ethics in technical communication

I’m reading my technical writing students’ homework on ethics in documents. They were assigned to find an article, advertisement, or other document that contains untrue or misleading information and discuss (in a memo to me) the ethics behind it. In particular, Mike Markel’s Technical Communication outlines four paradigms of understanding ethics (justice, rights, utility, and care), and students were to apply one of those paradigms to the document.

What I’m struggling with, though, and what some of my students are struggling with, is how does honesty fit into these ethical paradigms. I think, under certain circumstances, that it could fit into different ones, or even occasionally, all of them. However, I find it interesting that Markel cites honesty as one of the 8 qualities of strong technical communication, but doesn’t place honesty within an ethical paradigm.

If I were to put it under one of these four, I’d probably place it under care (especially since Markel stresses technical writing that helps others complete tasks safely and defines care as about relationships), and I think often this would work. However, when I think of honesty, I most often think of virtue ethics, which Markel doesn’t list as a paradigm. Virtue ethics could be a form of justice ethics, I suppose (and my thinking on ethical paradigms is a bit rusty), but Markel defines justice as distributive justice (from the book’s PowerPoint slides: “How the costs and benefits of an action or a policy can be distributed fairly among a group”) — so the link between justice ethics and virtue ethics in this case seems tenuous.

Nevertheless, I am enjoying reading my students’ work on this topic. Many of them so far have chosen to look at weight loss pills or supplements and discuss the dishonesty of the advertisements: hiding side effects, low success rates, and other important information in footnotes with tiny print. Many come at this topic from a “care” perspective: they aren’t being honest and showing care for their consumers.

A few, though, have discussed this in the form of rights, claiming that the consumer has a right to accurate, honest information. I’m not sure about this last point. Though I would like to agree that we should have a right to clear and accurate information, this is a highly contested “right.” Companies can’t put flat-out lies in their advertisements, legally, but they certainly can, through design, distort information. Of course, who defines our rights? Are the granted by governments? If so, this leads into a whole other quandary (Agamben’s concept of the homo sacer comes to mind).

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