This thesis has been approved
for the Ohio University Department of Philosophy
and the College of Arts and Sciences, June 2001
My thanks go to Arthur Zucker and the Institute for Applied Ethics and Professional Ethics for making my studies in philosophy possible. Thanks, too, to my philosophy professors who patiently offered their help and advice during the past three years. The following have all contributed in one way or another toward the completion of this thesis: Jack Bender, Don Borchert, Scott Carson, Phil Ehrlich, Mark LeBar, Algis Mickunas, and James Petrik. A special thanks goes to graduate student Anthony Thorstenson, who helped guide and support me through the master’s program.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Chapter 1: Teaching Journalism Ethics
1.1 The Courses
1.2 The Textbooks
Chapter 2: Aristotle’s “Golden Mean”
2.2 The “Golden Mean”
2.3 Moral Education
Chapter 3: Kant’s “Supermaxim”
3.2 Kant “Lite”
3.4 Moral Education
Chapter 4: Mill and the Greatest Good for the Greatest
4.2 The principle of utility
4.3 Act utilitarianism and rule utilitarianism
4.4 Moral education
Chapter 5: From Foolproof to Foolhardy
Appendix A: Topics covered in ethics chapters
Appendix B: News writing textbook list
Versions of ethical theory in journalism and mass communication college textbooks are at best misleading. Aristotle’s, Kant’s and Mill’s theories, for instance, are oftentimes dumbed-down to one-line quips or one-paragraph explanations; therefore, when these misleading versions are used to settle journalism ethics questions, the answers they give are either erroneous or too contentious.
Browse journalism texts, and if ethics is listed in the index and if philosophers and their theories are mentioned, examples of the above inadequate explanations of ethical theory are readily available. There is neither a discussion of the pros and cons of ethical theories nor are the theories put into their proper historical context.
Most students who major in journalism begin their studies with a beginning news writing course in which the skills of gathering and evaluating news and writing typical news stories are taught. Some news writing textbook authors find it important to include a discussion of ethics while others avoid the topic all together. However, in the textbooks that include a chapter or section on ethics, there is no consistency in the way that ethics is presented. A study of popular news writing textbooks used during the 1999-2000 school year showed that ethics topics covered, if covered, came under the categories of conflict of interest, codes of ethics, newsgathering behaviors and methods, journalistic principles, ethical decision-making tools, personal values, and theories and philosophers (See Appendix A). Some texts covered several of these topics while others mentioned only one or two.
The mission of American journalism schools is to teach students the skills necessary to inform, enlighten, and champion the freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment. Journalists work toward the pursuit of truth; therefore, their readers, viewers, and listeners are well informed and able to fulfill their responsibilities as citizens. Gathering this information needs to be done in an ethical manner. The press’s credibility rests on this.
There is no consistent way that U.S. journalism schools teach ethics. Some offer stand-alone courses while others offer “law and ethics” courses; some offer no specific course but say ethics is integrated throughout their curriculum. Most stand-alone courses are offered during a student’s senior year—after many prerequisites are met and after many students have worked for student media or done internships. Those schools that are accredited by the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (about 100 of the approximately 400 journalism schools or departments) must offer an ethics course; however, those schools that do not seek accreditation, are free not to offer such a course.
Learning to do ethical decision-making should be an important part of any journalism curriculum, however. I believe that ethical theory gives students a place to start when making decisions. Students must graduate with the courage to effectively argue their positions when dilemmas arise in their advertising agencies, public relations firms, and newsrooms. These students will be part of those who control public information; they will shape “the mental and psychological world of the public.” However, journalism schools are not always doing their jobs. Problematic ethical conduct by media professionals persists.
In this thesis, I will argue ethical theory is not taught well or correctly via journalism news writing textbooks and other journalism texts, which leads to a misunderstanding of major philosophical figures and ethics itself—and this leads to journalists who are too quick to justify what is at best contentious.
I present a brief historical overview of the problems and difficulties of teaching journalism ethics and present examples of flawed explanations of theory from current textbooks, which are followed by discussions of what the philosopher really meant to say. I also discuss what might happen if a journalist unwittingly uses a theory incorrectly.
In conclusion, I offer suggestions for the presentation of ethical theory in media textbooks. Journalism schools have a moral obligation to provide an adequate ethical education to their students, and presenting ethical theory correctly is part of that obligation.
Chapter 1: Teaching Journalism Ethics
1.1 The courses
The field of journalism ethics, or mass media ethics, has a growing body of literature that explores reasoning and principles, yet studies show that the credibility of journalists is low; the public sees journalists’ values as different from their own. The public sets high standards for those who disseminate information. How students are taught ethics will affect how they act as professionals; therefore, it is important that journalism students graduate from college with an understanding of ethical behavior, or the ethics of their profession.
For many years, media ethics scholars have grappled with how journalism ethics should be taught to students. In 1980, the Hastings Center Project on the Teaching of Ethics published the results of a study that focused on the education of journalists. The publication, considered to be the benchmark for such studies, found little agreement about the place and purpose of ethics courses in journalism education (Christians & Covert, 1980, p. 26). The researchers reported that the courses “appear to be collectives—a potpourri of journalistic practices and problems, a series of scattered ethical snippets—rather than theoretically sophisticated responses” (p. 19, emphasis added).
The study showed that little in the way of moral reasoning or the nature of ethics was being taught. Of the 237 journalism schools that responded to the researchers’ survey, 73% (171 schools) did not offer a specific course in media ethics, and only one syllabus from those schools mentioned a moral philosopher.
“This was a totally crucial project that established the credibility of teaching (media) ethics,” Christians said (personal communication, May 8, 2000). “The Hastings monograph created goals for the teaching of [media] ethics, and it was the catalyst for the legitimacy of the (media ethics) course.” In their study, Christians and Covert (1980) concluded, among other things, that theoretical frameworks for organizing the material were not fully developed (p. 16). Some of the courses did little more than ingrain certain conventions and teach students to appeal to epithets (p. 19); and the intellectual content of these courses tended to focus more on professional performance than on liberal arts substance (p. 20).
Another point established from the study was “you need to have intellectual goals in the teaching of ethics,” Christians said (personal communication, May 8, 2000). “Ethics is an academic enterprise, but this differs from religious training.... This doesn’t just belong in the church, but in the academy—this will establish the validity of applied ethics.”
In the conclusion of their study, Christians and Covert (1980) wrote that an applied ethics for journalism might become “the foremost scholarly objective and be the catalyst for further advance” (p. 49).
“In this approach one retains an interest in the making of concrete moral judgments, in the way ethical decision making ought to function in the media professions,” Christians and Covert (1980) wrote (p. 49). Furthermore, they said:
No one needs to defend any longer the truism that worthwhile casuistry depends on a principled framework, but perhaps another digression, this time to Aristotle, will make the point more precise. Aristotle established that moral knowledge is of a specific kind. Moral knowledge, in his work, is similar to technical skill, in that it must be applied concretely; and, while limiting the intellection of Socrates and Plato, Aristotle did not eradicate theoretical knowledge as an essential component of moral reflection either. Yet moral consciousness for Aristotle cannot be equated with techne nor with theoretics (episteme); thus he establishes ethics as a discipline independent of both art and metaphysics. (p. 49)
Christians (1985) repeated the survey in 1984 with 274 journalism programs. Eighty-seven percent, or 243, of the schools responded; of that percent, 117 offered media ethics courses (1985). Kotsyu (1990) pointed out, however, that a problem with this 1984 survey was that there might have been “a bias toward accreditation interests” (p. 48). At that time, for a journalism program to be accredited by the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, standards required that ethics be offered but not as a separate course or that the course, if offered, be mandated. Wrote Kotsyu (1990): “It is easy to respond to a questionnaire … that ethics is indeed offered. But does it really get taught?” (p. 49).
