Communication Ethics Research Paper

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Communication ethics assumes a distinctive perspective of bioethics, engaging it from two principal standpoints: biopolitics and post-human. These two perspectives yield a targeted standpoint on communication ethics. The notion of communication ethics does not suggest a uniform or universal assertion about what is and is not ethical. The term “communication ethics” is more aptly understood within (Gadamer, H. G. (1988). Truth and method. New York: The Crossroads Publishing Company. (Original work published 1975)) conception of “horizon” (p. 217). Theorized in visual terms, a horizon implies a series of images in the distance; the horizon is composed of multiplicity and fuzzy clarity. A horizon is akin to an impressionistic painting that invites a number of glimpses and perspectives, all temporal and partial. The question of bioethics from the vantage point of communication ethics does not dictate correct answers. The task is to open the conversation by unmasking unstated presuppositions. The first obligation of communication ethics is the act of understanding, not the conversion of the ignorant into correct ethical alignment. Communication ethics understood as content or a sense of the good furnishes moral gravity, simultaneously assuming the pragmatic reality of multiplicity. Distancing communicative ethics from universal truth counters imposition, bullying, and historical campaigns reminiscent of colonialism and totalitarianism in the name of self-righteous assurance.


This entry situates communication ethics as inclusive of partisan perspectives embedded in a historical moment defined by narrative and virtue contention. Acknowledging the reality of ethical difference aligns with the field of communication’s attentiveness to Michel Foucault’s biopolitics. The entry concludes by uniting communication ethics, multiplicity, and rhetorical obligation to enter public domain conversations about biopolitics exemplified in post-human debates.

Communication Ethics: A Partisan Perspective

There is no one correct understanding of communication ethics. Communication ethics is better conceptualized as a per formative rendition of what human beings seek to “protect and promote” (Arnett et al. 2009, p. xix), yielding pragmatic recognition of a multiplicity of communication ethics perspectives. This assessment presupposes that any position on bioethics will be a rhetorical insight, not a scientific assertion. Communication ethics assumes that there is a bias and a good that matter, which lends height and weight to debates between and among communication ethics standpoints.


This historical era testifies to the pragmatic necessity of shifting conversation about communication ethics from an ideal orientation that legitimates an imposed “solution.” A solution perspective ties communication ethics to the universal, requiring implementation of an ethical stance that will “fix” or “correct” or “set straight” that which is wrongheaded, problematic, and destructive. In contrast, this historical moment recognizes that a given communication ethic is merely the beginning of a conversation constituted by encumbrance of significance.

Universal assurance assumes a communicative form of deus ex machina, visually displayed in a Greek drama in which a god descends from the heavens and intervenes on behalf of a person or people. In witnessing such a drama, the audience awaits a hero or god-like champion emerging from ethical height with the expectation that others will follow. It is specifically the ethical stance reflected in deus ex machina that Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1953/1972) rejected with his use of the phrase “a world come of age” (p. 326). He refuted any form of ethics that could assume the shape of a weapon that sought elimination of differing goods. Communication ethic in a world come of age recognizes the danger of imposing final answers; contrarily, this conception of communication ethics embraces the messiness of public debate and the pragmatic necessity of employing temporally discerned ethical decisions and actions.

Communication ethics presupposes the reality of multiple understandings of the good. The above material recognizes a dangerous alignment: universal assurance and a given communication ethic. The framework of this entry is contrary to an orientation that seeks blessing from deus ex machina, whether in the name of objectivity, universalism, or public standard. This stance of ethical imposition masquerades as a communication ethic that is better understood as dwelling within a rubric of paradigmatic certainty. Rejection of universal assurance unmasks a previously undisputed understanding of the good, framing it as a partisan position, a provincial orientation, cloaked in the guise of ethically inspired insight.

Situating communication ethics within the universal is yet another name for the partisan. Acknowledgment of multiplicity renders possible the uniting of the partisan with multiplicity; such a standpoint assumes that each individual communication ethic is, indeed, a partisan stance. The open admission of competing partisan positions explicitly requires a public account for a given stance. Communication ethics, studied and practiced in an era of narrative and virtue contention (MacIntyre 1981/1984), must hardheadedly concede partisan differences, resisting efforts to impose a given good via an ethical height that claims undisputed righteousness.

