Interpreting ethics: public relations and strong hermeneutics

Johanna Fawkes

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This article argues that as concepts of professionalism shift and buckle under global economic and socialpressures, it might be timely to look less to systems and more to human experience forethical guidance. A hermeneutic approach, drawing on the philosophy of interpretationdeveloped in recent decades by thinkers such as Gadamer, Habermas and Riceour,offers an alternative, inner, path to an ethics drawn from the search for shared meaning.The article starts with a brief overview of the current state of public relations ethics, suggesting a reliance on somewhat superficial codes for guidance and the absence ofreflexivity in ethical debates; it then introduces concepts from hermeneutics and itsmain schools or approaches, with a particular focus on hermeneutic ethics. Finally, thearticle links the two topics to show how 'strong' hermeneutic ethics might contribute togreater reflexivity in public relations ethics. It aims to shift the ethical debate away from notional reliance on codes and external guidance towards a deeper ethic. The approachtaken is broadly critical (Hall, 1980; Heath, 1992) and is itself interpretative, making thearticle doubly-hermeneutic (Giddens, 1984) in both form and content.This article suggests that public relations' inadequate engagement with the complexitiesof ethical theory has contributed to public loss of trust in its activities. Instead of blaming this on publics, communicators could take more responsibility for theirprofessional ethics. The author suggests that a hermeneutic approach to ethics opensup a new area for debate in the field. Public relations ethics have traditionally drawnon the major approaches of deontology (Kant) and consequentialism (Bentham andMill), with marginal reference to the more recent revival of Aristotelian virtue ethics(MacIntyre, 1984), an approach that shifts attention from ethical action to ethical agent.Thus discussion of ethics in public relations literature (Fitzpatrick and Bronstein, 2006;S. A. Bowen, 2007; McElreath, 1996) concentrates on rational approaches to ethicaldecision making, based (respectively) in marketplace theory, Kantian approaches orsystems theory. In these and other writings, there is an emphasis, as is common inapproaches to professional ethics, on external rule-based ethics rather than attemptsto focus on inner processes to assess ethical implications of practice.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)117-140
Number of pages24
JournalPublic Relations Inquiry
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - May 2012

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