Singletary, Caudill, Caudill, and White (1990) pointed out that public criticism in the 1980s about media ethics “prompted increased reflection” and a concern about the media’s credibility among journalism educators and professional journalists in the 1980s; and media ethics textbooks began to be published (p. 964).
However, Fry (1989) reported that although interns at American newspapers “swim in the mainstream of journalism ethics”—in other words, they work as professionals and are faced with ethical dilemmas regularly— results from an American Society of Newspaper Editors survey showed that there were gaps in their preparation for future ethical professionals; decision-making skills were lacking (p. 186).
Christians, with Lambeth and Cole (1994), found that stand-alone media ethics courses increased 56% between 1984 and the 1992-1993 school year. According to Yoder and Bleske (1997), during that timeframe several authors of media ethics instruction articles urged journalism educators to emphasize moral reasoning and decision-making models. Yoder and Bleske (1997) tested students at both the beginning and the end of media ethics courses. They found that students were unwilling to make decisions at the beginning of the course. “Without training in moral reasoning, the student journalist seems to use intuition in reaching a decision. It appears that the lack of training left some students ... unwilling to make a decision” (p. 238).
The above is only a sampling of the literature that examines how ethics has been and is taught to journalism students. A review of the literature, however, shows that a stand-alone, mandatory media ethics course can make a difference in students’ behavior; what seems to be neglected is the study of a continuing education in media ethics throughout a student’s four-year experience. It appears that the current debate is about what should be taught in the media ethics course, usually an upper-level course, instead of what should be taught throughout the four-year enrollment. No conclusive reports have been made about the importance or necessity of introducing normative ethics to journalism students.
1.2 The textbooks
An introduction to the mass media course, which covers the history of the media and their duties, is usually the first course taught to journalism students in their curricula. Liberal arts students often take this course as an elective. However, all journalism majors, whether they study print or broadcast journalism, advertising or public relations, must take a beginning news-writing course. This is their introduction to the goals and principles of information gathering.
A content analysis of 16 news writing textbooks used by journalism or communication schools during the 1999-2000 school year shows that of 7,588 total text pages, 301, or about 4%, of those pages are dedicated to the discussion of ethics. Of those 301 pages, an average of .55 pages per book, or a little more than a half-page, per textbook are devoted to an explanation of philosophers and their theories. In other words, of the 7,588 text pages, a total of 8.8 pages are devoted to philosophical theory.
It should be noted that if there is an ethics chapter it is usually at the end of the textbook, which typically indicates that this is a topic that will be covered if there is enough time in the semester or quarter.
One additional study about the presentation of ethics in news writing textbooks can be found. Mirando (1998) examined ethics lessons taught in textbooks published between 1867 and 1997 (pp. 26-39). He reported that by the 1990s, ethical theory had found its way into textbooks. He points out that past texts had dodged the fact that the study of ethics originates from the discipline of philosophy. It is his belief that in the past philosophy was too “esoteric” for a practical subject such as news reporting (p. 34). But that has changed; he wrote, “authors have recognized that the answers to many tough ethical questions could be found by looking at systems of beliefs, classic cases of ethical dilemmas, and philosophical works” (p. 34).
However, if one considers the aforementioned content analysis, it appears that these textbooks are actually lacking in the area of philosophical discourse. A qualitative look at a sampling of the introduction to mass media textbooks shows similar results, and the two top-selling media ethics textbooks, usually used in upper-level, stand-alone courses, devote an average of 22 pages each to introducing ethical theory (Christians, Fackler, Rotzoll, & McKee, 1998; Patterson & Wilkins, 1998); the remainder of the these two ethics books discuss case studies.
It would appear that journalism textbook authors still need to go beyond their “esoteric notions” of philosophical works—or at least offer students more complete explanations of ethical theory.
Chapter 2: The “Golden Mean”
“If Aristotle were editor, he would tell his staff to act as ‘virtuous
journalists,’ arguing that moral virtue lies somewhere between the extreme
of excess and deficiency. In other words, he would seek a ‘golden mean,’
a middle ground between two extremes.”
The above two sentences are the entire explanation of Aristotle’s doctrine of the mean from Carole Rich’s Writing and Reporting News: A Coaching Method (2000, p. 323.) When journalists are taught ethical decision-making in journalism, one of the methods they learn is a “quick-and-easy” formula based on Aristotle's doctrine of the mean, usually called the Golden Mean in most media textbooks. When faced with an ethical dilemma, a journalist will make his or her decision by casting out the two extremes, or vices, and choose the middle point in the ethics spectrum. Although the doctrine of the mean is not the only way journalists apply ethics to newsroom situations, it is a prevalent catch-phrase method listed in media textbooks. Another example:
Journalists have a choice ranging from running no photographs of a tragedy to running the most graphic display of violent death. If they subscribe to the ethics of the Golden Mean, they would try to run a photo that indicates the horror of the tragedy without offending the sensibilities of their audience or of the family involved. (Brooks, Kennedy, Moen, & Ranly, 1996, p. 473)
This description leaves one wondering if the dilemma is about choosing a photo or about considering one’s virtues. Aristotle would say we must discuss virtue in this case, not the correct visual.
Aristotle never intended his doctrine of the mean to be a guide on how to make choices; his doctrine was created to show what one should choose when faced with an ethical dilemma—and this has nothing to do with a midpoint, so to speak. If journalists do know what to choose, it’s not because they use some easy mathematical formula taught in a seminar or journalism class. Journalists are incorrectly taught that Aristotle’s doctrine of the mean is something easily learned and applied. Aristotle would say, however, that what is needed before the mean can be understood correctly are “well brought-up beginners.”
Sherman (1989) believes that in discussion of Aristotle’s theory (and not just in journalism courses or textbooks), an account of the acquisition of the virtues is oftentimes “side-stepped” (p. v). Burnyeat (1980) argued that 20th century intellectualisms do not deal with or have not been interested in questions of education and development: “In this respect, Aristotle’s example has gone sadly unstudied and ignored” (p. 70).
In Book II of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle argued that before a person can put his or her doctrine of the mean into action, a person must already be a virtuous person, and he or she becomes a virtuous person via habit. Thus, being virtuous becomes second nature. Once this has been accomplished, only then can someone put the doctrine of the mean into action. Some moral theories emphasize the end result of one’s actions while others highlight the actions themselves. Aristotle’s theory, however, is about character; for Aristotle, a person must develop a virtuous character over the years, thus ensuring habitual correct actions (Pojman, 1995, p. 12).
People are not born moral or immoral. Aristotle said: “Neither by nature … nor contrary to nature do the virtues arise in us; rather we are adapted by nature to receive them, and are made perfect by habit” (1103b23). Morals are not innate in us, he said, and explained:
For moral excellence is concerned with pleasures and pains, it is because of the pleasure that we do bad things, and because of the pain that we abstain from noble ones. Hence we ought to have been brought up in a particular way from our very youth, as Plato says, so as both to delight in and to be pained by the things that we ought; for this is the right education. (1104b30)Aristotle also explained that the intellectual virtues are different from the moral virtues. Intellectual virtues can be taught or are learned, but moral virtues must be “lived” or are habits. For instance, because of habit, men become just by performing just acts—just like men become builders by building (1103b). The goal of the study of ethics, Aristotle believed, is action—not just knowledge.
