Darren L. Slider
Towards the Establishment of a Personal Ethic in Interpersonal Communication
Towards the Establishment of a Personal Ethic in Interpersonal Communication
THE NEED TO SUPPORT A PERSONAL ETHIC WITH A PHILOSOPHICAL BASE
All individuals have a set of principles by which they determine how they ought and ought not to communicate with other individuals. Such a set of principles generally encompasses all of life’s situations in which communication takes place, whether superficial or profound, verbal or non-verbal, conspicuous or subtle. Such a set of principles is here (and often elsewhere) referred to as a personal ethic.
Most individuals will also try to follow their personal ethics. They may not succeed completely in fact, most will find that real success comes only after considerable thought and practice but they make an at least partially honest attempt. Those individuals who do not are intensely self-centered (a character trait which, when practiced enough, will become a personal ethic, supplanting the former ethic), or hardened criminals, or both.
Since all individuals are different, there are (in a sense) as many different personal ethics as there are individuals. Nonetheless, individuals base their ethics on the religions or schools of thought to which they accede, and they do so in groups; thus, many individuals have ethics which are similar in varying degrees. Such religions and schools of thought (philosophical bases) differ widely, from Christianity to Islam to Hinduism to existentialism to situation ethicism to utilitarianism to Narcissism.
The wide variety of philosophies on which a personal ethic may be based raises difficult questions: Which are valid (true, relevant, meaningful)? Are some (is one) completely valid and all-inclusive? Are some completely invalid? How can one know which to adopt?
These, are among the big questions that life presents to every individual and are, of course, beyond the scope of this paper. Their mention here is meant to underscore an unfortunate deficiency prevalent in many works on ethics in interpersonal communication: the absence of any indication of the philosophical base (or bases) which the author uses to propound his/her personal ethic. In other words: How can an author expect his/her readers even to consider the validity of any of the principles in his/her ethic when they are given no reason to do so?
For example, Joseph DeVito makes the statement, “Interpersonal communications are ethical to the extent that they facilitate the individual’s freedom of choice by presenting the other person with accurate bases for choice.” (The Interpersonal Communication Book, p. 60). This principle is the foundation of the personal ethic that DeVito propounds to his readers. The statement preceding this, however, is problematic: “It is assumed that individuals have a right to make their own choices.” Why? The author may find this idea “more satisfying, more complete, and applicable to a greater number of situations,” but how is this relevant to any of his readers who do not know him personally? I do not disagree with DeVito over this principle, nor do I wish to belittle the quality of his work, but I want to know why he assumes the validity of this principle. He need not attempt a detailed proof thereof, but he ought at least to tell his readers why (objectively) he believes it. Otherwise, a Machiavellian author who assumes that individuals ought sometimes to have choices made for them because he has found making choices for others “satisfying,” would have to be considered equally valid in making such an assumption.
THE PHILOSOPHICAL BASE FOR A PERSONAL ETHIC
Once the author of a work on interpersonal ethics states the philosophical base of his ethic, he/she need not attempt to establish the validity of that base, but ought merely to explain it briefly. Such proofs should generally be confined to apologetic works because of the space required. The greatest accomplishment of the statement of a philosophical base is to give the readers opportunity to evaluate the validity of the principles included in the author’s ethic by evaluating the validity of the author’s intended context, an opportunity which the readers would not otherwise have.
The ethic which I propose in this paper has as its philosophical base Christianity. I understand “Christianity” to mean the sum total of the teachings of the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, including the views on God, life, man and ethics which are expressed therein. Those readers interested in understanding why I believe Christianity to be true will profit from reading Mere Christianity, by C. S. Lewis.
TWO ELEMENTARY PRINCIPLES OF A PERSONAL ETHIC
The two elementary principles which Christians are commanded to follow relate both directly and indirectly to interpersonal communication. They are found in the words of Christ, as quoted in Matthew 22:37-39: “ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. The second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ ”
The implications of these words are indeed vast. Nonetheless, since we wish to consider how they relate specifically to interpersonal ethics, we may do well to begin by asking whether the first of these principles, the love for God, has anything to do with ethics on the strictly human level. After all, it would seem, we do not deal directly with God on this level.
Christianity claims that, as a consequence of the Fall of Man, human nature became such that it could not entirely refrain from unethical actions which, according to the above definition, include failure to love one’s fellow man without divine assistance (see Romans 7:14-25). As I shall discuss below in further detail, it is the class of love with which God loves, that we are to have for our fellow men. Clearly, if we do not love God, we will neither be able, nor even truly desire, to love our fellow men as God loves them.
