You are on page 1of 10

Public Relations Review, 21(1):3544

Copyright 0 1995 by JAI Press Inc.
All rights of reproduction in any form reserved.

ISSN: 0363-8111

Larry R. Judd

An Approach to
Ethics in the
Information Age
Public relations practitioners
often counsel
organizations on issues related to ethics and social responsibility.
And, organizations desire credibility to influence public policy.
Technology has contributed to changing values which make it
difficult to determine which behaviors will be viewed as credible.
Given our changing values and the possible conflicts between
professional ethics and organizational values, practitioners need
precepts which fit the times. As an approach to ethics for the
age, three precepts are proposed:
(1) accept
responsibility when appropriate, (2) anticipate negative effects,
and (3) attempt justice through John Rawls’ principles of justice.
Larry R. Judd is a professor in the School of Communication,
University of House.


Besides directing
many public relations
serve as advisors on issues relating to ethics and social responsibil-

ity.’ Determining
acceptable courses of action for organizations has become
complicated as traditional value systems often appear out of harmony with
modern society. 2 Personal and professional values may serve as guides to understanding public responsibility. But those who counsel organizations seem to hit a
point where concern for organization and other concerns conflict. Does the
client (or organization) have priority over the public or over personal values or
over professional ethics?3
Today, organizations wish to influence social and economic policy by particiSpring



God revealed or tradition dictated what was real and what was right. Practitioners face a challenge. Innovation has been a major force in the economic success of western nations. Ethical interactions were between individuals. No. Granted the right to compete in free enterprise. technology cannot be value free and still foster a positive evaluation of technology and efxciency. A lifetime’s worth of information about an individual may be stored in computers or transmitted with alarming speed to multiple receivers. Interactions may be across continents and have tremendous impact across generations. organizations and those who speak for them need to be viewed as ethical and responsible to society. They need to determine appropriate balance of achieving company goals. bound in time and space. goods or services and employment The influence of God diminished and issues of right or wrong became subject to multiple interpretations. To be credible and effective. technological innovation unsettles old values and creates new views of the world. The idea is not that change and innovation are bad. as ethical and responsible behavior. The passionate individual was the model in the romantic age. But. meeting personal and professional standards and advocating what society will view as just. corporations were to provide profits. Technology influences change in our society. 21. Some international businesses have more income and power than do some nations. Today. the machine replaced man as the model and science built on positivism became prominent. technology spills over into our social and moral life. CHANGING VALUES An approach to ethics for the information era begins by considering changes in the perception of the “real” and the “good” as the western world moved through romanticism and industrialism to the present. Information competes with capital as a source of power. interactions were less bound by time and space. a means to an end. and rationalism became a virtue. 36 Vol. In the industrial era. We might easily confuse physical reality with the reality of television or of hyperspace.Public Relations Review pating in the public dialogue. Research could unveil nature’s secrets and private enterprise could develop wealth. Science and technology exert a powerful force on our view of the world and while claimed to be value free. Truth became objectively observable. With the rest of the world. the transition to an information society brings more change in our perceptions of the world. Emotion and relationship to God were prominent.4 Yet. The barriers of space and time are breached. perceptions of what is ethical and what is responsible are changing. international leaders may watch on “live television” the air attack on a nation’s capital. While we might view it as amoral. This article describes changes influenced by technology and proposes precepts to aid establishing credibility for organizations and their communicators. With improving communication technologies. The new way of looking at the world facilitated understanding and harnessing nature. 1 .