2.2 The mean
Although some may think that Aristotle took his idea for the doctrine of the mean from mathematics, he didn’t, and his mean can’t be explained as such—there is no strict mathematical proportion happening in his explanation; instead, the mean is relative to the person making an ethical choice. Aristotle wrote:
Virtue, then, is a state of character concerned with choice, lying in a mean, i.e., the mean relative to us, this being determined by a rational principle, and by that principle by which the man of practical wisdom would determine it. (1107a5)
Aristotle did explain, however, that although one person’s moral compass may be different from another’s when it comes to a certain situation, ethical virtue will consistently possess the character of a mean (Tessitore, 1996, p. 27).
In his description of the doctrine of the mean, Aristotle addressed someone who wants and enjoys virtuous actions—he was not explaining why virtuous actions should be pursued. Aristotle believed that moral acts couldn’t be prescribed exactly. He said, though, that excess or deficiency can destroy the virtues and that action in accordance with a mean will produce and preserve virtue (1104a25). He stressed that a person must know that what he or she is doing is a virtuous action: There is a difference between acts that create virtue and acts that are caused by virtue. A person must do the actions from “a firm and unchangeable character” (1105a30). Moral virtues are realized by means of a steady practice that creates a habit of action.
“Actions, then are called just and temperate when they are such as the just or the temperate man would do,” Aristotle argued (1105b5). The mark of virtue is to experience emotions at the right time, toward the right objects or people for the right reason in the right manner in accordance with the mean (1106b20). Thus, virtue is a kind of mean: “It aims at what is intermediate” (1106b25). Aristotle wrote that the mean is a mean relative to oneself; he said the mean would differ for different people in different circumstances (1105b30, 1107a). Aristotle would deny that there is a simple formula to determine how one should act in a certain situation.
Journalists are taught that the doctrine of the mean (aka Golden Mean) is a simple formula. However, Aristotle would say instead that a person must learn how to size up an event via experience and habit; virtue is a habit of choice. It takes an educated person, one who has “a capacity to go beyond the application of general rules,” to be able to tell what is required in certain circumstances (Burnyeat, 1980, p. 72).
“Emphasizing the positive, Aristotle would tell the journalist that what is important is ... in habitually being a virtuous person ... this is the secret of morality—rather than following strict codes of conducts,” wrote Merrill (1994, p. 29). As Merrill pointed out, “knowing the rules” is not enough to ensure moral seriousness; one must take the habitually correct action. From Aristotle:
Most people … take refuge in theory and think they are being philosophers and will become good in this way, behaving somewhat like patients who listen attentively to their doctors, but do none of the things that they are ordered to do. As the latter will not be made well in body by such a course of treatment, the former will not be made well in soul by such a course of philosophy. (1105b15)
2.3 Moral education
If journalism students are, in fact, taught about Aristotle’s theory, can they be habituated so that they can properly apply the doctrine of the mean? What did Aristotle believe about the raising of children and the development of character? Kerdeman (1992) explained that one of the features of Aristotle’s model of education is that moral education happens within the parameters of social values and norms. A teacher, mentor, or parent must provide guidance because this potential for deliberation and rational choice sits undeveloped in the child; virtue without wisdom can be blind (Crittenden, 1990, p. 112).
Sherman (1989) said:
Any method that secures rational obedience must at the same time encourage the child’s own development. … Emotions cannot be shaped without some simultaneous cultivation of discriminatory abilities. This is included as part of habituation--it is part of coming to have the right pleasures and pains. (p. 172)The practice is actually a cultivation of actions through successive trials; thus, practicing virtuous actions comes from knowing what action is necessary in certain situations (p. 179). Aristotle stressed that states of character come from “like activities”:
This is why the activities a person exhibits must be of a certain kind: it is because the states of character correspond to the difference between these. It makes no small difference then whether we form habits of one kind or of another from our very youth; it makes a very great difference, or rather all the difference. (1103b20)
Aristotle’s ideas on the ethical education of young people go beyond learning by doing. Habituation requires going beyond memorizing the rules. Therefore, if journalists are to understand the doctrine of the mean, they first need "the proper training." How can they choose correctly if they don’t have this? They must have that excellence of character that comes via practice. Journalism students and professionals are taught that the Golden Mean says merely to act in moderation (Kupperman, 1983, p. 22).
Journalists have codes of ethics—a set of “intellectual virtues” that some of them follow—and this is a good place to start with blossoming reporters and editors. Like children who learn the basic rules of right and wrong, beginning journalists are taught the basic principles of their profession. But Aristotle would say that it is not enough to know the good; journalists must become “good.” And for Aristotle, this is about cultivating character.
Haas (1998) argued that a respect for authority can be nurtured and one can respect the needs of the social order, but it is still necessary “to teach the children the difference between rules for good manners and ‘household order’ and issues of moral substance that affect justice and human relations” (p. 206). Thus guidance is needed from journalism professors or newsroom managers. It is the “because” of the right thing to do that needs to be explored.
For journalists to arrive at “just” behavior or to know what the virtue is between the vices, they need a good moral background, which they can only get via habituation, and as pointed out, this concept is usually missing from the brief explanations given in journalism textbooks or seminars. What is also missing in many journalism programs is a habitual training in ethics. As mentioned earlier, students are offered a stand-alone ethics course at the end of their college careers, and at some universities, this course is an elective or is combined with a law course. Moral training is not usually consistent from the day the student enters a journalism program. The modeling of virtuous conduct is lacking or missing. Aristotle argued:
The fact that men use the language that flows from knowledge proves nothing; for even men under the influence of these passions utter scientific proofs and verses of Empedocles, and those who have just begun to learn a science can string together its phrases, but do not yet know it; for it has to become part of themselves, and that takes time; so that we must suppose that the use of language by men in an incontinent state means no more than its utterance by actors on the stage. (1147a20)
Because Aristotle believed that moral teaching would probably only be effective with young people who have been prepared for it by habituation, this habituation should happen for journalists via their instructors in the journalistic community. He said: “The character then must somehow be there already with a kinship to virtue, loving what is noble and hating what is base” (1179b25). This is the starting point. What one should do is explained by an elder, for, as Broadie (1991) wrote, “We also learn, by doing, that the things which we are encouraged to do are indeed what are to be done; and by doing we also learn to do them ‘for the sake of the noble’” (p. 109). Thus, it is important for the pupil to observe experienced journalists, or as Aristotle would say, to observe the actions of “older men.” An experienced journalist notices more and may see more connections than a journalist who lacks experience (Kupperman, 1970, p. 93). One’s ethical exploration happens via living and participating in a community—in this case, the journalistic community made up of either journalism professors or newsroom supervisors and their protégés.
At the beginning of his Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle wrote that “lectures of these sort are intended only for people who can benefit from them, and that no one stands to benefit who is not already brought up in good ways of feeling and acting” (Broadie, 1991, p. 367). Aristotle also took for granted that adults will take responsibility for any young or untutored in their families or schools (or, in this case, journalistic community). The elders of a community should be involved with the good upbringing of the young and “to throw the weight of its authority behind good practices in general” (p. 367). Moral development must be a continuing enterprise.
Burnyeat (1980) wrote that Aristotle has three categories of value for the full virtuous man to get right: pursuit of pleasure, an inborn part of our animal nature; concern for the noble, which depends on a good upbringing; and the good, which is the object of mature reflection (p. 86). Aristotle wanted us to bring these into line with each other.
In other words, Aristotle would say that through practice and repetition, the virtuous journalist should meet the following three criteria: “In the first place, he must have knowledge, secondly he must choose the acts and choose them for their own sakes, and thirdly, his action must proceed from a firm and unchangeable character”(1105a30). “It is well said,” Aristotle wrote, “that it is by doing just acts that the just man is produced, and by doing temperate acts the temperate man; without doing these no one would even a prospect of becoming good” (1105b10).