Paradigmatic Contention

Using the now-familiar words of Thomas Kuhn (1962/1996), communication ethics resists encapsulation within a framework of paradigmatic assurance. Communication ethics in a world of narrative and virtue contention epitomizes the reality of manifold ethical paradigmatic assumptions in disputation and contrast. Partisan positions on communication ethics necessitate knowing the ground from which one meets the other. It is not the knowing partisan that should generate ethical fear but rather the one who disclaims the reality of limited perspectives and then asserts that his or her particular ethical locus must be deemed a public standard. It is the “must” of disavowed and unknowing bias of conviction that should send shivers down the spine of anyone attuned to democratic impulses. In short, what is temporally ethical is ultimately part of debate in the public domain: we arrive at impermanent answers together and, as increasing insights emerge, we must reconsider, readjust, and realign public assertions about the ethical. A given communication ethic represents tainted narrative ground or bias; it protects and promotes a specified understanding of the good. Contrasting ethical frameworks emerge from contending tainted narrative ground assumptions that invite conflict over what we deem as manifesting ethical importance and weight. The task of communication ethics is to initiate conversation that involves disclosure of differing perspectives on what matters. Communication ethics is the initial stage, not the end, of decision-making in a diverse conception of the public. Communication ethics understood not as a neutral good but as a political perspective is central to the communication field’s discussion of biopolitics.

Communication Ethics: From Biopolitics To The Post-Human

Communication ethics macro-engagement in the public domain has principally relied upon the work of Michel Foucault. His perspective challenges knowledge “based on acquisition” (Arnett 2012, p. 229) that seeks to categorize persons. Foucault countered with an emphasis on resistance, contingency, and creativity. Foucault’s conception of biopolitics has edged much of the ongoing debate and discussion about bioethics within the communication field. Foucault (1997) initiated a treatise on biopolitics by posing a fundamental question: “What does this new technology of power, this biopolitics, this biopower that is beginning to establish itself, involve?” (p. 243). He stated that biopolitics includes “a set of processes such as the ratio of births to deaths, the rate of reproduction, the fertility of a population” (p. 243). Foucault considered this information to consist of objects of knowledge that quickly morph into targets of control. Biopolitics is tied to population growth understood, categorized, and conceptualized via political, scientific, and biological acts of control.

A Rhetorical Perspective

Foucault sought to expose biopolitical power and control, explicating changing etymological referents that elucidate the shifting nature of our contingent understanding of the human condition. In the field of communication, Foucault’s attentiveness to biopolitics has been noted repeatedly: the interplay of power, the multiplicity of perspectives, the background of biopower, and the resistance of biopolitics have been illuminated via rhetorical analysis. Raymie E. McKerrow’s (2011) essay, “Foucault’s relationship to rhetoric,” is representative of this critical and reflective perspective. Linking Foucault to rhetoric places the persuasive genre at the heart of contemporary conceptualizations of communication ethics and biopolitics. McKerrow outlines the relationship between rhetoric and Foucault’s understanding of discourse and discursive formation.

McKerrow (2011) highlights Foucault’s negative conception of rhetoric as akin to the “kind of discourse that Plato disparaged so eloquently” (p. 259). In contrast, Foucault stresses truth, emphasizing “parrhesia” as absolutely vital to the maintenance of moral and ethical discourse. A “truth ‘teller’ or parrhesiast must be devoid of artifice (.. .)” (p. 259). Classical rhetoricians too often spoke on subjects of which they had limited knowledge; this perspective is central to Foucault’s skepticism about rhetoric. Foucault’s concern was that their rhetoric was too often disembodied; they could speak about courage and lack the performative characteristics of courage.

“Discursive formation” reflects the communicative background that shapes a subject’s power to speak “within the constraints provided by the formation in which one exists” (McKerrow 2011, p. 267). Any communicative subject lives within this formation, unable to function standing “above or below” (McKerrow 2011, p. 266) the transformative power of discursive formation. Consisting of situation, circumstance, and surroundings, the context for an agent/subject to speak is not always the same but, in each case, provides a restrictive background/discursive formation that requires contention.

“Discourse” is a linking term, according to McKerrow (2011), that connects rhetoric and discursive formation. When Foucault writes on “‘discourse’ in relation to the construction of knowledge or truth, he is NOT equating that term with traditional ‘rhetoric’” (p. 259). Foucault’s emphasis is situated within parrhesia, emphasizing a truth-telling obligation. Foucault’s discourse intimately linked to parrhesia yields a “critical rhetoric” (p. 260) that speaks with clarity of perspective to power. Parrhesia necessitates the linkage between saying and doing. Discourse/ parrhesia is a performative truth telling.

