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Introduction to Ethics in Technical Communicaion

Lecture 1A — Ethics Introduction

My initial definition. An ethical technical communicator is one who produces good technical communication. Of course, pretty much everything in that definition itself needs to be defined.

Three Kinds of Technical Communication

  1. Good technical communication. I've taken these from Markel's Technical Communication, our textbook for English 303.
    1. Honesty
    2. Clarity
    3. Accuracy
    4. Comprehensiveness
    5. Accessibility
    6. Conciseness
    7. Professional Appearance
    8. Correctness
  2. Bad technical communication is technical communication that fails to be good in one or more of the categories above. This is a good-faith failure that happens in spite of the best efforts of the communicator.
  3. Evil technical communication fails to be good technical communication on purpose. It's different from the previous category in that it involves bad faith on the part of the communicator. Here are some examples of evil technical communication going back to ancient times.
    1. The Greek Sophists, at least as characterized by Plato. In his view, they were willing to argue any side of an issue without regard for the actual truth.
    2. Aristophanes The Clouds portrays Socrates as a sophist. At one point has a debate between Just Discourse (Δίκαιος Λόγος, Dikaios Logos) and Unjust Discourse (Ἄδικος Λόγος, Adikos Logos). (I misremembered the terminology in spoken lecture as Good Discourse vs Evil Discourse). Unjust Discourse wins without a problem because it can use any argument, while Just Discourse has to stick to the truth.
    3. The Catholic Church in its fight with Galileo.
    4. The anti-Darwinism of some Protestant denominations. See the Creation Museum.
    5. The Tobacco Institute, which used to publish false studies throwing doubt on the science of the harmful health effects of tobacco use.
    6. Climate change deniers. These may be the worst of the lot because the result of their actions risk destroying the livability of the only world we have to live in.

The Current State of Ethics

  1. Alasdair MacIntyre starts After Virtue with "A Disquieting Suggestion." He has us imagine a world where an anti-science cult has taken over society and is systematically killing scientists and destroying science books. Eventually rational people overthrow the cult and start to rebuild science. They will be doing so with bits and pieces of both real and fake science divorced from their original systems. We've seen this kind of apocalypse in numerous dystopian novels.
  2. MacIntyre argues that this has already happened to ethics. The ability to do ethics rationally has been derailed by the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment ushered in the modern scientific era, but its theory of knowledge is that science can discover facts but not values.
  1. ′ As we saw above, the collapse of ethics in the post-Enlightement world endangers the scientific branch of knowledge as well. Highly paid propaganda mills muddy the waters of science by churning out lies to counter the truth, unencumbered by ethical constraints. If I can believe whatever I want to about ethics based on my strong feelings, why not science also?

MacIntyre suggests the way to fix this breakdown is a return to the beginning of ethics: Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics.

An Excerpt from MacIntyre

After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory
, 2nd ed.
by Alasdair MacIntyre

Chapter 1
A Disquieting Suggestion
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Imagine that the natural sciences were to suffer the effects of a catastrophe. A series of environmental disasters are blamed by the general public on the scientists. Widespread riots occur, laboratories are burnt down, physicists are lynched, books and instruments are destroyed. Finally a Know-Nothing political movement takes power and successfully abolishes science teaching in schools and universities, imprisoning and executing the remaining scientists. Later still there is a reaction against this destructive movement and enlightened people seek to revive science, although they have largely forgotten what it was. But all that they possess are fragments: a knowledge of experiments detached from any knowledge of the theoretical context which gave them significance; parts of theories unrelated either to the other bits and pieces of theory which they possess or to experiment; instruments whose use has been forgotten; half-chapters from books, single pages from articles, not always fully legible because torn and charred. Nonetheless all these fragments are reembodied in a set of practices which go under the revived names of physics, chemistry and biology. Adults argue with each other about the respective merits of relativity theory, evolutionary theory and phlogiston theory, although they possess only a very partial knowledge of each. Children learn by heart the surviving portions of the periodic table and recite as incantations some of the theorems of Euclid. Nobody, or almost nobody, realizes that what they are doing is not natural science in any proper sense at all. For everything that they do and say conforms to certain canons of consistency and coherence and those contexts which would be needed to make sense of what they are doing have been lost, perhaps irretrievably.