Understanding the doctrine of the mean is not a quick-and-easy read or lecture. If professional journalists and journalism students are going to choose correct actions, most need considerably more training and habituation than what has been offered to them from their newsroom families or in a stand-alone media ethics course or seminar. Mature reflection is a necessity toward knowing what to choose.
Aristotle would say that if students and professionals are not given a regular dose of education in character building and moral reasoning, they will operate in the work world unprepared for the ethical dilemmas that they may face. He would also point out that if journalists truly know what to choose, it’s not because they have used some fast-food formula taught to them in a professional seminar or journalism class—they choose correctly because they have been habituated correctly.
Cunningham (1999) said that the Golden Mean is a bad paraphrase and “even worse ethical theory” in the way that it is presented to mass media practitioners. He wrote: “As communication ethicists, we have an enduring obligation to clear out some of the conceptual underbrush in our own yard” (p. 14). However, although Cunningham briefly mentions habituation, he does not mention that good character begins with training as a young person. Cunningham, however, is not the only media ethicist who avoids explaining Aristotle’s ethics thoroughly. Habituation may be mentioned, but how or when habit comes into play is not.
More likely, one will read in a journalism textbook something similar to the following: “It takes a sharp mind to sort through issues of balance and fairness” (Vivian, 1999, p. 494). Yes, it takes a “sharp mind” to use the doctrine of the mean, but textbook authors and journalism educators need to help students toward that goal via the proper moral training, which includes presenting Aristotle’s and others’ ethical theory correctly from the beginning of a student’s college career. If students think that the mean is always the midpoint between two extremes, what kind of decision-making will they be doing?
The earlier example of journalists choosing a publishable accident photograph may prove instructive here. As mentioned, journalists should not merely be choosing a modest visual for publication; this has nothing to do with using Aristotle’s doctrine of the mean. However, if journalists follow the description of the doctrine of the mean supplied by journalism textbook authors Brooks et al., they would choose a photograph because of its imagery not because of virtuous action—and Aristotle would say this is not correct.
Ackrill (1980) wrote that Aristotle “holds that when we choose to do something, we always choose with a view to some end, for the sake of something” (p. 93). We choose the act for “itself” (1106b36). Aristotle would say that this takes personal reasoning and mature reflection; the action is done “knowingly” (Ackrill, p. 96). We do not act via “moral advice” (Urmson, pp. 157-158). When choosing the right photograph to accompany the story, considering visual “moderation” is not a part of Aristotle’s mean (Urmson, 1980, p. 162).
Urmson (1980) said that if we were to ask Aristotle how to decide or act in a particular situation, Aristotle would reply:
One must do so by bringing to bear the intellectual excellence of (practical) wisdom. If we then ask in what wisdom consists, we shall get a long answer about it involving, among other things, planning ability, experience, ability to appreciate a situation, and executive ability (deinotes). There is no simple decision procedure for the wise man to use. How could there be when there are so many variables? (p. 162)Furthermore, the “good” person making the right choices for the right reasons is one who “behaves that way out of a certain character” (Kosman, p. 103). Aristotelian virtues are “dispositions toward deliberate and proper human conduct” (p. 104).
So much, then, is plain, that the intermediate state is in all things to be praised, but that we must incline sometimes towards the excess, sometimes towards the deficiency; for so shall we most easily hit the mean and what is right. (1109b24-28).Chapter 3: Kant’s Supermaxim
3.2 Kant “Lite”
Following is a sampling of how Kant’s ethics, or Categorical Imperative, is presented in journalism literature. In the 1996 textbook News: Reporting and Writing, one page of the 618-page volume is devoted to “Four Ethical Theories” (Lorenz & Vivian, p. 551). A 50-word paragraph explains the Categorical Imperative: “Immanuel Kant … formulated the Categorical Imperative, the theory that people should behave only as they wish everyone else to behave.” Maxims or universal laws are not explained, and the other formulations of the Categorical Imperative are not mentioned.
In another 1996 text, News Reporting and Writing, the formula of humanity is also not mentioned, but one page is devoted to deontology (Brooks et al., pp. 468-469). Journalists who practice deontological or Kantian ethics are presented as so: “These journalists believe publishing without fear of the consequences or without favor of one group’s interests over another’s is the highest ethical principle. Journalists are unethical only when they withhold the news” (p. 469, emphasis added.)
John Merrill (1995), calling the Categorical Imperative “Kant’s call to duty” (p. 66), simplified the Categorical Imperative for journalists as thus: “If journalists follow their rationally accepted principles, then they are ethical; if not, they are unethical. It’s as simple as that” (p. 61, emphasis added). Merrill does mention the second formulation of the Categorical Imperative, explaining that Kant “enthroned people as people” (p. 62).
According to Kant, morality is separate from desires, and only a good will is moral. He wrote:
A good will is good not because of what it effects or accomplishes, not because of it fitness to attain some proposed end; it is good only through its willing, i.e., it is good in itself. When it is considered in itself, then it is to be esteemed very much higher than anything which it might ever bring about merely in order to favor some inclination, or even the sum total of all inclinations. (G394)
Kant believed that a good will is determined by duty. Duty generates the idea of the Categorical Imperative. The CI (in the formula of the universal law) reads: “Act only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law” (G421). As moral agents, people should act on maxims that all people would act on if they were rational. If one can’t will that everyone acts on the maxim, then acting on that maxim is morally wrong and not permissible.
Kant believed that people are rational beings. In other words, people have the capacity to reason, and reasoning should prevail over desire. In the case of the reporter, it therefore should be asked whether Laura was using reason or desire in her motivation to use her source’s quotations.
Moral education is a necessity before one can use the Categorical Imperative and one might question Laura’s educational background. In G422 and G423, Kant illustrated the application of the CI procedure. Herman (1993) explains his examples as such:
The agents know the features of their proposed actions that raise moral questions before they use the CI to determine their permissibility. It is because they already realize that the actions they want to do are morally questionable that they test their permissibility. It is hard to see how any system of moral judgment that assessed maxims of action could work with morally naïve or ignorant agents. (p. 75)
This is a key point in using the Categorical Imperative: An agent who wants to apply the Categorical Imperative, just as an agent who applies Aristotle’s Doctrine of the Mean, must have the appropriate moral background before he or she can correctly use it. This point is oftentimes lacking when the CI is taught or discussed among journalists. Without the proper training or upbringing, applying the CI correctly is not possible.
The second formulation of the CI (the Formula of Humanity), states: “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of another, always at the same time as an end and never simply as a means” (G429). In other words, people are valuable entities; no person should ever be abused or used merely as a means to someone else’s end. People are not objects to be used for one’s own purposes (Pojman, 1995, 148).
In reporter Laura’s case, for instance, she was making it impossible for her source to consent to her crusade of making him appear inept. (Sources usually are not shown the final copy of a story before it goes to press.) Laura had other quotations from her source that she could use, but she didn’t want to use them. They would not help her accomplish her end. She was using her source as her means and using him as some kind of tool, not as an agent like herself. She had a selfish purpose.
Kant believed that all rational people, after doing some reasoning, should come up with the same moral principles, and he rejected that the consequences of a moral act determine the act’s value or worth. In Grounding, Kant explained that the CI “alone purports to be a practical law, while all the rest may be called principles of the will but not laws,” or hypothetical imperatives, which is the non-moral use of “ought” (G428). Thus, in moral matters, one’s will should be influenced only by rational considerations; one can control one’s will, but one can’t have control over the consequences of one’s actions. One can be responsible only for something over which one has control; people are not governed by their impulses (Baron, Pettit, & Slote, 1997, p. 11).