Some see organizations as a threat. Alone. CONTEMPORARY CONDITIONS Many issues impact the image and expectations of organizations in the information era. technology and efficiency will not lead to the behaviors that will gain credibility in the contemporary public forum. Individuals who may look to God and tradition live in a world of science and free enterprise. And. people believed more could be done with less and more was expected of corporations. Effective innovation enhanced the power of business organizations on an international scale. Actions and interactions vital to the individual may be among international corporations. There was an attempt to protect and help those on the bottom of the economic ladder. High Expectations During the 1970’s and 1980’s we gained in productive ability. an improving standard of living. there are differing interpretations of the locus of responsibility.‘O Spring 1995 37 . Reality may be the “bottom line” or defined by science and separated from traditional values and the individual. People wanted Corporations to become more active in the resolution of social problems.9 How should the power of technology be applied? What values should influence change? Some feared that innovation guided by market forces would be detrimental to society and the environment.An Approach to Ethics in the Informative Age Our belief about what is right and what is real seems a residue of the past mixed with changes of the present. Many felt that each citizen was entitled to adequate housing.~ These low evaluations of moral consciousness and social responsibility have continued through the 1980’s and into the 1990’~. instantaneous and distant. Individuals developed higher expectations of personal entitlements.7 Business was expected to participate in securing entitlements and in solving social problems.* Yet. Low Credibility Business and technology contributed to an improved standard of living during the last forty years. some viewed corporations and their reliance on technology as part of the problem. People hoped that corporations would do more than provide profits. Threat Technological development generated power over nature and over people. but public expectations of organizations are high. But. There is no guide that accommodates contemporary pressures.~ Despite these low ratings. goods or services and employment. there was a dramatic drop of the public’s confidence in their major institutions and in their leaders starting in the late 1960’~. adequate retirement income and quality medical and dental care . Business credibility is very low.

The magnitude of self-propelled cumulative effects may move us beyond the point of no return.13 Worker fears of rationalization and centralization14 or of unemployment and job deskilling’j are practical expressions of the concern that efficiency has preempted the value of the individual. He suggests that technology. Recently.l~ These results may include negative changes in the nature of work or in the social status of employees. Jonas argues that modern technology creates the need for a review of ethical responsibility.“” In his view the new technical morality is behavioral and extrinsic to man.“19 A simple example of how the technology determines our view of reality is the example of color vision. influenced by the market and politics.Public Relations Review Can the conscience of a modern organization balance efficiency and individual worth? Is it possible that technology becomes its own governing force? Could technology define truth? Could technology displace and then create the values of society? Jacques Ellul suggests that technique itself becomes a virtue. They may threaten all society. Technology has such power that unanticipated side effects on the ecology of the planet may threaten human existence.” Ellul is not alone in concern about technological determinism. 21. and technical machinery become the principal means by which Technopoly hopes to control information and thereby provide itself with intelligibility and order. No. This rules out the rubric of traditional morality and offers instead the value of efficiency.20 38 Vol.“17 Postman voices concern for loss of control to what he calls “Technopoly”. He asserts that “Man is caught like a fly in a bottle. this barrier to explaining human physiology was overcome when it was discovered that the instrument used since 1948 to indicate color vision was affected by room temperature. He urges that there is a need to “save the survival and humanity of man from the excesses of his power. Scientists were baffled in trying to explain why people’s color vision varied by the seasons. His attempts at culture.“ls organize perceptions and judgment declines. and creative endeavor have become mere entries in technique’s filing cabinet. bureaucracies. He focuses on the importance of information and how the relationship of information and human goals has been stretched. Concerned that we suffer from information glut and information without meaning. He points out that the increased scope of our deeds raises issues that go beyond ethics of the past-those concerned the dealings of person with person in restricted space and time parameters. Rogers contends that there is a need to see beyond the direct and desirable effects and to realize that unanticipated results often fol10w. freedom. has achieved the state where it may overtax nature. the affects of new technologies often include unanticipated negative results. 1 . He visualizes a fusion of science and its applications as “technique”‘. Responsibility Who is responsible for the latent effects of innovation? With anticipated results. he states that “We are a culture consuming itself with information. and many of us do not even wonder how to control the He points out that “As the power of traditional social institutions to process. expertise.

