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11.2 Conducting Moral Analyses

As an objective decision maker, the public relations professional must have a high degree of autonomy and not be beholden to serving only the interests of the organization.Bowen (2006), pp. 330–352. Objective autonomyFor the public relations professional, the state of equally considering the merits of all arguments, both from various publics and the organization. requires that all the merits of each argument, from various publics or from the CEO, be considered equally. Although we know that no analysis can be purely objective, the goal of moral philosophy is to eliminate bias and strive to be as thorough and unbiased as possible.

Ways that the public relations practitioner can encourage, and further, autonomy include being a proficient boundary spanner, representing oneself as an objective, autonomous voice in strategy meetings rather than as an advocate of the organization’s will, and seeking to use information collected from the publics in the organization’s environment to enrich strategic decision making and organizational policy. Oftentimes, public relations practitioners report that they spent years developing a trusting but autonomous relationship with their CEOs, and that autonomy was granted on a gradual and slow basis.Bowen and Heath (2006), pp. 34–36. Many public relations executives report that they had to be assertive in airing their analyses and that they were granted autonomy only after proving the credibility and accuracy of their analyses over time.Bowen (2009c), pp. 427–452.

The merits of each perspective, from publics and from the view of the organization, are considered according to ethical paradigms that help to judge the best or most ethical course of action. There are essentially two perspectives that are helpful in the analyses of the types of moral dilemmas common in public relations: consequentialism and deontology.


As the name implies, consequentialismThe theory that the moral value of a particular act or decision is based on the outcome or consequences of that act or decision. is based on the outcome or consequences of making a particular decision. If there are more positive consequences than negative consequences, the decision is determined to be ethical. One caveat of using consequentialism is obviously the limited ability we have to predict future consequences of potential actions. However, this type of decision making is common in public relations practice and is well suited for making decisions involving less complex scenarios. We will study two main branches of consequentialism: enlightened self-interest and utilitarianism.

Enlightened self-interestA form of decision making in which the consequences of a potential decision are analyzed and preferential treatment is given to the decision makers' desires but not to the exclusion of others' wishes. Sometimes referred to as professional ethics or responsible advocacy. is a form of decision making in which the consequences of a potential decision are analyzed and preferential treatment is given to the decision makers’ desires but not to the exclusion of the wishes of others. Thus, the decision is self-interested, but is said to be “enlightened” through the consideration of the consequences that decision will have on others. Enlightened self-interest is the most common decision-making framework in public relations practice in general,Martinson (1994), pp. 100–108. especially at those in lower levels of responsibility or experience in the field.Wright (1985), pp. 51–60. This framework is sometimes called professional ethics, or responsible advocacy. Because of the preferential treatment of self-interest in this paradigm, many ethicists believe that it does not reach a standard of decision making that we can call moral.De George (2006). Many times, the decisions made using enlightened self-interest become obsessively self-interested and therefore rather unenlightened.Martinson (1994), pp. 100–108.

UtilitarianismA doctrine that supports a standard of judging what is ethical based on how much it serves the interest of society. advocates a standard of judging what is ethical based on how much it serves the interest of society, or advocating that which is ethical serves “the greater good for the greatest number” of people.De George (1999), p. 57. The tricky part of utilitarian reasoning is how we define “the good” so that you can make decisions furthering it for the majority. Originated by Bentham and refined by Mill, utilitarianism is a philosophy that analyzes the impact of decisions on groups of people, making it popular for use in public relations. However, we have to be careful in its implementation because it is easy to serve the interests of a majority and to forget the valid points of a minority, creating a disequilibrium in the system that would require a revision of the decision at a later date.

