Out of the Abstract and into Your Real Life

by Russell Willerton | STC Member

This column features ethics scenarios and issues that may affect technical communicators in the many aspects of their jobs. If you have a possible solution to a scenario, your own case, or feedback in general, please contact column editor Russell Willerton at

In a recent book, organizational communication scholar Ryan S. Bisel examines the ways in which organizations typically train employees about ethics. The book, Organizational Moral Learning: A Communication Approach, provides new methods to effectively talk about ethics and train people on ethics in a variety of organizations. The subtitle of the book is key: Bisel writes that the ways organizations communicate about ethics and moral values can affect how people demonstrate ethics in their actions.

While I’m not going to provide a full book review here, I do want to discuss a few cases that Bisel identifies in the book. He uses them to argue for a social intuitionist model of moral reasoning. One key point in this kind of model is that our intuitions guide our moral judgments; we frequently reason through a moral situation after intuition has led us to a judgment about it. A second key point in Bisel’s model is that people in communities are affected by others. Sometimes people change their moral judgments in response to their communities, but those changes primarily come through adjustments to our intuitions and not to our powers of reasoning.

Bisel notes that organizations frequently assume that people will make better ethical decisions and behave more ethically if they have more information about ethics. These approaches assume that a deficit of knowledge leads to poor ethics and moral values. These assumptions also reinforce stereotypes about moral reasoning that have been around for centuries—that the heart (as the seat of emotion) hampers the ability of the head (as the seat of reason) to make good decisions. Additionally, such approaches typically have not proven to be effective over a long term.

Bisel writes that instead, we need to realize that actual ethical decisions made within organizations occur within webs of emotion, complexity, and context. It is inappropriate, he says, to keep viewing working adults as inadequate moral thinkers who need traditional training.

Wired for Moral Intuition

To demonstrate how humans are “wired” for moral intuition, Bisel identifies some cases from research. One article shows how preverbal infants can assess individuals on their behavior toward others. J. Kiley Hamlin, Karen Wynn, and Paul Bloom conducted experiments with 6- and 10-month-old infants using puppet shows. The puppets were simple shapes with eyes added. In one experiment, one puppet tried to climb a hill. After two attempts at climbing, the puppet would be either pushed up the hill by a helper or pushed down the hill by a hinderer. The helping and hindering puppets were consistent each time the infants watched, and infants watched multiple shows. After the shows, the infants were encouraged to choose between the helper and the hinderer, and they overwhelmingly chose the helping puppet.

In another set of puppet shows, infants saw interactions between a neutral puppet and either a helper or a hinderer. Infants strongly preferred the helping puppet over the neutral puppet, and the neutral puppet over the hindering puppet. The evidence suggests that humans can distinguish between positive and negative behavior toward others at an early age.

Bisel also discusses research by Antonio Damasio with a patient known as Elliot. Elliot was an intelligent individual who developed a tumor in the prefrontal cortex of his brain. After the tumor was removed, Elliot retained his intelligence, but Bisel writes that Elliot’s intuitive and emotional equipment needed to narrow his field of decision making was lost or damaged. Elliot scored highly on the Standard Moral Issue Judgment test, but he struggled to decide what to do in specific situations. These decision-making struggles were evident in Elliot’s personal life as well: Elliot was divorced twice after the tumor was removed, and he suffered after making poor business decisions as well.

Patient Elliot provides evidence for what is called the somatic-markers hypothesis, which says moral intuitions are a form of cognition and not contrary to it. Bisel notes that while Damasio conducted his research with Elliot well before magnetic resonance imagery was widely available, the somatic-markers hypothesis remains largely supported.

The Value of Dialogue About Ethics

Spoma Jovanovic and Roy V. Wood are both connected to the University of Denver. They had the opportunity to observe the development and implementation of a revised Code of Ethics and ethics training programs in the City of Denver over a four-year span, 2001 to 2005. They observed several ethics training sessions that followed a typical model: introductions of group members, a lecture on ethics, and discussion (usually perfunctory) of a case that led to a tidy resolution. Jovanovic and Wood recall a description from author Mark Pastin: such canned discussions reflect the “moral superiority of the uninvolved,” in which it is easy to be righteous when the situation discussed is not personal.