McKerrow (2011) asserts that the interplay of discursive formation and discourse/parrhesia articulates a “rhetorical construction of self and society” (p. 253) that stresses the vital importance of (1) the truth, (2) the care of the self, and (3) the performative linkage of “power, knowledge, and subject” (p. 253). This conception demonstrates Foucault’s long-standing interest in Nietzsche’s project, which unmasked the possibility of truth dwelling within a singular conceptual foundation of the good. Following Nietzsche’s insights, Foucault emphasized a language of truth understood as displayed through the lens “of the regimes of truth” and “games of truth” which seek to dominate in a world more interested in “outcome” than in “practice” (McKerrow 2011, pp. 257–258). The shift from “practice” to “outcome” is characteristic of modern “regimes of truth” that garner particular “games of truth” (McKerrow 2011, p. 258). Language becomes a game of control, a sport, and an entertainment that produces a truth far afield from parrhesia.

McKerrow (2011) contends that Foucault functions as a “realist (some would say a skeptic)” (p. 258); he understands that discursive formation fundamentally influences and restrains a given perspective. This orientation is counter to a universalist understanding of reason and the good. Foucault links discourse with parrhesia manifested in performative truth, contrasted with rhetoric as eloquence. Discursive formation is a contextual and historical given from which one assumes responsibility and obligation to enact a discourse of parrhesia/truth telling; such a position is aggressively contrary to a universal conception of reason and truth.

McKerrow’s (2011) engagement with Foucault’s scholarship underscores a central question – “‘How did we, as a society or culture, get to where we are?’ That is, what were the forces in our past that combined in ways to produce the current ‘game of truth’ that both produces and limits our freedom?” (p. 262). The interplay of discursive formation and discourse both produces and limits communicative freedom while unmasking the relationship between power and knowledge, which gives rise to “the construction of the subject” (p. 265). To unearth these connections, genealogy and archaeology seek to open spaces in history’s engagement with the interplay of truth, knowledge, and certainty. For Foucault, the notion of relationship is a predominant performative characteristic of power.

Power that represses and dominates through a “power over” dwells within discursive formation, which necessitates relational power that acts as a freedom of resistance. Domination seeks to obliterate relational connections. For Foucault, on the other hand, power is relationally engaged. Foucault’s understanding of power does not reify the notion of “thing”; it is tied to the notion of relationship, situated in a given place and time. He emphasizes, “The relation between knowledge and power is thus impacted by reference to where” (McKerrow 2011, p. 268). Agency and subject are embedded and situated, rendering a relational background for understanding Foucault’s conceptualization of biopower and biopolitics.

Foucault’s (1997) explication of biopower asserts that “we are, then, in a power that has taken control of both the body and life or that has, if you like, taken control of life in general – with the body as one pole and the population as the other” (p. 253). He clarifies biopower in “Society Must be Defended”: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1975–1976, differentiating this background from biopolitics.

“Antonio Negri defined Foucault’s biopolitics as: (1) a range of techniques that shape a people; (2) a particular site in which new subjectivities are given birth; and (3) a counter-narrative that empowers resistance to a historical moment with all aspects of life defined by capital” (Arnett 2012, p. 229). Negri (2008) suggests that Foucault frames the dark side of biopolitics within the notion of biopower; populations are tasked with the obligation of producing machines capable of generating goods for others. Biopolitics includes creativity and resistance and is contrary to biopower, which seeks to eclipse difference, erasing otherness, casting out the stranger, and infusing each dimension of life with the demand for productive capital.

Foucault contended that biopolitics became a defining phenomenon of the nineteenth century; the significance of this issue continues to gather momentum into the twenty-first century. Foucault (1997) stresses fundamental questions related to biopower tied to the sovereign of the nineteenth century who was the principal decision-maker, able “to take life or let live” (p. 241). The contending force, according to Foucault, is now biopolitics, a new technology of power that is not situated within the individual as a body but within a multi-bodied public arena composed of multiple heads and perspectives. Biopolitics brings ethics to the public domain, understanding population in political, scientific, and biological terms that are power laden. Biopolitics recognizes the relational power dimension within a society, attending to issues such as infirmities, morbidity, birth control, epidemics, and death (Foucault 1997, p. 244).

