Ethics refers to standards of conduct, standards that indicate how one should behave based on moral duties and virtues, which themselves are derived from principles of right and wrong. The major determinant of whether communications are ethical or unethical can be found in the notion of choice. The underlying assumption is that people have a right to make their own choices. Interpersonal communications are ethical to the extent that they facilitate a person’s freedom of choice by presenting that person with accurate information.
Communications are unethical to the extent that they interfere with the individual’s freedom of choice by preventing the person from securing information relevant to the choices he or she will make. Unethical communications, therefore, are those that force a person to make choices he or she would not normally make or to decline to make choices he or she would normally make or both. The ethical communicator provides others with the kind of information that is helpful in making their own choices.
You have the right to information about yourself that others possess and that influences the choices you will make. Thus, for example, you have the right to face your accusers, to know the witnesses who will be called to testify against you, to see your credit ratings, to see your medical records, and so on. At the same time that you have the right to information bearing on your own choices, you also have the obligation to reveal information that you possess that bears on the choices of your society.
Thus, for example, you have an obligation to identify wrongdoing that you witness, to identify someone in a police line up, to notify the police of criminal activity, and to testify at a trial when you posses pertinent information. This information is essential for society to accomplish its purposes and to make its legitimate choices. Similarly, the information presented must be accurate; obviously, reasonable choices depend on accuracy of information. Doubtful information must be presented with qualifications, whether it concerns a crime that you witnessed or things you have heard about others.
At the same time that you have these obligations to communicate information, you also have the right to remain silent; you have a right to privacy, to withhold information that has no bearing on the matter at hand. Thus, for example, a man or woman’s previous relationship history, sexual orientation, or religion us usually irrelevant to the person’s ability to function as a doctor or police officer, for example, and may thus be kept private in most job-related situations.
If these issues become relevant say, the person is about to enter a new relationship then there may be an obligation to reveal previous relationships, sexual orientation, or religion, for example, to the new partner. In a court, of course, you have the right to refuse to incriminate yourself, to reveal information about yourself that could be used against you. But you do not have the right to refuse to reveal information about the criminal activities of others. In Canada, only lawyers and marriage partners are exempt from this general rule if the “criminal” was a client or spouse.
In this ethic based on choice, however, there are a few qualifications that may restrict your freedom. The ethic assumes that persons are of an age and mental condition that allows free choice to be reasonably executed and that the choices they make do not prevent others from doing likewise. A child 5 or 6 years old may not be ready to make certain choices, so someone Ethical Interpersonal Communication 4 else (a parent or legal guardian) must make them. Some adults, for example people with advancing Alzheimer’s disease, need others to make certain decisions (legal or financial decisions) for them.