Herman (1993) wrote that the “key to understanding Kant is in the idea that moral worth does not turn on the presence or absence of inclination supporting an action but on its inclusion in the agent’s maxim as a determining ground of action--as a motive” (p. 11). Kantian “motives” are not desires or causes, Herman said: “An agent’s motives reflect his reasons for acting. An agent may take the presence of a desire to give him a reason for action as he may also find reasons in his passions, principles, or practical interests” (p. 11). All of these are “incentives,” she said, not motives to action.
Someone who helps because he or she likes to or wants to doesn’t know the importance of the act; even good desires need moral guidance, Baron (1997) said (p. 59). It’s not enough to know that what we are contemplating is kind or generous because an action might be all these things yet still be wrong. Reporter Laura needs to check her principles against the CI.
Baron (1997) said that those who oppose Kantian ethics oftentimes see the CI as “one big rule” (p. 65). Kantian ethics seems to be reductionist—predicated on the belief that everything can be reduced down to one thing; it doesn’t look at the particulars of a situation, opponents say. Baron said she thinks a better understanding of “maxim” may be required. Many who oppose Kantian ethics think it’s difficult to know what counts as the maxim to be tested (p. 75). Or, as in the case of Laura the reporter, some may test inappropriate maxims.
Baron said that those who have questions about determining maxims might be told that maxims are personal and thought-out; some “soul-searching” is required (1997, p. 37). For instance, a journalist might ask: “What are the rules I should follow in my chosen profession?’’ All reasoned and considered actions can be regarded as involving maxims. And if a person can will this action as universal in the workplace, then it’s a principle to keep.
The CI requires thinking; it does not provide a mechanical test for people to follow as some opposers--and journalists--may believe. If there is any testing going on, it’s the principle being tested for universalizability—not the action; the CI merely provides guidelines to follow when choosing or creating a maxim, and it makes people discover through a process of reasoning what their maxims are (Baron et al., 1997, p. 65).
Maxims may fail, however; they fail by a contradiction of conception and by a contradiction of the will. But this seems to be the agent’s fault—and Laura needs to understand this point. A maxim can fail if there is an inconsistency in willing it to be universal law (Baron et al., 1997, p. 70). A contradiction in conception might happen when a person universalizes something that is not moral—as reporter Laura tried to do.
3.4 Moral education
The above explanation of Kant’s ethics and the Categorical Imperative only touches on Kant’s writings about ethics. However, this should be enough of an overview for one to understand that journalism literature’s teachings on Kant are lacking. Those who see the Categorical Imperative as “one big rule” or as a ruthless “super-maxim,” journalists or not, don’t seem to really understand it. Herman (1993) said, “The suggestion that the Kantian agent might do everything the morality of principle requires and yet be insensitive seems to me connected to a mistaken view of what is involved in possessing and being attached to moral principle” (p. 81).
And if one does not have the right education, according to Kant, one won’t be able to apply the Categorical Imperative. “Moral education carries a great burden in Kantian ethics,” said Herman (1993, p. 109). She pointed out that more than one of Kant’s ethical works ends with a discussion of moral education. She explained:
To act morally, an agent has to know what an obligation is (that it alters the structure of preferences, that it requires preparation and response), what obligatory ends we have, what will be necessary to satisfy them, including the sorts of responses (maxims of response) that are appropriate to a given obligation and particular conditions of failed outcomes (when are apologies sufficient, when is compensation owed, and so on). (p. 110)
Herman (1993) pointed out that there is a difference between the
Kantian agent’s moral sensitivity and plain emotional sensitivity; the
moral sensibility of a Kantian agent “requires more than the development
of emotional traits (such as sympathy)” (p. 83). Therefore, the Categorical
Imperative cannot be an operative principle of judgment unless agents have
some moral grasp of their actions before they use the CI (p. 77).
How does one learn? Kant provided his opinion on moral education in his “Doctrine of Virtue,” Part II of the Metaphysics of Morals. He explained that “the very concept of virtue implies that virtue must be acquired” (MM477):
For man’s capacity for moral action would not be virtue were it not produced by the strength of his resolution struggling with such powerful inclinations to the contrary. Virtue is the product of pure practical reason, in so far as reason, aware of its supremacy (on grounds of freedom), wins ascendancy over the inclinations. That virtue can and must be learned follows directly from the fact that it is not innate. The theory of virtue is, therefore, a doctrine. (MM477).
Education, Kant said, is taught through a moral catechism, not
to be confused with a religious catechism. The two are separate things.
For the journalist in training, university journalism classes would be
an appropriate place to begin a moral catechism, where a method of questioning
is used. Kant explained:
And this method of questioning is, in turn, divided into the method of dialogue and that of catechism, depending on whether the teacher addresses his questions to the pupil’s reason or merely to his memory. For if the teacher wants to question his pupil’s reason, he must do this in a dialogue in which teacher and pupil reciprocally question and answer each other. The teacher, by his questions, guides the pupil’s thinking merely by presenting him with situation in which his disposition for certain concepts will develop. (MM477).
But how does one handle a newsroom of already “trained” journalists? Kant offered suggestions in “The Doctrine of Virtue” on how to deal with the “still untrained pupil” (MM478). A moral catechism is also appropriate. His instruction on cultivating reason actually teaches many of the principles that journalists should learn. For instance, Kant’s instruction included that each person is responsible for his or her behavior (he or she should think for himself or herself); should reach out to those in need; practice virtue in a “vigorous, spirited, and courageous” manner; and learn to recognize ethical issues. Kant said:
For unless the dignity of virtue is exalted above everything else in actions, then the concept of duty itself vanishes and dissolves into mere pragmatic precepts (because) man’s consciousness of his own nobility then disappears and he is for sale and can be bought for a price that the seductive inclinations offer him. (MM482)For instance, Kant would say that Laura’s sense of nobility—and her journalistic principles or maxims—were in question when she tried to create a maxim about her use of quotations. She has not been trained or brought up in a manner that Kant would find correct.
For all rational beings stand under the law that each of them should treat himself and all others never merely as means but always at the same time as an end in himself. Hereby rises a systematic union of rational beings through common objective laws, i.e., a kingdom that may be called a kingdom of ends (certainly only an ideal), inasmuch as these laws have in view the very relation of such beings to one another as ends and means … He belongs to it as sovereign, when as legislator he is himself subject to the will of no other. (G433).
Merrill (1994) pointed out that journalists who object to Kantian ethics object because they might feel that “acting out of duty is shallow” (p. 64). Kant’s beliefs are not shallow, however, and the CI does not tell a person what to do. How can journalists reject the Categorical Imperative if they don’t really understand it—or if they don’t have the moral education to grasp it? Or how can they use it—as the hypothetical Laura has?
To clarify the problem of journalists incorrectly using the CI, it may be instructional to explore Laura’s dilemma a bit further. Her maxim of “quotation choice” universalizes something that is not moral, and she came to this conclusion mistakenly because she does not understand the CI. The danger for journalists in misapplying the CI in this case, for instance, is that other news sources might come to believe that no reporter will use direct quotations judiciously, and, thus, stories won’t be reported fairly. Credibility and truthfulness is at issue.
As a way of illustrating how one can come to moral judgments via the CI, Kant did refer to specific moral duties in his Groundwork, such as the duty to not commit suicide or the duty to repay borrowed money. Paton (1964) wrote of Kant’s examples:
Misrepresentations about what Kant thought have led to “the tendency to invent imaginary ways of applying Kant’s doctrine instead of studying the way in which he actually applied it himself,” according to Paton (p. x).
(Kant) may give some of us the impression that he thought the problem here to be much easier than it really is, but he makes it clear enough that his account of particular duties and their classification is only provisional. … On the strength of a few hurried illustrations wholly fantastic structures have been built up. (pp. ix-x).