The eighteenth century led to what we now conceptualize as a modern understanding of medicine that initiated public hygiene, institutions of medical care, and efforts to centralize information and normalize knowledge about human health and sickness. This eighteenth century led, for Foucault (1997), into a biopolitics that has become the “last domain (.. .) [of] control over relations between the human race” (pp. 244–245). Biopolitics is the recognition of knowledge and action that seeks to intervene in these basic issues of life and death within the human condition of birth rate, mortality, disabilities, and environmental impact.

Biopolitics seeks to take control of the biological processes, working to manage, to discipline, and to regularize the species. Foucault’s (1997) general argument rests with who decides. His classic quote pointed to earlier frames his political stance. “Sovereignty took life and let live. And now we have the emergence of a power that I would call the power of regularization, and it, in contrast, consists in making live and letting die” (p. 247). Thus, biopolitics emerged through and in response to discursive formation, which functions as a form of biopower.

Biopower functions as a form of discursive formation; a communicative subject must discern a role, context, and position from which to speak. The parole of the communicative agent must then address this background of biopower with discourse/parrhesia that yields resistance, forging a defiant biopolitics. As McKerrow (2011) suggested, “the ‘forms and limits’ of various factors affecting a particular discursive formation can reveal the role and position given to the speaking subject” (p. 267). The subject, therefore, “possesses the ‘power’ to speak within the constraints provided by the formation in which one exists – to say that one is not the ‘author’ of one’s thoughts is merely to acknowledge that what one speaks is already interpellated within the formation. It is part of the conversation that pre-exists it, and will have some impact on future conversations within that same formation” (pp. 267–268). Discourse, then, ever mindful of the circumstances, situations, agency, and role of the subject, is an avenue to speak truth to the sovereign. Space emerges for individual agents to speak on the matter of life and death to the sovereign – and, thus, biopolitics became the avenue of truth telling in opposition to biopower. “The publicity of our time suggests that biopolitics is fraught with ambivalence; Foucault offers a way to differentiate between imposition on the Other and learning from Otherness” (Arnett 2012, p. 229). From a rhetorical understanding of communication ethics, Foucault’s work pivots on one basic presupposition – biopolitics is not neutral.

Communicative Production

Alexandre MacMillian (2011), in “Empire, Biopolitics, and Communication,” examines Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s description of empire, explicating Foucault’s account of biopolitics within communication. MacMillian characterizes empire as a world without borders in which communication is both part of a sector of production and, at the same time, an instrument of production. MacMillian notes that Hardt and Negri discuss two forms of “immaterial labor” that shape this historical moment: (1) “affective labor” and (2) “symbolic analytical services,” inclusive of problem identification and solving (p. 2). Each form of immaterial labor is communicatively intensive, with biopolitics coordinated within communication functions.

MacMillian (2011) rejects the assumption that biopolitics is antithetical to disciplinary power or the “punctual form of power that only functioned within closed spaces” (p. 2). MacMillian cites Foucault’s understanding of biopolitics, in contrast, as not restrictive but “encompassing the entirety of social life” (p. 2). Perhaps one can understand biopolitics as a “failed imperfect discipline” (p. 3), one that refuses to function as a punctual form of power. From a communication perspective, MacMillian (2011) argues, one must discover the points of continuity between the notions of disciplinary and biopolitical technologies. Foucault argued for the examination of new ways of association, calling for “not yet” discovered “schemata of politicalization” (p. 5). Thus, the notion of empire, which disregards boundaries, cannot displace the notion of discipline with biopolitics. For biopolitics is a form of discipline, although imprecise, that announces communicative possibilities between and among persons.

From a communication perspective, one can understand biopower as a background of discursive formation, ever resistant and responsive to biopolitics, a discursive parrhesia that yields a bioethics attentive to the pursuit of freedom within an acknowledged restricted social space. Public conversation about the post-human is an extension of biopower, necessitating biopolitical engagement and generating necessary debate about bioethics in the public domain.

Debates in the field of communication ethics on the question of the post-human continue to gather momentum. The principal scholar calling attention to the post-human question is Michael J. Hyde. Within the field of communication, the question of the post-human is largely tied to biopower. Biopolitics requires a resistive response to ongoing new developments in what is called “the post-human debate.”

Debating The Good Life

Hyde and Nancy King offer an introductory explication of the interplay of communication ethics and bioethics in “Communication Ethics and Bioethics: An Interface.” They articulate narrative ground upon which discussion of communication ethics issues regarding the post-human question can amass. Their entry commences with a description of the coordinates of public rhetoric that must be included in ongoing debates on bioethics, beginning with questions of euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide. Within the realm of health and communication ethics, questions of right to life and right to die are increasingly salient and divisive within the public domain.