In such a culture men would use expressions such as 'neutrino', 'mass', 'specific gravity', 'atomic weight' in systematic and often interrelated ways which would resemble in lesser or greater degrees the ways in which such expressions had been used in earlier times before scientific knowledge had been so largely lost. But many of the beliefs presupposed by the use of these expressions would have been lost and there would appear to be an element of arbitrariness and even of choice in their application which would appear very surprising to us. What would appear to be rival and competing premises for which no further argument could be given would
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abound. Subjectivist theories of science would appear and would be criticized by those who held that the notion of truth embodied in what they took to be science was incompatible with subjectivism.

This imaginary possible world is very like one that some science fiction writers have constructed. We may describe it as a world in which the language of natural science, or parts of it at least, continues to be used but is in a grave state of disorder. We may notice that if in this imaginary world analytical philosophy were to flourish, it would never reveal the fact of this disorder. For the techniques of analytical philosophy are essentially descriptive and descriptive of the language of the present at that. The analytical philosopher would be able to elucidate the conceptual structures of what was taken to be scientific thinking and discourse in the imaginary world in precisely the way that he elucidates the conceptual structures of natural science as it is.

What is the point of constructing this imaginary world inhabited by fictitious pseudo-scientists and real, genuine philosophy? The hypothesis which I wish to advance is that in the actual world which we inhabit the language of morality is in the same state of grave disorder as the language of natural science in the imaginary world which I described. What we possess, if this view is true, are the fragments of a conceptual scheme, parts which now lack those contexts from which their significance derived. We possess indeed simulacra of morality, we continue to use many of the key expressions. But we have — very largely, if not entirely — lost our comprehension, both theoretical and practical, of morality.

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Chapter 2 — The Nature of Moral Disagreement Today and the Claims of Emotivism

The most striking feature of contemporary moral utterance is that so much of it is used to express disagreements; and the most striking feature of the debates in which these disagreements are expressed is their interminable character. I do not mean by this just that such debates go on and on and on — although they do — but also that they apparently can find no terminus. There seems to be no rational way of securing moral agreement in our culture.

What salient characteristics do these debates and disagreements share?

They are of three kinds. The first is what I shall call, adapting an expression from the philosophy of science, the conceptual incommensurability of the rival arguments in each of the three debates. Every one of the arguments is logically valid or can be easily expanded so as to be made so; the conclusions do indeed follow from the premises. But the rival premises are such that we possess no rational way of weighing the claims of one as against another. For each premise employs some quite different normative or evaluative concept from the others, so that the claims made upon us are of quite different kinds.
  1. In the first argument, for example, premises which invoke justice and innocence are at odds with premises which invoke success and survival;
  2. in the second, premises which invoke rights are at odds with those which invoke universalizability;
  3. in the third it is the claim of equality that is matched against that of liberty. 
It is precisely because there is in our society no established way of deciding between these claims that moral argument appears to be necessarily interminable. From our rival conclusions we can argue back to our rival premises; but when we do arrive at our premises argument ceases and the invocation of one premise against another becomes a matter of pure assertion and counter-assertion. Hence perhaps the slightly shrill tone of so much moral debate.

Back to Aristotle

Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics.

Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and pursuit, is thought to aim at some good; and for this reason the good has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim. But a certain difference is found among ends; some are activities, others are products apart from the activities that produce them. Where there are ends apart from the actions, it is the nature of the products to be better than the activities. Now, as there are many actions, arts, and sciences, their ends also are many; the end of the medical art is health, that of shipbuilding a vessel, that of strategy victory, that of economics wealth. But where such arts fall under a single capacity- as bridle-making and the other arts concerned with the equipment of horses fall under the art of riding, and this and every military action under strategy, in the same way other arts fall under yet others — in all of these the ends of the master arts are to be preferred to all the subordinate ends; for it is for the sake of the former that the latter are pursued. It makes no difference whether the activities themselves are the ends of the actions, or something else apart from the activities, as in the case of the sciences just mentioned.

If, then, there is some end (τέλος, télos) of the things we do, which we desire for its own sake (everything else being desired for the sake of this), and if we do not choose everything for the sake of something else (for at that rate the process would go on to infinity, so that our desire would be empty and vain), clearly this must be the good (τἀγαθὸs, tagathňs from to agathňs, the good) and the chief good (ἄριστον, áristos). Will not the knowledge of it, then, have a great influence on life? Shall we not, like archers who have a mark to aim at, be more likely to hit upon what is right? If so, we must try, in outline at least, to determine what it is, and of which of the sciences or capacities it is the object. It would seem to belong to the most authoritative art and that which is most truly the master art (ἀρχιτεκτονική, architektoniké). And politics appears to be of this nature; for it is this that ordains which of the sciences should be studied in a state, and which each class of citizens should learn and up to what point they should learn them; and we see even the most highly esteemed of capacities to fall under this, e.g. strategy, economics, rhetoric; now, since politics uses the rest of the sciences, and since, again, it legislates as to what we are to do and what we are to abstain from, the end of this science must include those of the others, so that this end must be the good for man. For even if the end is the same for a single man and for a state, that of the state seems at all events something greater and more complete whether to attain or to preserve; though it is worth while to attain the end merely for one man, it is finer and more godlike to attain it for a nation or for city-states (πόλις, pólis). These, then, are the ends at which our inquiry aims, since it is political science (πολιτική, politiké), in one sense of that term.