The duty of love for one’s neighbors can also be expressed as the duty of making others’ ends my own (in so far as these ends are only not immoral). The duty of respect for my neighbour is contained in the maxim of not abasing any other man to a mere means to my end (not demanding that the other degrade himself in order to slave for my end). … a man who is indifferent to the welfare of others if only things go well for himself is a self-seeker (MM448-450).Kant would call Laura a self-seeker, and he would tell her that her actions toward her source are wrong. Kant said that this kind of “hatred” is not open, but “secret and veiled, and this adds baseness to the failure in duty to one’s neighbour, so that one also violates duty to oneself” (MM457). Kant would also point out to Laura that her “malicious joy” in another’s misfortune is not part of the CI (MM459). She, instead, is contributing to the downfall of the media’s credibility. Kant wrote:
It is indeed natural that, by the laws of imagination, we feel our own well-being and even our good conduct more strongly when the misfortune of others or their downfall in scandal is put next to our own good, as a foil to show our good in so much the brighter light. But to take an immediate delight in the existence of such enormities, which destroy the world’s highest good, and so also to wish for them to happen, is secretly to hate men; and this is the direct contrary of love for our neighbour, which is incumbent on us as duty. (MM459)Kant would tell Laura that this form of malicious joy is revengeful. She is using revenge when she chooses quotes from her source that only make him appear incompetent. She operates under what Kant calls “calumny,” or backbiting, and under “mockery” (MM466). “One cannot, it is true, help disdaining some (men) inwardly in comparison with others; but the outward manifestation of disdain, is, nevertheless an affront,” Kant said (MM462).
There is based a duty of respect for man even in the logical use of his reason: a duty not to censure his error by calling it absurdity, poor judgment and so forth, but rather to suppose that his error must yet contain some truth and to seek this out, uncovering, at the same time, the deceptive appearance … and so, by explaining to him the possibility of his having erred, to preserve his respect for his own reason. (MM462)
The basic principles of journalism should show Laura that what she is doing with her source’s quotations is not permissible: seek truth and report it, minimize harm, be accountable. From the above passage, she can learn from Kant about fairness, a duty that she can universalize and apply in her newsroom.
Controversies in Media Ethics informs readers that “Kantian ethics is a good place for media people to start” when considering “their overall moral demeanor” (Gordon & Kittross, 1999, 18, emphasis added). Kant, however, never intended the Categorical Imperative to be a good starting point from which one can “wander ... from time to time” (17). Kant would object to this wandering and would suggest that journalism students be given the correct moral upbringing—an upbringing for which textbook authors and journalism educators are responsible. If academicians introduce students to the CI, Kant’s ideas should be explained correctly and thoroughly; if not, professors will continue to send students to their first media jobs with ill-thought notions similar to Laura’s.
Chapter 4: The Greatest Good for the Greatest Number
Utilitarianism is a moral doctrine that holds that
the morally right course of action is the one that produces the greatest
balance of benefits over harms for everyone affected. Over the years,
the doctrine of utilitarianism has been expanded and refined so that today
there are many variations of the principle. Early on, the principle
of utilitarianism defined benefits and harms in terms of pleasure and pain.
Today utilitarians often describe benefits and harms in terms of the satisfactions
of personal preferences or in economic terms (MacKinnon, 1998, p. 41).
Although there are differences among utilitarians, most believe, by definition,
in the general principle that morality depends on balancing the beneficial
and harmful consequences of their conduct.
Many journalists in their everyday work-lives use this kind of reasoning. For instance, when journalists are asked why they are doing such and such, they might answer: “Look at the good that will come from this” or “Look at the harm it will prevent.” They weigh the resulting harms and benefits of their decisions. Should a newspaper run a certain story?
Carole Rich in Writing and Reporting News: A Coaching Method (2000) explained that if philosopher John Stuart Mill, “whose philosophy is based on a principle known as utilitarianism,” were editor, he would tell his staff the following:
to (1) list all persons likely to be affected; (2) decide the likely consequences of each option; (3) weigh the benefit or harm that would result, giving added weight to the major benefit or harm; and (4) choose the consequence that provides the most benefit to the largest number of people or the least harm to the smallest number of people. (p. 323)The above is the bulk of Rich’s explanation in her textbook; she presents Mill’s theory as a step-by-step “how to.” In News: Reporting and Writing (1996), utilitarianism is presented in one brief paragraph, ending with this “how-to” sentence: “To determine what is ethical behavior in any situation, we must balance right and wrong and act in a way that results in more good than evil” (p. 550). The authors of News Reporting and Writing (Brooks et. al, 1996) believe that some journalists think utilitarianism is “the only practical philosophy in a hurry-up, deadline-focused world” (p. 472). They write:
They believe that the greatest good for the greatest number demands a general operating principle: When in doubt … it is better to report the news. Otherwise, the public cannot rely on its news agencies. As a result, the role of the press in a democracy … is abolished. Democracy, after all, also practices a form of utilitarianism—one called majority rule. (p. 472)Are these authors mixing ethical theory and political philosophy?
4.2 The principle of utility
According to Pojman (1995), the principle of utility actually has its roots with Scottish philosophers Frances Hutcheson, David Hume, and Adam Smith; utilitarianism came into its “classic stage” with the writings of Bentham then Mill (p. 190). Pojman explained that Bentham and Mill were both involved in “a struggle for legal as well as moral reform, they were impatient with the rule-bound character of law and morality in 18th- and 19th-century Great Britain and tried to make the law serve human needs and interests” (p. 109).
Bentham thought the best policy would be to create laws that would bring about the most benefits to society—once the harms had been taken into account. He assumed it is the consequences of human actions that count in measuring their value or merit and that the kind of consequences that matter from human happiness is just the achievement of pleasure and the avoidance of pain. He said the hedonistic value, or net value, of an action could be calculated; therefore, the happiness of a community is the sum of individual human interests. Moral obligation is the greatest happiness for the greatest number; there is not one set of principles for personal morality and another set for social morality.
Mill, however, wanted to separate happiness from sensual pleasure; as mentioned earlier, he was concerned with quality not just quantity (Palmer, 1996, p. 258). For instance, Bentham is quoted as saying that the “quantity of pleasure being equal, pushpin is as good as poetry” (p. 257). In other words, the aesthetic or intellectual pleasure that one might receive from reading a poem is no better than the pleasures one gets from playing a simple game. However, Mill believed that the quality of the measurement should count for something, and he thought that intellectual pleasures are more valuable than purely sensual pleasures (p. 259).
He said quality should be factored into the calculation of the greatest amount of happiness. Mill believed that quality was more important than quantity because he was afraid that a literal application of Bentham’s hedonic calculus would—over a number of generations—erode culture (p. 258). So to counteract this possibility of the dumbing-down of culture, Mill insisted on the fact that it was part of our human heritage to have desires higher than those that lent themselves to analysis in terms of this calculus of felicity (p. 258). He wrote in Utilitarianism:
Few human creatures would consent to be changed into any of the lower animals for a promise of the fullest allowance of a beast’s pleasures; no intelligent human being would consent to be a fool, no instructed person would be an ignoramus; no person of feeling and conscience would be selfish and base, even though they should be persuaded that the fool, the dunce or the rascal is better satisfied with his lot than they are with theirs. (1979, p. 9)
According to Mill, the lower desires could be dealt with by quantitative calculations, but the higher desires could be talked about only in terms of “quality.” He wrote:
It is quite compatible with the principle of utility to recognize the fact that some kinds of pleasure are more desirable and more valuable than others. It would be absurd that--while in estimating all other things quality is considered as well as quantity--the estimation of pleasure should be supposed to depend on quantity alone. (1979, p. 8)
When decision-making gets complex, Mill would say that the more journalists factor these variables into their decision-making, the better their choices. What seems to be missing is the instruction of “quality” when professors discuss Mill’s Utilitarianism with student journalists.