Hyde and King (2010) explicate the classical beginnings of communication ethics, intimately tied to the notion of the pursuit of the good life. Currently under question today is what constitutes a good life. Queries about life, death, extension of life, and trajectory of what it means to be human are crucial to our moving configuration of a good life. Developments in biotechnology, genetic engineering, and stem cell transplantation continue to gather momentum in the post-human debate. The rhetorical and public debate dimension of these questions is essential if we are to counter Jacques Ellul’s (1964/1990) warning about the West: we are propelled most readily by that which can be done, failing to ask the fundamental question: should it be done? Public rhetoric and debate necessitate such questioning.

Within the ongoing rhetoric of the good life, we witness within the West an underlying Enlightenment theme, the presupposition of progress. Changes in biotechnology gather support and impetus from these background premises. Arguments about what constitutes human dignity ideally must be part of the public moral argumentative space. However, more often, such questions emerge most intensely in times of family despair and dispute prompted by a medical crisis. Biotechnology progress and debates unite science and the humanities and both the public and the interpersonal domains as we seek to discern the difference between genuine advancement and blind compliance with emerging new conventions. Changing technological configurations demands communication ethics discourse on the alteration of human potential.

The world before us continues to magnify technological elongation of “‘normal’ life-spans” (Hyde and King 2010, p. 165), raising questions that are religious and intimately familial as we grapple with a world seeking to reject the notion of finitude. Public argument and families in conversational agony increasingly find themselves asking practical philosophical questions about human dignity, exploring issues of “‘worthiness,’ ‘honor,’ ‘excellence,’ ‘elevation,’ and ‘height’” (Hyde and King 2010, p. 166) without understanding the philosophical background of such fundamental issues. Human beings must engage a pragmatic communication ethics question: “What has permitted human beings to stand ethically upright, and what will be the consequence of biotechnological alterations?”

Hyde (2013) argues that an Enlightenment shaped West seeks progress. Religion-infused people are often propelled by the desire for perfection. These two configurations in a biotechnological era frame bioethics within a world captivated by the new. Hope rests with continuing public and private debates about the underlying presuppositions of the West that lend rhetorical strength and weight to a biotechnological extension into every domain within the human condition.


The communication ethics public march into bioethics has been escorted by the work of Michel Foucault. The pragmatic extension of his work is now prevalent within questions of the ethical implications of the “post-human.” The study of communication ethics offers no answer; such scholarship is, however, essential as we seek to understand what biotechnical possibilities will permit those in power to protect and promote their limited understanding of the good. Communication ethics understands bioethics as debatable terrain as we seek to address the evolution of the human being, for good or otherwise.

Bibliography :

  1. Arnett, R. C. (2012). Biopolitics: An Arendtian communication ethic in the public domain. Communication and Cultural/Critical Studies, 9(2), 225–233.
  2. Arnett, R. C., Fritz, J. M. H., & Bell, L. M. (2009). Communication ethics literacy: Dialogue and difference. Thousand Oaks: Sage.
  3. Bonhoeffer, D. (1972). Letters & papers from prison (The enlarged edition. Ed. E. Bethge.). New York: Macmilian Publishing. (Original work published 1953).
  4. Ellul, J. (1990). The technological bluff (G. W. Bromily, Trans.). Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. (Original work published 1964).
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  8. Kuhn, T. (1996). The structure of scientific revolutions (3rd ed.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press. (Original work published 1962).
  9. MacIntyre, A. (1984). After virtue: A study in moral theory (2nd ed.). Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press. (Original work published 1981).
  10. MacMillian, A. (2011). Empire, biopolitics, and communication. Journal of Communication Inquiry, XX(X), 1–6.
  11. McKerrow, R. E. (2011). Foucault’s relationship to rhetoric. The Review of Communication, 11, 253–271.
  12. Negri, A. (2008). The labor of the multitude and the fabric of biopolitics. M. Coté (Ed.). (S. Mayo & P. Graefe with M. Coté, Trans.). Meditations: Journal of the Marxist Literary Group, 23(2), 1–7.
  13. Hyde, M. J., & Herrick, J. A. (2013). After the genome: A language for our own biotechnological future. Waco: Baylor University Press.
  14. King, N. M. P., & Hyde, M. J. (Eds.). (2014). Bioethics, public moral argument, and social responsibility. New York: Routledge. (Original work published 2012)

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