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Publications > Dateline Houston > May 2003 > Feature Article

Volume 42, Issue 9

May 2003

Determining Your Ethical Duty as a Technical Writer

by Aubrey L. Hardman, Graduate Student, Texas Tech University

In the field of technical communication, professionals encounter ethical dilemmas every day; however, many of these dilemmas go unnoticed because they are blanketed under "large" dilemmas that many people define as more serious. Nevertheless, these "small" ethical dilemmas require more of our immediate attention simply because of their frequency, even though we are often oblivious to the decisions we are making.


Dr. Sam Dragga, professor of technical communication at Texas Tech University, posed seven different ethical dilemmas to 500 technical communicators in a survey to determine the types of ethical decisions being made in the field and the basis for these decisions. The result of this survey shows that many technical communicators are uninformed about the reasoning behind the ethical decisions they make, which is problematic because there is no principle guiding their ethical decisions. According to Dr. Dragga, "Without this principle of `considered practice' to guide their decisions...technical communicators have the virtually impossible job of continuously adapting their individual ethical practices to the rapid advance of computerized technology and the new rhetorical powers that such advances never cease to offer" (p. 263).

Let's analyze the responses to one of the seven ethical dilemmas posed in Dr. Dragga's survey, attempting to educate technical communicators about their decisions and options when faced with ethical dilemmas. In the dilemma technical communicators make ethical decisions based on a deontological philosophy (that is, not based on consequences) as opposed to the consequential philosophy suggested by Dr. Dragga. Although many of the technical communicators in Dr. Dragga's survey made the same decision in this specific situation, there is nothing that ensures another technical communicator would make the same ethical decision when faced with a similar dilemma.


In the survey, which was published in Dr. Dragga's 1996 article, "Is This Ethical?," 76.1% of 455 participants considered the decision in the following situation unethical:

"You have been asked to design materials that will be used to recruit new employees. You decide to include photographs of the company's employees and its facilities. Your company has no disabled employees. You ask one of the employees to sit in a wheelchair for one of the photographs. Is this ethical?" (p. 256).

Furthermore, 243 participants of this 76.1% justified their decision based on a consequential philosophy. However, when this ethical dilemma is analyzed under a consequential philosophy such as utilitarianism, the decision is actually determined to be ethical.

Therefore, the following questions remain: Why did an overwhelming portion of the 455 participants in the survey justify their decision based on a consequential philosophy? If a consequential philosophy determines this decision to be ethical, then are all 243 technical communicators wrong in their decision? If these technical communicators aren't wrong, then what is the underlying principle in the participants' decisions? And what action(s) should technical communicators choose when faced with a similar ethical dilemma?

Analysis--Consequential Philosophy

According to Dr. Dragga, the consequential categorization of the participants' replies was based on the understanding that the decision in the dilemma "misleads the reader and does not factually represent the situation" (p. 261). However, according to a consequential philosophy such as utilitarianism, the ethical dilemma wouldn't be in the deception. Instead, the ethical dilemma would be in a cost/benefit analysis where the number of people negatively or positively affected would determine whether or not the decision was ethical. According to John Stuart Mill, "actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness [or pleasure]" and "the estimation of pleasure should be supposed to depend on quantity alone" (pp. 7-8). Based on an initial understanding of Mill's concept, I would assume that this decision would be considered ethical according to utilitarianism because more people would benefit, or gain pleasure, from the photograph than those that would be negatively affected.

For instance, assume that the photograph is taken and sent out to local colleges to recruit new employees. Many students normally apply to work for this company because it is a well known and respected company. On the other hand, disabled students are somewhat reluctant to apply to this prestigious company because they don't feel that the company would hire them over someone without a disability. However, the photograph gives the disabled student reason to believe that the company does hire disabled employees, which encourages the disabled student to apply. Given that the company wants to diversify, hence the reason for the picture, the picture contributes to the good of the company, the employees of the company, and disabled students (or any disabled person, for that matter).

Furthermore, the possibility of someone actually discovering the deception is small. Even if someone does find out about the deception, the number of people negatively affected by the deception would be far fewer than the number of people who would benefit from the decision (for example, company employees, disabled persons, etc.).

Analysis--Deontological Philosophy

However, the challenge still remains in the fact that an overwhelming portion of the participants in Dr. Dragga's survey determined this decision to be unethical. Are the 243 respondents who deemed this decision unethical based on consequence wrong or unethical? I would argue not. Based on the majority vote that this decision is unethical, the 243 respondents' decision must be correct. Then, the question is, why did 76.1% of the participants in the survey vote that this decision was unethical? I argue that the participants' decisions were based on an imperative duty not to deceive, even if the participants aren't fully aware that this was the basis of their decision.

