Scholars have attempted to create an ethical body of knowledge in public relations. Related disciplines such as communication ethics, media ethics, and business ethics have contributed theories and ideas to the discussion. Public relations scholars have applied moral philosophy to public relations ethics and found it a thought provoking area. However, public relations theorist have failed to follow suit by basing its ethics squarely in moral philosophy. Few public relations practitioners have studied moral philosophy or ethics, and most tend to rely on situational ethics or rather than philosophical analyses. Research found that situational ethics are the preference of public relations practitioners in the United States. A situational approach to ethics is problematic because it sees no universal or generally applicable moral norms, but looks at each situation independently. The lack of guidance given by situational ethics limits its usefulness; furthermore, it is normally employed by those with very little ethics training. Scholars found that public relations courses and texts gave little attention to the topic of ethics.
Most appropriate for the study of public relations ethics are the philosophical schools of utilitarianism or consequentialist theory, and deontology or nonconsequentialist theory. Consequentalism bases the choice of what is ethical on the projected consequences of the decision. The various schools of thought diverge on how to judge what is of highest moral worth at that phase: it might be the decision that creates the greatest happiness and minimises harm, serves the majority, upholds the culture in which the decision is made, or serves the greater good (Heath, 2002). Consequentialism asks us to predict the possible outcomes of our decisions and perform a cost-benefit calculation among the potential outcomes. The ethical outcome is that which generally has the most positive consequences and the least negative consequences. Utilitarianism is the most popular type of consequentialist ethics, defining as ethical that which produces the greatest good for the greatest number of people.
Nonconsequentialist ethics uses a different measure of what makes an act morally worthy. Worthiness is defined as: doing one's duty to uphold moral principles that apply equally to all people. In this school of thought, ethical behavior is based on what is morally right in principle, rather than on the projected outcome of a decision. The consequences of a decision are not ignored, but they are not the decision-making guide used in contemplating the correct option among alternatives (Caywood, 2007).
'Doing one's duty to follow moral principles objectively' is how deontologists define ethical behavior. For example, the term “It is wrong to lie” would be a universal moral principle, because a lie only works under an assumption of truth. Society would lose this assumption of truth if everyone lied whenever it ...