Utilitarians diverge over whether the specific decision (or act) or the general moral principle (or rule) should be put to the utilitarian test. The most common form of utilitarianism in public relations management is specific to the act under consideration, considering it in all of its detail, including the potential consequences arising from different decision alternatives. The option to resolving an ethical dilemma that creates the most positive outcomes and the least negative outcomes is considered to be the ethical option. Although utilitarianism is normally used to justify the sacrifice of one for the gain of many, Mill’s theory holds that the ethical decision cannot result in harm to a public, even if they are small in number.Elliott (2007), pp. 100–112. Therefore, the utilitarian test becomes a more stringent test than simply weighing numbers of people.

Creating decisions with the most positive outcomes comes naturally to most public relations managers. The resulting cost–benefit analysis arising from the use of a utilitarian paradigm is a frequently used approach to resolving ethical dilemmas in public relations. Christians explained that utilitarianism holds a “natural affinity today in democratic life toward determining the morally right alternative by comparing the balance of good over evil.”Christians (2008), p. 33. Seeking to create the most good in society with organizational decisions is a worthy goal. However, utilitarianism has a number of pitfalls that must be considered and compensated for in order to arrive at an ethical decision. The pitfall most concerning to ethicists is that utilitarianism judges outcomes based on sheer numbers rather than on moral principle. If a small public instituted a membership drive, for example, the utilitarian calculus would change the ultimate decision based upon the number of members, rather than on a changing of moral values. Complexity also poses problems for utilitarianism. Christians argued, “Practitioners [sic] usually find themselves confronting more than one moral claim at the same time, and asking only what produces ‘the most good’ is too limiting.”Christians (2008), p. 33. In fact, how do we decide the best course of action when there are equal amounts of goods to be produced?Ross (2002).

Utilitarianism also requires the public relations manager to be able to accurately predict the future consequences of each decision alternative. In reality, we know that few decisions can be made in which consequences are predicted with certainty. The dynamic world of publics, government regulators, communities, activist groups, and the mass media make predicting the consequences of organizational decisions that much more complicated, if not impossible. Finally, utilitarianism holds that the majority always benefits. What if a small but vocal minority has a valid point of concern with the organization? In utilitarianism, those views are dismissed in favor of the status quo, or larger public. Such a system can create a dangerous disequilibrium within the organization. The result of such a disequilibrium could be high employee turnover, outrage, lawsuits, or class action suits; negative coverage in the news media affecting the organizations reputation is then a distinct possibility.

The strength of utilitarianism is that it can be used to arrive at a relatively speedy analysis, and that benefit is particularly helpful in crisis situations (see Table 11.1 "An Example of Consequentialist Analysis" for an example of this speedy analysis). Utilitarian theory holds a particular affinity for business in a democratic society and the media’s belief in the public’s right to know. The use of utilitarianism as a method for analyzing ethical dilemmas serves public relations best when it is combined with another means of ethical analysis. Keeping these caveats in mind when using a utilitarian analysis can also help the public relations practitioner be mindful of the potential problems arising from this approach.

Table 11.1 An Example of Consequentialist Analysis

Utilitarian Analysis, Maximizing Public Interest and Greater Good
Decision Option A Good outcome v. Bad Outcome
Decision Option B Good outcome v. Bad Outcome
Decision Option C Good outcome v. Bad Outcome
Decision Option D Good outcome v. Bad Outcome
Ethical Option Result—Aggregate Most good; Least Bad

Principles and Rights: Deontology

DeontologyA branch of ethics that is not based on consequences or outcome but on duty. In this moral analysis, the ethics of an action is based on an action's adhering to a rule, an obligation, or a duty. is a nonconsequentialist-based means of moral analysis. The moral analysis is not conducted in order to be based upon predicting future consequences; consequences are but one small consideration among many in a deontological approach. This paradigm places duty, principles, and rights as the things defined as “the good” that should be taken into account in order to make a decision ethical. Ross explained, “Whatever is ultimately good is also intrinsically good, i.e. is good apart from its consequences, or would be good even if it were quite alone.”Ross (2002).