This latter argument follows the deontological philosophy posed by Immanuel Kant, which suggests that one should act only when one can will that the act "should become a universal law" (p. 14). If the act cannot become a universal law, then it must be rejected. This is not to suggest that the act is rejected because of any disadvantage accruing to the one performing the act or any others. Instead, the act is rejected because "it cannot be fitting as a principle in a possible legislation of universal law." (p. 15).

The decision in the ethical dilemma being discussed in this article should be undoubtedly rejected because the maxim destroys itself as soon as it is willed as a universal law--as soon as we will as a universal law the maxim that every company may deceive the public to get what it wants. This maxim is obviously the case in the decision because the company is falsely placing an employee that is not disabled in a wheelchair for the specific purpose of deceiving the public into thinking that the company has a diverse workforce. After we will our maxim as a universal law, it destroys itself because a company cannot deceive the public when it is willed that every company can deceive. If all rational beings will that every company can deceive, then all rational beings (that is, the public) will not believe that what companies say or show is true. Hence, the maxim destroys itself when it is willed as a universal law.

Because the purpose of deception is to mislead people into believing things that are untrue, the moral dilemma in this case study is comparable to lying. Therefore, our ethical dilemma is very similar to Kant's example of making false promises, which he uses to explain why lying is unethical. Kant writes, "For by such a law [making false promises] there would really be no promises at all, since in vain would my willing future actions be professed to other people who would not believe what I professed, or if they over-hastily did believe, then they would pay me back in like coin" (p. 15). As Kant argues in this case, the act of lying cannot be willed as a universal law because if everyone lies, no one would believe what anyone says, which creates a logical conundrum.

Furthermore, Kant would also argue that our decision in the moral dilemma is unethical due to the proposition that everyone has a duty to others. If a technical communicator faced with this ethical dilemma chose to deceive the public by having an employee without a disability sit in a wheelchair for the picture, the technical communicator is using everyone who sees the picture as a means to an end. The end, in this case, is the desire to mislead people into believing the company's workforce is diverse.

Kant argues that every rational being is an end because rationality (or the will) exists objectively; therefore, it is unethical to treat a rational being as a means to an end. Kant writes:

"In this way man [or woman] necessarily thinks of his [or her] own existence; thus far is it a subjective principle of human actions. But in this way also does every other rational being think of his [or her] existence on the same rational ground that holds also for me; hence it is at the same time an objective principle, from which, as a supreme practical ground, all laws of the will must be able to be derived." (p. 36)

In this excerpt, Kant argues that every rational being has the same will (for example, the ability to contemplate existence or the ability to have goals, dreams, and plans). Hence, because every rational being has a will, then it is illogical--or unethical--for a rational being to universally will that all rational beings should treat rational beings as means to an end. Therefore, we can conclude that our ethical dilemma is unethical not because of consequences but because of an imperative duty that all rational beings have to others not to deceive (or treat rational beings as means to an end).


The 243 technical communicators' decisions in Dr. Dragga's article are based on an imperative duty not to deceive rather than a consequential philosophy. However, many of the survey participants justified their ethical responses according to a consequential philosophy. This leads me to believe that most technical communicators are unfamiliar with the justification(s) behind their ethical decisions, which is problematic because there is no guiding principle behind the ethical decisions technical communicators make.

Technical communicators have a grave responsibility to develop an objective guiding principle to direct their ethical decisions because technical communicators are rhetoricians. As rhetoricians, technical communicators are powerful because they interpret external realities to users who take action based on those interpretations. To consciously or unconsciously mislead someone into taking action for selfish gain is simply unethical, and technical communicators should strive to act ethically because all rational people will to be treated ethically. Therefore, this article should encourage technical communicators to take the initiative to understand the reasoning behind their ethical decisions; however, understanding the justification is simply the beginning.

Based on a deontological philosophy and the 243 technical communicators' decision that the decision in the dilemma is unethical, the only option in this case is to not have the person without a disability sit in a wheelchair for the picture. However this decision can quickly become much more complicated if we consider additional variables into the equation such as maintaining job security, supporting a family, and recruiting competent employees to ensure the future success of the company. Determining whether a moral dilemma is ethical or unethical is often the easy part; the more difficult part is choosing what to do.


Dragga, Sam. "'Is This Ethical? A Survey of Opinion on Principles and Practices of Document Design." Technical Communication , Third Quarter 1996: 255-265.

Kant, Immanuel. Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals: On a supposed Right to Lie because of Philanthropic Concerns. Ed. James Ellington. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1993.

Mill, John Stuart. Utilitarianism . Ed. George Sher. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1979.


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