This chapter was written by Annemarie Hamlin, Chris Rubio, and Michele DeSilva, Central Oregon Community College, and is licensed CC-BY 4.0. Thanks to Eleanor Sumpter-Latham, Humanities/Writing Professor at Central Oregon Community College for contributing to this chapter.
In day-to-day life, most people have a sort of sliding scale on what constitutes ethical behavior: they would not tell a direct lie on trivial matters if doing so would hurt someone’s feelings. For example, you might tell your best friend her new haircut looks attractive when in fact you believe that it does not. This lie, though minor, preserves your friend’s feelings and does no harm to her or anyone else. Some might consider the context before determining how to act. For example, you might not tell a stranger that he was trailing toilet paper but you would tell a friend. In a more serious situation, a person might not choose to die to save a stranger’s life, but she might risk dying to save her children’s lives.
Ethical behavior, including ethical technical communication, involves not just telling the truth and providing accurate information, but telling the truth and providing information so that a reasonable audience knows the truth. It also means that you act to prevent actual harm, with set criteria for what kinds and degrees of harm are more serious than others (for example, someone’s life outweighs financial damage to your company; your company’s success outweighs your own irritation). As a guideline, ask yourself what would happen if your action (or non-action) became public. If you would go to prison, lose your friends, lose your job, or even just feel really embarrassed, the action is probably unethical.