Moral principles are the underlying values that guide decisions, and are beliefs that are generally held to be true or good. Examples could be “the sacredness of life, justice, nonviolence, humanity, accountability, dignity, and peace.”Cooper (2009), p. 3. Most rational people across various societies and cultures hold that those principles are morally good. Deontology seeks to eliminate capricious decision making by eliminating bias and holding to standards that have a universal acceptance as right or good.

Determining moral principles when conflicting perspectives are present is never an easy task. Deontology is a demanding form of moral analysis, requiring much information and the time and autonomy to thoroughly consider numerous competing perspectives. Deontology takes time and study of the philosophy in order to implement its three tests correctly, just as you are doing here. However, these drawbacks are also strengths because deontology results in very strong and enduring moral analyses.

Deontology was created by the 18th-century philosopher Kant, who used the virtue ethics of Aristotle to create a more concrete decision-making paradigm. Aristotle viewed the character of the speaker as an important part of the message and held that the power of persuasion should be held by only those of virtuous character who would not abuse that power by seeking to further anything but the truth. Along these lines, Kant imbued his philosophy with a sense of duty that is supposed to govern all moral decisions.Baron (1995). All rational human beings are equally able to reason through the duty of their decisions in a characteristic called moral autonomy by Kant; therefore, all rational beings are equal. Kant views equality as ethical, and the concept also means that everyone is equally obligated by that equality with the duty of making moral decisions.

Under that equal obligation, Kant posed three decision tests that he called the categorical imperative. These three decision tests are used to test decision alternatives under consideration to determine whether they maintain moral principle for those involved, including publics. Decisions must meet the standard of all three of the tests before they can be said to be ethical. Please see Note 11.10 "Deontology’s Three Decision Standards Based on the Categorical Imperative Obligating All People Equally" for a summary of the three decision tests or standards to be applied in a deontological analysis. A situation may have numerous alternatives to resolving an ethical dilemma in public relations; those alternatives can be put through the three tests to reveal any ethical flaws.

Deontology’s Three Decision Standards Based on the Categorical Imperative Obligating All People Equally

  1. Could you will the decision to become universal? That is, could you obligate everyone else to always do the same thing you are considering, even if you were on the receiving end?
  2. Does the decision maintain the dignity and respect of publics, without ‘using’ anyone simply to accomplish organizational goals?
  3. Is the decision made from a basis of good intention?

The first form of the categorical imperative states, “Act only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.”Kant (1785/1964), p. 88. This form of the categorical imperative tests the same universal standards as would be applied to others, if we could be on the receiving end of a decision, and is useful in public relations because it “leaves little room for subjective interpretation or self-interested decisions.”Bowen (2004a), p. 73.

Kant’s second decision-making test, formula two of the categorical imperative, commands dignity and respect. Kant obligates decision makers to respect themselves, their organizations, as well as all other human beings. If the decision does not maintain the dignity and respect of the involved publics, then we know that it is not ethical.

Formula three of Kant’s categorical imperative tests the intention behind making a decision. Kant wrote, “If our conduct as free agents is to have moral goodness, it must proceed solely from a good will.”Kant (1963), p. 18. Good intention is the only morally worthy basis for decision making in the Kantian view because it maintains autonomy and duty and prevents people from being used simply as a means to achieving an end.Paton (1967). This third categorical imperative test means that an organization must proceed out of good intent rather than from a basis of selfishness, greed or avarice, deception, falsity, and so on. Pure good intention should guide decision making in public relations ethics.

Kant’s test is considered the most rigorous standard in moral philosophy. Once you have put an organization’s potential decisions through these three tests, you can be certain that a decision with an affirmative answer on all three tests is ethical. Publics may still be able to disagree with the decision or policy, but it does allow the organization a comprehensive, systematic, and thorough means of making those decisions. Therefore, ethical dilemmas resolved through a deontological paradigm are more defensible, both in the media eye and to publics, than those made using other means. The defensibility arises from using a rational paradigm that does not privilege or bias self-interest, so the publics can be sure their view was considered by the organization.