2 Ethics and Public Speaking

Anthony Naaeke, Ph.D. and Eva Kolbusz-Kijne, Ph.D.

Learning Objectives

  • Explore the meaning of ethics.
  • Distinguish between absolute and relativist perspectives on ethics.
  • Identify and apply the code of ethics for ethical public speaking established by the National Communication Association
  • Distinguish between ethical and unethical speech.

“I regret it now because the information was wrong.”

— Colin Powell


The above quotation from former United States Secretary of State Colin Powell directly applies to the discussion we are about to have in this chapter, namely, ethics in public speaking. In this television interview on the Larry King Live CNN program first aired in 2011, former Secretary of State, Colin Powell, expressed regret for a speech he delivered before Congress in which he provided what he believed was justifiable reasons for the United States to go to war against Iraq following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks against the United States. Although Powell believed at the time of his speech to the United Nations that the information and evidence he provided in the speech were accurate, ostensibly because he trusted the officials who vetted the accuracy of the information, he later realized that the speech was based on misinformation and inaccurate evidence. By expressing regret for delivering a speech filled with inaccuracies, Colin Powell basically acknowledged that his speech was unethical. However, by publicly expressing regret for an unethical speech that he delivered, he fulfilled the ninth ethical principle of the National Communication Association’s code for ethical speaking that states, “We accept responsibility for the short- and long-term consequences for our own communication and expect the same of others.” This principle calls for ethical speakers to take responsibility for mistakes and errors made in communication whether in the short or long term when they become aware of the errors and inaccuracies they expressed.

In this chapter we will explore the meaning of ethics, ethical perspectives, the Code of Ethics of the National Communication Association and distinguish between ethical and unethical speeches.


Ethics has to do with social norms regarding right and wrong. It is a branch of philosophy that deals with right and wrong. Because different cultures have different norms about right and wrong, ethics is a very contested zone in all aspects of human encounters. One culture may consider something to be right while another may consider the same thing to be wrong. Hence, the contested nature of ethics. However, for effective communication, especially communication that is intended to move an audience to make choices or decisions, some basic agreement on what is right and wrong is necessary.

In De Oratore (Institutes of Oratory), the Roman rhetorician Quintilian wrote that the perfect orator is first “a good man speaking well.” This simple statement establishes a fundamental expectation for ethical public speaking, namely, that great oratory should entail both an ethical character of the speaker as well as delivery that embodies confidence, competence, dynamism, and good will (addresses the needs of an audience).

For Quintilian and other rhetoricians such as Cicero and St. Augustine, rhetoric or oratory should be grounded in truth and not deception. According to these rhetoricians, the communication of truth distinguishes ethical rhetoric from sophistic rhetoric which uses any means, including deceptive ways, untruths, and outright lies, to persuade an audience.

Ethical Perspectives

There are different perspectives on ethics, but this section will concentrate on two of them, namely, the absolute values perspective and the relativist perspective.

The absolute values perspective on ethics holds that irrespective of person, place, or time, right is right and wrong is wrong. In other words, there are universal ethical values that apply to all people and cultures. For example, it is wrong to kill or to tell a lie or to steal or to defraud. This means that irrespective of person or culture or situation, a person who tells a lie or kills or defrauds others has done an unethical act.


Ethical relativism on the other hand is the philosophical position that the sense of right and wrong is always relative to the individual and not universal to all people and situations.    The Encyclopedia Britannica defines ethical relativism as “the doctrine that there are no absolute truths in ethics and that what is morally right or wrong varies from person to person or from society to society.” The arguments for ethical relativism are mainly two-fold. The Encyclopedia observes that an argument, based on the Greek Philosopher Herodotus (5t Century BC), claims that every culture has its customs and norms and no culture’s values, norms and customs are better than another. A second argument in favor of ethical relativism, according to the Encyclopedia, is based on the 18th century philosopher David Hume who expressed the idea that moral values are grounded in emotion and not reason and can, therefore, not be universalized.


