Introduction to Ethical Dimensions of Public Speaking

Ethics is a branch of philosophical study that deals with issues of right and wrong, fairness, and justice. It is a moral code that individuals live by. Ethics can be thought of as a collective set of principles that are influenced by the culture of a region, a nation, or the global community.

Being ethical does not mean following a simple set of rules, may change over time, and depends on a variety of factors, so why is it important to carefully craft your speeches ethically? History offers us many examples of great speakers who rose to power through their inspirational messages and energized the public towards civic engagement and positive change. However, there are also numerous examples of speakers who used the power of public speech for unethical, immoral, and unjust ends. The danger of unethical public speech is so pronounced that we have a specific word for leaders who use public speech for immoral and unethical purposes: demagogues. A demagogue is a leader who “gains popularity in a democracy by exploiting emotions, prejudice, and ignorance to arouse some against others, whipping up the passions of the crowd and shutting down reasoned deliberation” (wikipedia). Infamous demagogues like Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Pol Pot, Joseph Stalin, and Joseph McCarthy stand as stark reminders of the catastrophic potential of unethical public speech.

When committing your voice to the public sphere, you are faced with a series of ethical considerations—from the language you use and the ideas you amplify to the way you build your argument and credit others’ ideas. Ultimately, ethics in public speaking is about using the power of our language honestly, thoughtfully, and responsibly.