At times, however, Jovanovic and Wood observed authentic discussions that focused on real questions that city workers faced. Should workers in the IT department use the city’s buying power to order personal computers at a discount not available to the public? Should city personnel at conferences accept meals or event tickets from vendors? Should police personnel on duty accept discounted meals from ostensibly well-meaning restauranteurs? Each of these questions is layered with contextual constraints, expectations for politeness, potential for the appearance of impropriety, and practical problems to be solved.

Jovanovic and Wood provide these suggestions that advance a dialogue-focused way to approach ethics training: advance the ethos of the organization, show care for all relevant stakeholders, rely on real cases and the experiences of real people, and help participants talk to others about the ethical decisions they face in order to be ethically answerable and responsible.

Michael D. Mumford and colleagues were tasked with teaching research ethics to doctoral students in biological and social sciences. Their main approach was to use a sensemaking approach. Sensemaking occurs when people are presented with high-stakes events that are ambiguous or ill defined. Participants must choose or create mental models for these situations, which then provide a framework for gathering information, evaluating information, and choosing among available courses of action.

Training participants completed pre-tests and post-tests, including a follow-up six months later. The training involved ten modules over two days, six hours each day. Much of this time, however, was spent with students in small-group discussions of cases, discussions about the mental models they developed and applied, and role-playing exercises. Rather than merely listening to 12 hours of lecture about ethics, the students were able to discuss and apply the principles and guidelines instructors presented to them. Even after six months, follow-ups showed strong evidence that the training was effective.

Talk about Ethics in Your Communities

Bisel’s book is interesting. Even though it’s written in an academic style, I think it is approachable and that many professionals could benefit from it. One main point to take away from the book is that it is important for organizations to have a dialogue about ethics if they want to be ethical organizations. Typical instructor-led classes with canned ethics cases to review are not necessarily going to help people to have honest discussions with each other. Before these kinds of discussions can happen, people need to be able to trust each other, and they need to have the freedom to speak openly. Managers can’t expect dialogue to happen if the conditions to support it are not in place. But if people can trust each other, honest dialogue can occur with discussions of real situations that occur in specific contexts.

Here are some ways you can promote dialogue about ethics:

  • Find an ethics case (from Intercom or another place) that relates to your line of work. Ask a group of coworkers how the case is like or unlike what happens in your profession.
  • Think of a situation that you or someone else has faced; take note of all the layers that make it complex. Then bring it to your manager for group discussion. (You may also send it to Intercom!)
  • Accentuate the positive. Find an example within your organization of someone who went out of his or her way to do the right thing. Think about the values this person reflected, and consider how your organization can promote those values.

A true dialogue can be hard to achieve, and the experience can be fleeting. But it’s important to take a first step to get a dialogue started


Bisel, Ryan S. Organizational Moral Learning: A Communication Approach. New York, NY: Routledge, 2018.

Damasio, Antonio Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain. New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1994.

Hamlin, J. Kiley, Karen Wynn, and Paul Bloom. “Social Evaluation by Preverbal Infants.” Nature. 450 (2007): 557–560.

Jovanovic, Spoma, and Roy V. Wood. “Communication Ethics and Ethical Culture: A Study of the Ethics Initiative in Denver City Government.” Journal of Applied Communication Research. 34.4 (2006): 386–405.

Mumford, Michael D., Shane Connelly, Ryan P. Brown, Stephen T. Murphy, Jason H. Hill, Alison L. Antes, Ethan P. Waples, and Lynn D. Devenport. “A Sensemaking Approach to Ethics Training for Scientists: Preliminary Evidence of Training Effectiveness.” Ethics & Behavior. 18.4 (2008): 315–339.

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