an issue in her remaining campaign speeches. Should Felicia follow their advice?

There are creditable arguments to be made on both sides of the ethical dilemma faced by Felicia Robinson. She has tried to run an honest campaign, and she is troubled by the possibility of unfairly attacking her opponent despite the fact that he has shown no such scruples himself. Yet she knows that the impending indictment may be her opponent will spell disaster for the city’s school system. Torn between her commitment to fair play, her desire to be elected, and her concern for the good of the community, she faces the age-old ethical dilemma of whether the ends justify the means.

“So” you may be saying to yourself, “what is the answer to Felicia Robinson’s dilemma?” But in complex cases such as hers there are no cut and-dried answers. As Richard Johannesen, a leader in the study of communication ethics, states, “We should formulate meaningful ethical guidelines, not inflexible rules.” Your ethical decisions will be guided by your values, your conscience, and your sense of right and wrong.

But this does not mean such decisions are simply a matter of personal whim or fancy. Sound ethical decisions involve weighing a potential course of action against a set of ethical standards or guidelines. Just as there are guidelines for ethical behavior in other areas of life, so are there guidelines for ethical conduct in public speaking. These guidelines will not automatically solve every ethical quandary you face as a speaker, but knowing them will provide a reliable compass to help you find your way.


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    • Anne Santos profile image

      Anne Santos 5 years ago

      Since we're in the subject of ethics, plagiarism is also a big no no if you know what I mean.... word for word... I've compared your entry to my book and it is what the book call as "Global Plagiarism" and yes it is also on the same chapter as "ethics". Tsk Tsk...