Mitcham points out that the growth of technology has led to a change in one type of legal responsibility. On another dimension Gumpert and Cathcart describe how the mediums of communication influence our views of and presentation of reality.An Approach to Ethics in the Informative A. Vanderburg describes our increasingly modern societies “.“23 Technological societies rely less on intent or negligence and view the producer responsible for effects which may or may not have been foreseen. most recently. . More technical operations resolve any tensions with the social matrix. and provide a value framewrork to reconcile conflicting claims. suited to function in a democratic free enterprise society. To widen strict liability beyond the scope of industrial accidents to product liability. contemporary organizations should accept responsibility. Computers have accelerated these patterns and we move into the information economy with a proliferation of techniques that are not culturally neutral. I argue that to achieve credibility. and attempt justice. In summary. The new mediums provide shared ways of expressing meaning and come with unique patterns of images and language structure. more information was generated about the sphere by the technical operations. . but are held responsible by society. PRECEPTS An approach to ethics in the information age should be sensitive to the concerns about technological determinism. the messages created for the medium influence our interpretation of reality. We seem to have given technique an ultimate value in our society. Technological advances have influenced values and the way we view the world. Applied without reference to social contexts. technical operations are evaluated internally by efficiency or cost-effectiveness. In addition. . Spring 1995 39 . Those who would advise organizations about ethical and social issues need precepts appropriate to the times. They operate in an apparently amoral system driven by efficiency and market forces. to environmental degradation. the branch of civil law that allows suit for damages. They argue that a medium serves as an extension of human capacities and determines the kind of message to be delivered. By the fact that almost every aspect of these societies is organized and reorganized on the basis of a variety of techniques that together constitute a knowledge base that is drawn on to ensure that everything is done effectively as possible. now extends beyond intentional acts or negligence to include “strict liability”-a sort of no-fault liability. and. contemporary organizations that wish to influence public policy appear to have low credibility and are expected to do more for society.“22 He argues that the reason the industrial nations generated this mass of information was that as techniques began to replace tradition as the basis for a sphere of activity. anticipate negative effects. .21 We do not create the same message for the pen as for the telegraph or telephone or television. There has been a universal tendency “. and new techniques were necessary to deal with the mass of information. Some fear that organizations have gained power through technology without a&&g responsibility.

Everyone has the option to purchase. “An ethics of non-power means choosing not to do something when the consequences would be widespread and uncertain. a passive right. 25 But. corporations cannot be responsible for everything. we have been conservative in estimating negative effects. Vanderburg suggests an ethics of freedom and non-power. No. Government protects passive rights. businesses should accept responsibility before they are forced to do so by society. Not only are the goods or services available to all. Anticipate Negative Effects As DeGregori points out. awareness of alternatives. but those who choose not to or do not pay are excluded from the good or service. All are given equal opportunity. anticipate negative effects and attempt justice. They have certain rights and obligations. knowledge and freedom. There are some conditions where business does not exercise choice and government or another agency plays a role.“26 Thus. the private enterprise system works by satisfying active rights where equity is determined by equal availability. We must seek accurate estimation of the negative effects of present actions. But. What is optional and what is required? Jonas suggests that the move from being willing to being obligated is mediated by power. jobs. In the past it was a given that technological change was good. 1 . 21. the gains from technological innovation are greater than the losses. they should be responsible. Corporations are granted status as special citizens in the social system. but there is no guarantee of equal satisfaction. Expectations of adequate housing or of health care for all are entitlements. there is the knowledge and power to impact others across generations and continents. We have an obligation to the present. Yet. and services or goods. 40 Vol. we need to tilt toward the ethics of non-power and then guide our choice by attempting justice. all should have them. Their social obligations now extend beyond compliance with the law and providing profits. or accepting limits in individual and collective action when such action endangers coexistence and the ability of others to individually or collectively live their own lives. People expect corporate executives to discover the alternatives and to be accountable in situations of power and choice. we cannot sacrifice the future through ignorance. The term entitlement suggests satisfaction for all. To regain mastery of our fate. On the other hand. We need non-technical values to break the circle of technical solutions. With this power comes a responsibility to conserve and preserve. Society expects a just use of power and support of social policy. Now. We were willing to assume the best and proceed unless we could prove undesirable effects. and the power to choose.24 Responsibility exists with the freedom to make a choice. Where corporations exercise choice and power.Public Relations Review Accept Responsibility When appropriate.