The Geneology of Ethics

In my opinion, Aristotle's biggest contribution was in his creation of the taxonomy of knowledge. Here we see the taxonomy of politics, with some of its sub-categories.

          taxonomy of knowledge

Because Aristotle defines ethics as a sub-category of politics, ethics requires the presence of the city-state (πόλις, pólis) to exist in the Aristotelian sense. So what came before? Greeks had a sense of right and wrong, but it was rooted in the social organization of the era.

οἶκος oikos. House, household. The basic morality of the society based in the household is that blood is thicker than water. You side with your brother against your cousin; the three of you side together against a stranger. Even if somebody in your family hurts an outsider, you side with your family. 

ξενία, xenia. Hospitality is the only larger instituion than the household. A ξενος/ξενα xenos/xena is stranger who comes to your home; ξενία, xenia is the hospitality you show them. This typically involves giving the guest a place to stay, feasting, and giving gifts for them to take back home. At some point in the future, you might visit them and become the guest yourself and receive the hospitality. After this, the two households will become allies. We see the importance of hospitality at the beginning of Beowulf, who goes to help Hrothgar to repay a debt of hospitality that Hrothgar had shown Beowulf's father.

ἐχθρά echthraenmity. νεῖκος neikos — feud. A feud is what happens when something goes wrong either within the household or between houses. Either way, the result is a feud. Early on, there was no social organization that could stop a feud. The logic of a feud is for it to continue until one or both sides were all dead. The best place to see this dynamic in modern popular culture is in mafia movies like the Godfather. The familia doesn't go to the police when its people are killed; it takes care of its own vengeance.

Δίκη DikeJustice. The goddess Justice is familiar because of her depictions with a sword, a set of scales, and in her Roman version, blindfolded. During the oikos era, the family sought justice directly; there was little to distinguish justice from vengeance. The amount of justice you could get depended on the strength of your family. And because you sought more in revenge than the other person had done, the cycle tended to escallate. You didn't seek justice through a modern trial.

In Aeschylus' Oresteia,

  1. the king has gotten justice through the Trojan War; the gods decided it in the favor of the Greeks.
  2. His wife Clytemnestra sought justice against Agamemnon for killing their daughter by throwing a net over him while he bathed and stabbing him to death.
  3. Their son Orestes sought justice against Clytemnestra by striking her down with a sword.
  4. Her furies sought to hound Orestes to death for his matricide. And all this was one cycle of revenge.

Ἄτη, ἄτη atē. Atē "personified, the goddess of mischief, author of rash actions." 
"bewilderment, infatuation, caused by blindness or delusion sent by the gods, mostly as the punishment of guilty rashness" (Liddell, Scott, & Jones). So in the oikos, there is little difference between atē and dike. People in their blindness think that they are seeking justice, but each escallation only makes the situation worse.
    At the end of the Odyssey, the families of the suitors Odysseus killed showed up for revenge. Athena appears in the sky and stops the fighting. This kind of artificial ending was necessary because there was no human institution that could stop the fighting.

The Divine Command Theory. The appearance to Athena to tell them to stop fighting brings us to another theory of morality — The Divine Command Theory. According to this approach, morality is based in following the commands of the gods. There are some difficulties with this theory.

  1. I have some trouble seeing this approach as an approach to ethics, at least as defined by Aristotle. He wants to develop good judgment and habits of good behavior among his pupils so they could make wise decisions. The Divine Command theory mostly involves doing what you're told. It can be the opposite of using judgment.
  2. How do you know it's the gods telling what to do, and not your own wishful thinking? Does it ever seem strange that the gods just happen to hate all the same people you do? And think the same things are yucky that you do?
  3. What if the gods disagree? Greek mythology is full of gods giving conflicting commands to humans.
  4. Is something wrong because the gods tell you it is, or do they just tell you not to do it because it was wrong anyway? If God hadn't told Cain not to kill Abel, would it have been okay to do so?