The second principle, which deals with love for one’s fellow man, is more obviously relevant to interpersonal communication. It is largely from the interpretation and implications of this principle that I derive the subsidiary principles of my personal ethic.
Firstly and most importantly, how one who loves one’s fellow man should or should not act, depends upon how one understands the term “love.” Perhaps the most intuitively obvious meaning of the term, which we often tend to read into this statement, is that we must actually like and/or have warm feelings for all of our fellow men. The writers of the Bible, however, never even hint at such a necessity, so we must seek another definition.
It is recorded in John 13:34 that Christ commanded His disciples to love one another as He had loved them. This may be reasonably understood to include all of mankind, even as God’s supreme act of love was for all the world (see John 3:16).
The longest and most thorough description of this love in the Bible is found in I Corinthians 13:4-7. In summarizing the basic content of these verses, I find three attributes of this love (henceforth called by its Greek namesake, agape) from which I shall derive the three subsidiary principles of my personal ethic. The attributes are: (1) agape seeks the greatest good of the other, even (and perhaps especially) when this conflicts with the desire of the self; (2) agape “does not delight in evil”; (3) agape “ . . . rejoices with the truth.”
THREE SUBSIDIARY PRINCIPLES OF A PERSONAL ETHIC
The first subsidiary principle, as described above, encompasses Joseph DeVito’s main principle of free choice (on which point, incidentally, I wholeheartedly agree with DeVito, despite my earlier complaint that he presented it without a philosophically meaningful context). Specifically, it is necessary to include this principle in an elaboration of agape because of the very fact that God (who is Himself agape see I John 4:8) allows all men to make free choices without compulsion, particularly with regard to how men respond to His love (agape).
Regarding the second subsidiary principle (“agape does not delight in evil”): Evil is understood to mean both the cherishing of unethical attitudes and the performance of unethical actions. In other words, agape does not attribute unethical actions or attitudes to anyone unless there is overwhelming evidence to support such an attribution. This is part of what Jesus meant when He commanded in His “Sermon on the Mount,” “ ‘Do not judge’ ” (Matthew 7:1); it is also intensely reasonable, as no one can rightfully claim to read the mind of another. In fact, agape will, if at all possible, assume the very best about another’s motives.
The third subsidiary principle (“agape rejoices with the truth”) underscores the value of truth (Christ once said, “ ‘I am . . . the truth” John 14:6) and integrity in the Christian context. “Truth” here refers to “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth,” branding as unethical not only lying but also misrepresentation of the truth and representation of a partial truth as the truth in its entirety. It gives our fellow men (and us) freedom to make intelligent and informed decisions (as DeVito has pointed out), as per the first subsidiary principle; it protects the reputations of our fellow men (and our own), as per the second subsidiary principle.
SOME APPLICATIONS OF A PERSONAL ETHIC
Clearly, any personal ethic ought to be able to deal with a wide variety of ethical dilemmas faced by a reasonably large number of people in other words, ought to be relevant. I conclude this paper with a few such dilemmas for the consideration of the reader.
You meet a fairly recent acquaintance, with whom you are just beginning to develop a friendship. One day, you meet this person; this person is dressed in an outfit which represents a new, or somewhat new, trend in the world of fashion. The person asks you how you think the outfit looks on the person. The person’s nonverbal communications when asking lead you to conclude, with almost complete certainty, that the person is “fishing for a compliment.” You think that the outfit looks horrid. How do you respond to the person’s question?
I have borrowed the principal aspects of this dilemma from DeVito’s book, calling attention to the particular case wherein the person asking the question wishes to be complimented. I have done so in order to underscore a particular point in which my ethic differs from his: He believes that in this situation a “lie” would not be a lie.
More specifically, DeVito believes that it would not be dishonest to tell the person that they looked good, because the person was really asking for a compliment and not an opinion. I agree that in this situation the person really does want a compliment more than an honest opinion, but I do not believe that the two must necessarily be mutually exclusive.
DeVito, too, believes in honesty, but appears to forget an earlier statement he makes to the effect that it is the nature of communication to take place on several different levels at once. It follows from this statement (as well as from both ethics in question) that one ought to strive for complete honesty on all levels, ought to seek for a way to maintain one’s own integrity even while building the self-image of the other.
To respond to the other that the outfit does in fact look horrid would be to give an honest opinion, but would completely ignore the person’s unspoken question about the person’s worth, and this, too, would not be completely honest and would be cruel; DeVito agrees. I propose a different solution which comes closer to covering both bases than either of the ones above: Tell the person that the outfit does not agree with your tastes, but in your response, do not fail to emphasize two other important facts. Firstly, the person’s taste in clothing may differ from your own, but that does not mean that it is any less valid for the person than your taste in clothing is for you. Secondly, the difference in taste does not in the least detract from your appreciation of the other as a person and as a friend.
