I have spent much of my working life toiling in various fields journalism, a craft that allowed me to indulge an obsessive interest in trying understand to the big, existential questions of our time, and then pass along whatever insight I’d gleaned. Decades of research into politics, media, corporate crime, energy policy, environmental pollution, climate change, and, most recently, the impact of technological innovation led me more and more frequently to wonder: “Why is this happening?” and “Why do we let it happen?”
Those sorts of questions, it would eventually occur to me, can only be addressed within a context of values. As a journalist, I’d found it crucially helpful to have a credible, time-tested framework of ethical standards within which to pursue my work: standards like objectivity, balance, fairness, truthfulness, and a special concern for the disenfranchised and the vulnerable.
In retrospect, it seems obvious that to be a journalist and a communicator, and to do the job well, requires one to develop an aptitude for moral and ethical thought, because even such routine tasks as deciding how to prioritize news events for presentation to a national television audience, or where to focus resources for the next day’s coverage, raise these kinds of issues. Much can hinge on the use or misuse of a word or a phrase, or a picture. In journalism, as in other fields that focus on public service and public welfare—medicine and the arts come to mind—doing the right thing is synonymous with serving the public interest. And establishing what is in the public interest and what is not takes one right back to Socrates, the first moral philosopher, and his value-laden questions: What is the right way to live? What is a good life? And even beyond that to: What is Good?
At least that’s the way I’ve always seen things. It did not make me a particularly satisfactory employee in the corporate world of for-profit media. But it did lead to an invitation to join the McLuhan Program at the University of Toronto at a time when I had only an incomplete honours BA, a half-dozen books, and my reputation; and then to the chair of ethics in media and Ryerson University’s journalism school, where I was compelled to so some serious study of basic ethical concepts in order to maintain my students’ interest. I would tell them, “All the other courses you’re taking here are designed to make life easier for you when you get into the workplace. My role is to make your job more difficult.”
Having decided that I was getting in over my head academically, I applied to and was accepted into a multidisciplinary program at Trent University that revelled in the forbidding title of Methodologies for the Study of Western History and Culture. That gave me plenty of latitude to explore the history and philosophy of science and technology. My MA thesis became a book about the underlying issues of truth—how it’s acquired and how it can be confirmed—that defined the dispute between Galileo and the Church.
And then it was on to York University’s Graduate Program in Communication and Culture (run jointly with Ryerson University) for a PhD, after which I was hired as a professor and eventually granted tenure. My doctoral dissertation, on corporations and their ethical status and agency as artificial persons, had revived my long-standing interest in artificial intelligence and its possibilities and limitations. A book about corporations as a form of AI resulted.
In the ensuing years I have continued to pursue a fascination with moral philosophy, broadly defined, and have tried to pass along my enthusiasm for the subject to the many students I’ve been privileged to teach. The essays presented here reflect the approach I’ve taken, with both graduate and undergraduate students, in courses focussing on ethics within the broader framework of communication studies. My intent has always been to go beyond situational or applied ethics, to find principles and understandings that transcend day-to-day judgements and are applicable to almost any field of endeavour.
Of course, this intellectual territory has been occupied for millennia by the world’s religions—most of which have adherents in any typical lecture theatre or seminar room at York, where the large student population is famously multicultural and polyglot, even for a Canadian university. An important part of my self-assigned role, then, was to find a way to discuss morality and ethics without treading on anyone’s religious sensibilities.
The approach I arrived at, one which students apparently found stimulating, and relevant to their lives, was awaiting discovery in a relatively new field of contemporary philosophy known as critical theory. If you’re not familiar with the name, don’t let it scare you: critical theory and its offshoot critical moral realism are as close to common-sense philosophy as anything seen in the West for a long, long, time—maybe since the Stoics. The beauty is that, as a blend of scientific realism and metaphysics, the basic, underlying, concepts are in no way antithetical to religious belief.
To go further would be to invade the space occupied by the pages that follow, so, I will step aside and leave readers to what I hope will be an enjoyable, stimulating, and above all useful exploration of some fascinating territory.
Port Hope, Ontario October, 2019