4.3 Act utilitarianism and rule utilitarianism
A distinction between ways of applying the principle of utility exists, and this is rarely mentioned in journalism texts; it should be noted that Mill’s utilitarianism has elements of both. There is act utilitarianism, which was just described, and there is rule utilitarianism. With act utilitarianism, every action should be evaluated in relation to its consequences. Pojman (1995) explained: “An act is right if and only if it results in as much good as any available alternative” (p.114). For instance, the act utilitarian asks: “Which individual action, from the available alternatives, maximizes utility?” (Messerly, 1995, p. 79).
Rule utilitarianism, however, considers the consequences of widespread performance of similar actions. “An act is right if and only if it is required by a rule that is itself a member of a set of rules whose acceptance would lead to greater utility for society than any available alternative.” Pojman wrote (1995, p. 114). The question is not what act yields the most utility, but which general rule does. Thus, the rule utilitarian would ask: “Which rule, when generally adopted, maximizes utility?” (Messerly, 1995, p. 79).
The explanation of these two forms of utilitarianism is important, and as noted, rarely explained to journalists or journalism students—at least via the textbooks. The two forms differ in what they believe people ought to consider in estimating the consequences. It would be useful for journalists to understand what Pojman (1995) called a subject of “keen debate”—whether Mill was a rule- or an act-utilitarian: “He doesn’t seem to have noticed the difference, and there seem to be aspects of both theories in his work” (p. 115). Journalism students could benefit from understanding that Mill seemed to be more of a traditional act utilitarian, yet, at the same time, he said in his Utilitarianism that when one has to make a decision quickly in every-day life—for journalists, a decision on deadline—following the guidance of basic moral rules is a good way to go. He called these secondary moral principles. He wrote:
It is truly a whimsical supposition that, if mankind were agreed in considering utility to be the test of morality, they would remain without any agreement as to what is useful, and would take no measure for having their notions on the subject taught to the young, and enforced by law and opinion. There is no difficulty in proving any ethical standard whatever to work ill, if we suppose universal idiocy to be conjoined with it; but on any hypothesis short of that, mankind must by this time have acquired positive beliefs as to the effects of some actions on their happiness; and the beliefs which have thus come down are the rules of morality for the multitude, and for the philosopher until he has succeeded in finding better. That philosophers might easily do this, even now, on many subjects; that the received code of ethics is by no means of divine right; and that mankind have still much to learn as to the effects of actions on the general happiness, I admit, or rather, earnestly maintain. (1979, pp. 23-24).It should also be noted that in Mill’s conception of rights, justice must be understood in the terms of rules. In his Utilitarianism chapter titled “On the Connection Between Justice and Utility,” he wrote that “the feeling of justice might be a peculiar instinct, and might yet require ... to be controlled and enlightened by a higher reason” (1979, p. 41). He said that it is unjust to take away from anyone his or her personal liberty, his or her property or “any other thing which belongs to him by law” (p. 42). Duty is connected with laws and rules, but it is “exacted from a person, as one exacts a debt” (p. 47). There is a difference between morality and “simple expediency,” Mill said (p. 47).
4.4 Moral education
As with Aristotle and Kant, Mill (1979) believed that cultivating a love of virtue was necessary before applying his doctrine of utility (p. 37). Utilitarians assess “habits, traits, and habitual motivations just as they do actions, policies, and institutions” (Shaw, 1999, p. 256). And these traits and dispositions are oftentimes called virtues (p. 256). Utilitarians subscribe to the belief that they should “internalize certain relatively specific action-guiding rules and principles ... necessary for social coordination and that promote the well-being of all in the long run” (p. 256).
Again, although Mill’s utilitarianism stemmed from Bentham’s ideas, “Mill destroys the whole basis of the felicific calculus upon which Bentham relied for the application of the principle of utility, and it becomes then quite impossible, on any lines envisaged by Bentham ... to decide which of several alternative courses of action is likely to produce the greatest amount of happiness” because of the qualitative factor that Mill introduces (Anschutz, 1953, p. 18).
Applying the principle of utility comes via “practiced self-consciousness and self-observation, assisted by observation of others,” Mill (1979) wrote (p. 38). In Chapter IV of Utilitarianism, Mill wrote extensively on the importance and power of habit in the principle of utility. Mill (1979) asked: “How can the will to be virtuous, where it does not exist in sufficient force, be implanted or awakened?” (p. 39) We might ask how a journalism student becomes virtuous is there is not sufficient training? Mill answered this question:
Only by making the person desire virtue –by making him think of it in a pleasurable light, or of its absence in a painful one. It is by associating the doing right with pleasure, or the wrong with pain, or by eliciting and impressing and bringing home to the person’s experience the pleasure naturally involved in the one or the pain in the other, that is possible to call forth that will to be virtuous which, when confirmed, acts without any thought of either pleasure or pain. Will is the child of desire, and passes out of the dominion of its parent only to come under that habit. (1979, p. 39).Habit is the only thing that imparts certainty, Mill said. A journalism student, via habit, needs to be able to able to rely on his or her own feelings and conduct when doing ethical decision-making. “The will to do right ought to be cultivated into this habitual independence,” Mill (1979) wrote (p.40). Therefore, it is clear that merely following a quantitative approach to the greatest happiness, or greatest good, is not an adequate way to make decisions for Mill.
Mill’s ideas are not as cut-and-dry as journalism textbook authors would have students believe. When journalists follow the simple “greatest good for the greatest number” catch-phrase, how do they know for sure what the consequences will be? How can they judge an action by a result before they really know the outcome?
Journalism students need to understand more thoroughly that a carpet-cleaning scam is not a life-or-death situation for the public, that the principle of utility does not justify their action of deception. Using lies, deceit, and manipulation are only justified when this is the only way to get a story that is of extreme importance to the public’s well-being. Breaking the law, hiding cameras, and lying to sources are not the virtuous behaviors that Mill would condone—even during Sweeps months.
Mill would ask the broadcast journalists who are about to set up their undercover investigation: How would a philosopher use utilitarianism, specifically act utilitarianism, in their situation? Mill believed that the promotion of humankind’s utility overrides everything else (Strasser, 1991, p. 23). Are they imagining duties where none really exist? What is the best way to maximize utility in this situation?
Mill would say that, yes, the public should know about the fraudulent carpet cleaners. He would take issue, however, with the means the journalists employ to get the information. He would ask the journalists if there are other ways to maximize utility? We would ask the journalists to choose their means wisely, and this is where he differs from Bentham. Mill’s view is not only about the calculation of the consequences, but about the quality of the means to the end. In other words, from Mill’s point of view, different activities might create the same amount of pleasure; however, one of the outcomes might be created in a “qualitatively superior” way (Shaw, 1999, p. 43).