By responding in this way, you will not only maintain your integrity and boost the person’s self-worth with a compliment, but you will be giving the person a compliment that is more directly to the point without being tactless, one that the person will probably value much more. Furthermore, you will communicate to the person that if the person is being himself/herself, the person is absolutely free to do so without loss of face in your eyes. If the person is trying to gain acceptance by following trends, you will show them, without embarrassing them, that they need not do so in order to be appreciated as a person. These matters, indeed, have the deepest and longest-lasting implications.
You meet and befriend a young girl who has not quite reached her teens; she has moved into your neighborhood as a foster child. As far as you can observe, all of the girl’s peers dislike her and treat her very poorly, ostensibly because the girl has a bad reputation as a cleptomaniac. Even the girl’s natural brother, also a foster child, joins the other children in picking on her; the foster parents do not seem to be present often enough to prevent the others from mistreating the girl. Upon further inquiry into the situation, a close relative of yours discovers that the girl has been the victim of child abuse (physical, psychological, and sexual); the abuse, has, not surprisingly, psychologically unbalanced the girl. The relative, who is honestly concerned about your social reputation, insists that you cease to associate with the child any further, lest she (because of her unbalanced psyche) turn against you and accuse you of abusing her (possibly including sexual abuse). The girl has no other friends in the neighborhood, of whom you are aware. What should you do?
This dilemma contains all the elements of the classic psychological double bind. If you dissociate yourself from the girl, she may well feel that her only friend (or one of her only friends) has turned against her, and her psychology may become even more unbalanced because she has not matured enough to learn how to deal with the situation. On the other hand, if you continue to provide the girl with the acceptance and support she so deeply needs, you run the risk of alienating the relative, who may feel that you did not consider his/her concern important, and that you did not consider how his/her own reputation might be adversely affected by an assault on your own.
In my latter high school years, I actually underwent such an experience. Under these circumstances, I decided that the needs of the girl had to outweigh any such danger to my own reputation. I thanked the relative (my mother) for her concern as I explained my decision to her. She had some difficulty accepting my decision, but after I had explained my rationale as well as I could, she backed off somewhat from her insistence; she respected my motive for making this decision, even though she still did not agree with it.
Almost immediately afterward, the girl was moved out of my neighborhood for psychological treatment; nonetheless, I have never regretted my decision. The need of the girl (whom I had grown to love in the agape sense) for acceptance and friendship, outweighed the possible risk to my reputation and even my mother’s concern about it, as much as I valued both.
You attend a social function hosted by the president of the company for which you work. At such functions, it has become a time-honored tradition to propose a toast to the success of the company and the health of all its employees. You see no objection to this, but you wish to use a glass of water rather than a glass of the champagne which the host has provided. You want to make the most ethical decision you can whenever a situation should present itself, because you are learning to love (in the agape sense) God and fellow man; therefore, you have decided to abstain from alcohol, which affects your judgment, alertness and receptivity. You fear, however, that your host (who also happens to be the president of your company), will be personally offended by your abstinence. What should you do?
While it is of course desirable to maintain good standing with the president of one’s company, those readers who have understood the thrust of my first subsidiary principle will realize that I view this consideration as only secondary in importance. The primary consideration here is to act out of agape for the host and any other interested parties.
Initially, it may appear that my two elementary principles (agape for God and agape for fellow man) are here pitted in opposition to one another; I do not believe so. As I have shown above, agape for God is the more fundamental of the two. Nonetheless, when you are acting from agape to fellow man, you ought to do your utmost to ensure that your fellow man does not conclude that you think yourself superior to him.
Thus, if your host reacts negatively when you ask for water instead of champagne, you should explain to him your rationale for your decision. You ought to emphasize that you respect and admire your host as much as ever, but that your allegiance to God must come first. The host, unless he disbelieves in God or does not think Him worthy of one’s best love and allegiance, is bound to respect your decision even though he may still disagree with your rationale. Once you have made your rationale clear, your host must bear the responsibility of allowing you the freedom to make this decision without compulsion or pressure.
If adverse consequences nevertheless result, you ought to remember that God, in His perfect love and all-encompassing power, is able and willing to bring to pass your ultimate personal good, no matter how adverse the consequences (see Romans 8:28-39 and Ephesians 3:20). This truth, which may (where necessary) be applied to all ethical dilemmas, is one of the cornerstones of practical Christianity.
Author’s Note: I wrote this paper for a general education course on interpersonal communication as a senior at Andrews University in October, 1988.