Students Should Develop an Ethical Code for Public Speaking
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Words of Wisdom

Letters have to pass two tests before they can be classed as good: they must express the personality both of the writer and of the recipient.

— E. M. Forster

by Jennifer Jones Barbour

As a professor of rhetoric and public argument, I always ask my students what they think makes an argument ethical.  They answer in a variety of ways like making sure to include citations and telling the truth.  Underlying their answers is a sense that public speaking is a transaction between advocates and audiences. How long or short the speech should not matter. The subject of the speech should not matter. When advocates offer arguments to secure support or agreement they have made an implicit commitment to their audience.  In other words, we have expectations about what are appropriate and inappropriate ways to persuade others.

Persuasion is a powerful tool and if we want our students to wield their public speaking skills with care then we have to teach them not only to give public presentations but also to do so ethically. One way to get students to understand that commitment is to ask them to develop an ethical code for their public speaking.  Developing their own ethical code asks the students to think about their public arguments in ways beyond whether or not they met the criteria of the assignment.

For example, an ethical code might ask students to pay attention to argument construction.  Did they include the most recent research?  Did they cite their sources correctly?  Did they make any fallacious arguments?  Fallacies attempt to persuade by diverting attention away from actual arguments: claims that attack instead of argue (ad hominem) or claims based on popular support instead of evidence (ad populum).

An ethical code might ask students to think about the long-term consequences of their public speech. In other words, getting students to think about what happens if they are successful.  What have they asked the audience to do?  What would happen to the audience in the long term? What would happen if everyone in their community took the action they recommended?

Developing an ethical code for their own public speaking can also be a way to help students evaluate the arguments they encounter as audience members.  Public speaking is about listening and being an engaged audience member as much as it is about giving a public presentation.  Being an audience member means that students need to be informed, be aware of attempts to influence them, know their own biases, and understand how and why fallacies are persuasive.

As professors we spend time talking about plagiarism and cheating.  We teach our students to research, the differences between paraphrasing and copying, and how to cite their supporting material appropriately. We too spend time investigating plagiarism.  Creating an ethical code for public speech expands this conversation and serves as an antecedent to civil dialogue.  An ethical code for public speech helps students understand that as advocates and audience members, they can and should promote choice, develop positive relationships with their audiences, and be accountable for the ideas they share.