Unethical public communication is often associated with political propaganda and advertising—especially arguments that feature attacks on character and unfair or misleading use of evidence. If only advocates would stick to the facts and logical reasoning, so goes the popular view, we would restore ethics to the public arena.
When we say that someone argues in an ethical way, do we mean that they follow the rules of logic and logical reasoning? If all advocates were to adhere to logic, would not their arguments also be ethical?
Not necessarily—the rules of logical reasoning do not guarantee ethical argument. The proposition that logical argument equals ethical argument, while it may be mostly true, is not always true. Of course, you are unlikely to be ethical if you intentionally break the rules of argument. (Note the qualifier, “intentionally,” since intent is basic to ethics.) But you can follow the rules of logic and still mislead or deceive your listeners.
The rules of logic and argumentation emphasize the form in which claims in speech or writing are presented. The following argument (presented here in the form that logicians call a categorical syllogism) is logically valid:
All satellites are made of green cheese;
The moon is a satellite;
Therefore, the moon is made of green cheese.
So, logic does not guarantee sound reasoning. In this case, it is obvious that the first premise (the first line of the argument) is not factual. The point is that the quality of an argument often depends upon the quality of the evidence or facts that support it. One scholar writing on the ethics of argumentation makes this point: “arguers may reason correctly” and yet “nevertheless be biased or ‘unfair’ at different levels (selective choice of premises, biased interpretation of evidence, use of loaded terms, etc.)” (Vasco Correia, in a 2012 article in the journal, Informal Logic.)
Of course, all reasoning and argumentation involve some selectivity. We choose some facts and not others for our arguments. The problem is, however, that our mistakes in this selecting can be unintentional or biased in understandable ways.
Such mistakes are especially likely when strongly-held commitments become involved, leading to errors in the choice of premises, the interpretation of the evidence, and so on.
Jonathon Haidt, a social psychologist and the Thomas Cooley Professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University, often points out that, for most of us, belief comes first, logical reasoning comes second. In other words, we determine what we want to prove first and then work out the “logical arguments” to justify that belief. In two books, Haidt presents an image of what psychological research suggests regarding moral reasoning—the “elephant and the rider.” Our use of logical reason is like the efforts of a rider to influence the much stronger elephant, representing our emotional attachments and motivations. (The books are The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom, and The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion.) Another prominent psychologist, Joshua Greene of Harvard University, makes similar points based on research using neuroimaging and behavioral experiments looking at moral decision-making. His findings are presented in the recent book, Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them.
If the use of slanted evidence and reasoning comes naturally to us as typical human beings, what can we do? Are we ethically responsible for presenting arguments in which the logical reasoning follows from our tendencies to overlook errors of fact or interpretation in order to win the day? Perhaps our ethical responsibility is to be aware of these error-inducing tendencies. As Portuguese philosopher Vasco Correia says, perhaps we need to strive to exercise argumentative self-control, or vigilance. This calls for systematically making the effort to consider alternatives to our reasoning and evidence. Ethical argumentation, in other words, lies in our commitment to exercising vigilance, especially when we feel strongly committed to our positions.
William W. Neher
Bill Neher is professor emeritus of communication studies at Butler University, where he taught for 42 years. Over those years he has served as Dean of the University College, Director of the Honors Program, Head of the Department of Communication Studies, the Chair of the faculty governance, and most recently as the first Dean (Interim) for the new College of Communication begun in June 2010. He is the author of several books dealing with organizational and professional communication, ethics, and African studies, plus several public speaking and communication text books.
The Conference on Ethics and Public Argumentation, housed in the Butler University College of Communication, serves as CCOM’s academic hub for promoting the ethical use of reasoning and rationality in public deliberation.