μίασμα miasma. Miasma, stain, defilement. A blood crime can leaves behing a miasma a pollution that can stain a whole house or city. In Oedipus Rex, for insance, Oedipus begins his investigation into the former king's death because there is a miasma over the city of Thebes. Even after a crime seems to be over, the pollution remains.

So what we have during the era of the oikos and xenia is a system that doesn't work.

Polis, πόλις

πόλις polis. City, city-state.The city provides institutions that transcend the oikos, xenia, and echthra. The household will endure, of course, but it will decrease in relative importance. In the new system, my identity as a citizen of the United States is more important than my identity as a Magee. According to a Roman legend, the founder of the Roman Republic, Brutus (the ancestor of the one we've heard of) learned that his adult sons were conspiring to bring back the exiled king. Brutus responded by killing them. This shows that his first loyalty was to Rome, not to his familia.

δημοκρατία demokratia. Democracy. Aristotle roots his ethics in the polis, but different cities had different forms of government that called for different virtues. Under a monarchy, we would all be subjects to the ruler. And what do rulers expect from their subjects? Usually they value obedience as the most important characteristic of their loyal subjects. Hence the epithet 'loyal.' But in a democracy, the subject is replaced by a citizen. And citizens have a role in the government. As citizens, we aren't governed by rulers; therefore, we have to govern ourselves.

Δίκη Dikē. Justice in the oikos period had depended well-armed relatives to extract their vengeance. Now Δίκη Dikē works through the δίκαι dikai (plural of δίκη) of the legal system of the polis. Now instead of angry uncles and cousins lying in wait, we have a judge, a prosecutor, a defense, and a jury of citizens. Justice has been transformed by being transferred to the jurisdiction of the polis.

ἔθος ethos is a neutral word originally meaning custom or habit — a habit can be good or bad. It is the word Aristotle used to describe the virtues he was teaching his pupils at his academia. Whatever morality Greeks had had before was transformed in a way similar to the way the idea of Justice had changed. The realm of ethical behavior is the polis rather than the oikos.

Ethics in Aristotle are teleological. In fact, all the various components of his philosophy are teleological. A τέλος telos is a goal or target.


The telos (goal) of ethos (ethics) is to produce good citizens for the polis (city). Without good citizens, the democratic polis will collapse. For Aristotle, we learn these virtues through training, practice, and patience. As you hit the mark (telos) more and more, the virtue becomes part of your character. Of course, it is inevitable that as you practice, you'll miss the mark. Aristotle uses the term ἁμαρτία (harmatia)for missing the telos. In the New Testament, the word ἁμαρτία is usually translated 'sin.' Sin is marked by bad will, rebellion against the will of God. This is NOT Aristotle's definition. People don't miss the target on purpose; they are doing the best they can with their talent and skill. For the Bible, the way to deal with harmatia is repentance and forgiveness. For Aristotle, it's more practice. Another difference between the Bibile and Aristotle, really all Greek philosophy, is the contrast between zealotry and moderation. The Bible teaches its followers to believe in one God and be completely devoted to him. Greek polytheism requires us to serve all the gods enough. Serving any god too much would keep us from giving other gods the τιμή (timē, honor) that they demand. Greek polytheism naturally inclined toward moderation. 

Aristotle sees evil as a lack, inadequate goodness as it were. The Biblical we can see evil as its own force. The book of Proverbs (which is closer to Aristotle than most of the rest of the Bible) talks about both forms of evil as two kinds of ignorance.

  1. Ignorance as the lack of knowledge and wisdom. This can be fixed by listening to your elders; in fact, the person with this kind of ignorance is called "my child." This is the kind of ignorance behind bad technical communication.
  2. Ignorance that actively opposes knowledge. It rejects wisdom and experience out of hand. With correction, it only becomes more ignorant. The person with this kind of ignorance is called a fool. This kind of ignorance is behind evil technical communication.

For Aristotle, the arrow being shot at the target can fall short or go too far. So the citizen can have too much or too little of any specific virtue. For instance, courage is an important virtue. Too little courage is cowardice; too much is rashness. In the Greek phalanx, the courageous stay with the group. The coward runs away; the rash rushes ahead of the others. Neither one helps the polis to victory. This Aristotlean principle goes by several names:

I believe that Aristotle's idea of moderation is a natural outgrowth of the polytheistic religion of ancient Greece. In order to give all the gods the worship they deserve, you could not serve any too much or too little. This is in contrast to the Biblical idea of zeal and total commitment.

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