Should the journalists use deceit to expose the carpet cleaners? Or should they interview a family recently involved in the scam, giving the carpet cleaners a chance to give their side of the story? Mill said that lying can weaken “the trustworthiness of human assertion, which is … the principal support of all present social well-being” (1979, p. 22). Therefore, “not only does a general social practice of telling the truth promote the interests of all, truthfulness is also sound policy from the point of view of one’s own self interest,” Shaw (1999) wrote (p. 108). Mill said:
Utilitarianism does not furnish journalists with excuses for whatever behavior they might choose; there are conflicting obligations with which they must deal (Mill, 1979, p. 25). When educators explain utilitarianism to journalism students, it is necessary to make this clear—that utility is not an excuse for unethical behavior (Mill, 1979, p. 25). Mill wrote:
If the principle of utility is good for anything, it must be good for weighing these conflicting utilities against one another and marking out the region within which one or the other preponderates. … Whatever we adopt as the fundamental principle of mortality, we require subordinate principles to apply it by; the impossibility of doing without them, being common to all systems, can afford no argument against any one in particular; but gravely to argue as if no such secondary principles could be had, and as if mankind had remained till now, and always must remain, without drawing any general conclusions from the experience of human life as high a pitch, I think, as absurdity has ever reached in philosophical controversy. (1979, pp. 23-24)
In other words, we have basic rules of thumb that guide us but there are no absolute moral rules in Mill’s theory of utilitarianism (Rachels, 1999, p. 13). Morality must be “a feeling in our minds,” Mill said (1979, p. 26). And this must be taught to journalism students before they can use utilitarianism correctly. As Mill explained: “By the improvement of education, the feeling of unity with our fellow creatures shall be as deeply rooted in our character and to our own consciousness as completely a part of our nature” (p. 26).
We are told that a utilitarian will be apt to make his own particular case an exception to moral rules, and, when under temptation, will see a utility in the breach of a rule, greater than he will see in its observance. … there is no case of moral obligation in which some secondary principle is not involved; and if only one, there can seldom be any real doubt which one it is, in the mind of any person by whom the principle itself is recognized. (1979, p. 25)
Chapter 5: From Foolproof to Foolhardy
The previous sections have explored what journalists are taught about ethical theory via Aristotle, Kant, and Mill and have examined the philosophers’ undistorted explanations. What is worrisome is that a thorough examination of the theories is lacking, an examination that should include a historical background and discussion of objections. The theories are presented to journalism students as foolproof ethical decision-making tools or as verifiable ways to come to ethical conclusions.
Aristotle’s doctrine of the mean is about the virtues: the qualities or traits of character that journalists would need to make good decisions or choices. Courage, generosity, honesty, prudence and so on help us find our place in the world (Rachels, 1999, p. 5). With Kant’s theory, people are to be treated as ends and not means. Reporter Laura used her source as a means to her end (through her biased story). Would Laura want to be treated the same way? Mill’s theory involves a quantity v. quality argument, but journalists are merely taught to follow the greatest good for the largest number and are left in confusion about the use of deception.
Journalism textbook authors should not include information about philosophers and their theories if they won’t take the time or space to explain them correctly. They risk sending blossoming media practitioners into the field with the wrong ideas. If authors must condense the theories, they should have their summaries reviewed by a philosopher who specializes in ethics. Reviewers of journalism textbooks who have an adequate background in ethical theory are few and far between; but those who do have a background, should be sought for critiques. It should also be noted in instructor’s editions that it is recommended that students do additional reading of the theories via the Nicomachean Ethics, the Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals and Utilitarianism.
According to Zucker : “One thing that happens when you teach theory incorrectly is that students get the impression that theory is totally unhelpful—although theory might in fact help” (personal communication, December 14, 2000). Zucker said students need a historical background, and they need to know the focus of the theory. “They need more than the ins and outs of the theory, and this requires that you be a philosopher.”
Rachels (1999) has similar thoughts. He said that people might reject or accept philosophical theories on the basis of their “intuitive appeal” (p. 19):
The philosophers did not present their theories without a thorough explanation of them and to present their theories as dumbed-down one-liners is, so to speak, unethical. As Rachels (1999) said, these are not “empty arguments” (p. 19). The teaching of journalism or media ethics in a college journalism curriculum has improved since the Hastings study conducted more than 20 years ago. However, the education of journalism students via ethical theory is still lacking as is the moral training necessary for students to make decisions. If theory is taught incorrectly, and thus used incorrectly, the decisions students make after they graduate could have serious consequences and will only continue the trend toward the loss of credibility in their professions.
If an idea sounds good, one may embrace it; or if it rubs one the wrong way, it may be discarded. But this is hardly a satisfactory way to proceed if we want to discover the truth. How an idea strikes us is not a reliable guide, for our “intuitions” may be mistaken. (p. 19)
Ackrill, J.L. (1980). Aristotle on action. In A.O. Rorty (Ed.), Essays on Aristotle’s ethics (pp. 93-101). Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. 93-101.
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Appendix A: Topics covered in ethics chapters of
I. Conflicts of Interest
Romantic involvement with source
Other outside involvement (memberships, employment)
Friendships (with sources)
II. Codes of Ethics
Society of Professional Journalists
American Society of Newspaper Editors
Associated Press Managing Editors
Radio and Television News Directors Association
Public Relations Society of America
American Association of Ad Agencies
American Advertising Federation
National Press Photographers
III. Newsgathering behaviors/methods
Faking photos/manipulating images
Choosing shocking images
Participating in the news/involvement in the story
Plagiarizing/fabricating the news
Attributing information incorrectly
Using anonymous sources
Using dishonest quotes
Using undercover cameras/reporting
Taping phone calls
Invading privacy (private lives/people’s grief)
Using offensive language/obscenities/poor taste
Stereotyping, insensitivity to groups/not politically correct
Writing with a PR spin/fluff
Operating with a bias
Responding poorly to press criticism
IV. Journalistic Principles
Freedom of the Press (First Amendment)
In press system theories
Avoiding harm/being decent
Public interest/the public’s right to know/social justice
Avoidance of bias/objectivity
V. Ethical Decision-making Tool(s)/Solving Dilemmas
Poynter Institute guidelines
Sissela Bok’s three steps
Golden Rule/Judeo Christian/Love They Neighbor
Greatest Good for Greatest Number (utilitarianism)/Mill
Veil of Ignorance/Rawls
Appendix B: News-writing textbook list
(numbered in order analyzed)
1. Lawrence Lorenz and John Vivian, News Reporting and Writing (Boston:
Allyn and Bacon, 1996).
2. Jan Johnson Yopp and Katherine C. McAdams, Reaching Audiences: A Guide to Media Writing (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1999).
3. Carole Rich, Writing and Reporting News: A Coaching Method (Belmont, California: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 2000).
4. Bruce D. Itule and Douglas A. Anderson, News Writing and Reporting for Today’s Media (Boston: McGraw-Hill College, 2000).
5. Melvin Mencher, Basic Media Writing (Boston: McGraw-Hill College, 1999).
6. Gerald Lanson and Mitchell Stephens, Writing & Reporting the News (Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1994).
7. Melvin Mencher, News Reporting and Writing (Boston: McGraw-Hill College, 2000).
8. Brian S. Brooks, George Kennedy, Daryl E. Moen, and Don Ranly, News Reporting and Writing (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996).
9. Kristie Bunton, Thomas B. Connery, Stacey F. Kanihan, Mark Neuzil, and David Nimmer, Writing Across the Media (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1999).
10. Christopher Scanlan, Reporting and Writing: Basics for the 21st Century (Fort Worth: Harcourt College, 2000).
11. Beverley J. Pitts, Tendayi S. Kumbula, Mark N. Popovich, and Debra L. Reed, The Process of Media Writing (Boston: Allyn and Bacon).
12. Paul Adams, Writing Right for Today’s Mass Media (Chicago: Nelson-Hall Publishers, 1998).
13. George A. Hough, News Writing (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1995).
14. Fred Fedler, John R. Bender, Lucinda Davenport, and Paul Kostyu, Reporting for the Print Media (Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace, 1997).
15. James Glen Stovall, Writing for the Mass Media, (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1998).
16. Christopher Harper and the Indiana Group, Journalism 2001 (Boulder: CourseWise, 1998).