He argues that people in this initial situation would choose principles such that the first would provide equality in assigning basic rights and duties. APPLICATION One example of application of this approach is to show how it would work if applied in the third phase of Bivins systems model for ethical decision making. Bawls’ principles till out the three precepts I have suggested: (1) accept responsibility when appropriate. Bawls tilts in the direction of providing a social minimum for all. He proposes a social contract that provides a moral basis for a democratic society in a free enterprise system. Is there a guide to just choices in the information age? According to Bawls. and (b) attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity.“28 The second principle is that “Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both: (a) to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged. the first principle of justice for institutions is that “Each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive total system of equal basic liberties compatible with a similar system of equal basic liberties for a11. each generation is expected to pass on to the next a fair equivalent in real capital including knowledge and culture. abilities etc. 3o He suggests that his adaptation of systems theory provides a useful tool for aiding a public relations practitioner in an ordering of Spring 1995 41 . Given the assumptions above.An Approach to Ethics in the Informative Age Attempt Justice A major problem in attempting to reconcile conflicting claims is that we lack a general method of determining what is perceived as just in a society that has selectively rejected values from earlier eras. In the real world. justice is fairness.27 To distribute the benefits and burdens of social cooperation. transfers of essential public goods would be arranged to provide equality of opportunity. He suggests a hypothetical situation in which the principles of justice are chosen behind a veil of ignorance. a set of principles may be decided that will favor no particular position or condition. family. they provide an approach to resolving conflicting claims in contemporary society. and (3) attempt justice through fairness. position. especially the least advantaged. consistent with the just savings principle. he proposes what he calls the principles of social justice. In addition. Behind the veil no one knows their status. Together. The second principle would hold that inequalities in position or wealth are just only if they provide compensating benefits for everyone. Thus. Called the just savings principle. each generation is to carry their share of the burden to preserve society. (2) anticipate negative effects with a tilt toward the ethics of non-power. And.“29 The principles are ranked and liberty can only be restricted for the sake of liberty and may not be sacrificed for the social or economic gain of others. there is a degree of scarcity and people do have advantages of birth and ability.

. pp. The disadvantaged are protected.” Public Relations Revielv 1 (1975). ethical analysis. Then the ethical analysis stage would involve the proposed three precepts of accepting responsibility if appropriate. “Balance Change and Public Interest. Carrell. “Ethical Values Reflect Responsibility to Client. p. The precepts have yet to be tested in the field. Fry. “PRSA Members’ Perceptions of Public Relations Ethics. Throughput involves the stages of situation definition. Donald 42 Vol..Public RelationsReview stakeholder claims and balancing obligations. p. Doug A. eg. Ramsey. Daniel J.” Public Relations Journal 48 (1992). Organization and Self.” Public Relations Journal 48 (1992). l-l 1. “Universal Ethics Code: An Idea Whose Time Has Come. Attention is focused on unanticipated effects. 21. Bivins talks about an open systems model that identifies stakeholders. John L. 25. Capps “Gaining Trust Amid Chaos. He suggests an ethical analysis that compares the claims and obligations of stakeholders. eg.” Public Relations Revierv 19 (1993). there is a rationale to expect that practitioners who advocate and organizations who practice these three precepts will be viewed as credible and allowed a fair hearing in the debate of public policy. Otto Lerbinger. the precepts appear compatible with contemporary society and may transcend problems of role and perspective. In our example the practitioner would define the situation and order the claims of the stakeholders. Todd Hunt and Andrew Tripok. And. 2. 3. Shirley A. Political rights are protected first. Cornelius B. No.” Public Relations Journal 48 (1992)~~. then there is a basis for resolving economic issues. anticipating negative effects. analyses their relationship to the organization and applies ethical principles. In summary. Organizations have guides to discern when to accept responsibility for acts where they may be held responsible by the public. last would come Bivins stages of decision and evaluation of the decision. Newsom. NOTES 1. 33-47. decision. stakeholder analysis and prioritization. 1 . pp. Gregory. but as a beginning. Edelman. and evaluation. 145-159. But. in a system compatible with free enterprise. as an outline to be refined by further exploration and discussion. justice is approached through fairness. Milton F. The process begins when an issue or problem is detected and ethical considerations are perceived to impact resolution. and attempting justice. p.” Public Relations Revielv 17 (1991). 38-52. Susan L. 3 l-32. CONCLUSIONS This article proposes the three precepts not as the solution of the ethics problem. Input is the issue.” Public Relations Revielv 19 (1993). “Ethical Behavior is Key to Field’s Future. and Bob J. “How far Toward the Social Audit?. pp.” Public Relations Journal 48 (1992). pp. And. Pratt. 19. “Chameleon Chasing II: A Replication. 10.

.” in Ulrich Briefs. Seymour Martin Lipset. According to Jacques Ellul. Peter Wheale. p. Ruben. 1984). Hans Jonas. Durbin (ed. Judy A. 1987). Larry R.” in Brent D. eg. “The Power of Technique and the Ethics of Non-Power. 17-33. Otto Lerbinger. 13. Martin Baethge and Herbert Oberbeck. “A Theory of Mediation. Jacques Ellul. 418. Information Society and Spatial Structure (London: Belhaven Press. Gibson. Mowery. p. p. Wright. pp. 9 1. “Should Government Audit Corporate Social Responsibility. Peg Dardene. 175-183.). 97-123. 1980). and Communication (New Brunswick. Reidel Publishing.” Public Relations Review 17 (1991). Rogers.130. 21-36. 4. The Technological Society (New York: Alfred A. 11. Spring 1995 43 . Public Relations and Social Responsibility. Gordon and Adam Shell. 17. x. Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (New York: Alfred A. R. 1980). pp. and Carlo Jaeger (eds. pp. Green (eds.” Public Relations Review 19 (1993).. 115-132. 1990). K. 18.” in Paul T.. T. and T. p. pp. “Enforcement Dilemma: Voluntary Nature of Public Relations Codes. “Feeling Better: Measuring the Nation’s Confidence. “Don’t Rain on My Parade. Neil Postman. >” Public Relations Review 7 (198 l). 117-127. and Brian Sturgess (eds). eg. 242-247. 13-20. Lievrouw (eds. p. pp. and William Schneider. 4147. eg. 1992). “The Control of Science and Technology. Act Locally. 229-252. “Credibility. “The Communication Continuum: A Theory of Public Relations. 45. 1989).). cit. 21. 12. (Dordrecht: D. Cyert and David C. 38. 25-28. pp. D.. pp.” Public Relations Review 5 (1989). eg. pp.” Journal of Public Relations 36 (1980).. 4. pp. Knopf.” l%e Houston Post (June 13. People. “Sociological Implications of Computer Systems. Judd. (Totowa. and Jean-Louis Rigal (eds. 3440. 20. Seymour Martin Lipset. Jacques Ellul. Associated Press. 18 19. and Leah A. p. 1970). 14.” in Huib Ernste.” Public Opinion 1 (1978). NJ: Transaction. Richard M. 162. 1985). Dirk. cit. 5.). x. 9. 1986). Charles Boyle. Information.).” in H. Hans Jonas. p. Mediation. Technology and Employment (Washington. op. Human Interaction with Computers (New York: Academic Press. pp. Smith. Vanderburg.). pp. Be Myths of Information: Technology and Postindustrial Culture (Madison. G. The Imperative of Responsibility (Chicago: University of Chicago Press. “Forecast 1992. “The Future of the White-Collar worker. Gary Gumpert and Robert Cathcart.” in Kathleen Woodward (ed. Carlton E. 70. 6. Wilhelm Steinmuller “Information Technologies and Social Power. WI: Coda Press. Willem H. “Flaw Found in Test for Color Vision. Science and Technology. Communication Technology (New York: Free Press. p. pp.). Everett M. pp.” Public Opinion 8 (1985). 15. 61. 1993). Mary Lydon (trans. Knopf.. Spitzer. “How’s Business? What the Public Thinks. 1984). Ibid. Technology and Responsibility. C.An Approach to Ethics in the Informative Age 7. 22.). Computerization and Work (Berlin: Springer-Verlag. op. 56-58. 16.: National Academy Press.” Journal of Public Relations 48 (1992). “Technique and Responsibility: Think Globally. p.” in Charles Boyle. 1987). New Jersey: Barnes & Noble Books. p. A30. 8. John Kjaer.C. pp. 10. Niels Bjorn-Anderson and Leif Bloch Rasmussen.

pp.. NY: Cornell University Press. 365-383. cit. Reidel Publishing. p. 1985). op. John Rawls.” in Paul T.). 27. Vanderburg.). op. Hans Jonas. Willem H.” Public Relations Review 18. 26. 39.4( 1993). MA. Rawls’ theory of justice was at first widely acclaimed and has since suffered the ebb and flow of academic popularity. p. p.: Belnap Press. 7. 129. 1 . A Theory of Technology (Ames: The Iowa State University Press. 28. 128. “Responsibility and Technology: The Expanding Relationship. 302. Carl Mitcham. cit. Realizing Rawls (Ithaca. 1975). 24. Pogge. John Rawls. A Theory of Justice (Cambridge..Public Relations Review 23. 1971). 1989). Reading Rawls: Critical Studies on Rawls’ A theory of Justice (New York: Basic Books. cit. p. 1987). “A Systems Model for Ethical Decision Making in Public Relations. One of the better defenses of the theory of justice is in Thomas W. 25. Durbin (ed. No. 30. 44 Vol. Thomas H. Thomas R DeGregori. Technologyand Responsibi&y(Dordrecht: D. p. 21.. Ibid. A critical review of his ideas may be found in Norman Daniels (ed. Bivins. op. 29.