Implications of Ethical Perspectives for Public Speaking

When applied to public speaking, the absolute values perspective on ethics implies that there are or should be rigorous principles that guide how to teach public speaking, how to write a speech, how to deliver a speech, how to reference sources, what is considered appropriate vocal projection, eye contact, posture, vocabulary, etc. This approach to public speaking can be regarded by minority groups based on race, culture, or nationality, as oppressive in the context of culturally sustaining pedagogies and the ongoing efforts to engage pedagogies that are inclusive, diverse, and equity minded.

On the other hand, a fundamental implication of ethical relativism for public speaking is that there are no universal norms or ethical codes that govern what and how to make public presentations. This means that depending on the speaker, context, audience or purpose, a public speaker decides what and how to make the presentation without following a predetermined style. This also means that the principle of ethical relativism is more respectful of diverse cultural values, culturally relevant speech patterns, thought processes, and language use. In the context of culturally sustaining pedagogies, the relativist ethical perspective would allow more flexibility in how public speaking is taught and how students, depending on their various backgrounds, prepare and deliver speeches.

Despite the implications of the two ethical perspectives on ethics discussed above, the National Communication Association (NCA) has established a Credo for Ethical Communication to guide the practice of the discipline.

NCA Credo for Ethical Communication

The NCA believes ethical communication is “fundamental to responsible thinking, decision making, and the development of relationships and communities within and across contexts, cultures, channels, and media.” Conversely, the NCA believes that unethical communication threatens the well-being of individuals and society. Consequently, the NCA has established a Credo for Ethical Communication referenced in the link below.


The NCA Credo for Ethical Communication is extensive, but for the purpose of this chapter which addresses ethics in public speaking, it is important to outline and focus on the following nine principles of the code:

  1. We advocate truthfulness, accuracy, honesty, and reason as essential to the integrity of communication.
  2. We endorse freedom of expression, diversity of perspective, and tolerance of dissent to achieve the informed and responsible decision making fundamental to a civil society.
  3. We strive to understand and respect other communicators before evaluating and responding to their messages.
  4. We promote access to communication resources and opportunities as necessary to fulfill human potential and contribute to the well-being of individuals, families, communities, and society.
  5. We promote communication climates of caring and mutual understanding that respect the unique needs and characteristics of individual communicators.
  6. We condemn communication that degrades individuals and humanity through distortion, intimidation, coercion, and violence, and through the expression of intolerance and hatred.
  7. We are committed to the courageous expression of personal convictions in pursuit of fairness and justice.
  8. We advocate sharing information, opinions, and feelings when facing significant choices while also respecting privacy and confidentiality.
  9. We accept responsibility for the short- and long-term consequences for our own communication and expect the same of others.

In essence, the principles outlined in the code emphasize the importance of communication that is grounded in truth, honesty, accuracy, and respect for the audience as an ethical responsibility of a speaker.

Distinguishing Between Ethical and Unethical Speeches

Based on the exploration of ethics, perspectives on ethics, and the NCA Credo for ethical communication, it is appropriate to observe that irrespective of cultural background or values, some general principles should guide what is ethical or unethical in public speaking.

Purpose of the Speech

Effective communication must be purpose-driven. The purpose of a speech is important because it lets the speaker and audience know the ultimate outcome of the speech. The purpose of the speech should seek to accomplish something good. If the purpose of a speech is unethical it means that it seeks to accomplish something bad. Let us explore some examples to illustrate. In the speech by former Secretary of State Colin Powell to the United Nations that we referenced in the introduction of this chapter, his purpose was to persuade the International Community that Saddam Hussien, then President of Iraq, had weapons of mass destruction which posed serious security problems to the world and that the United States would have to go to war against Iraq in order to prevent the use of weapons of mass destruction against the International Community. The purpose of the speech was ethical in as far as it sought to protect the common good of the International Community by preventing a nation and its leader from doing harm to people. On the other hand, a speech whose purpose is to arouse anger and resentment against specific groups of people, such as immigrants, would be unethical because such a speech aims to do harm to a group of people by appealing to the emotion of anger in its audience who would then act violently or discriminate against immigrants as evidenced by a speech by former President Donald Trump in which he called Mexicans murderers and rapists. See reference to the speech in the link below.


Credibility of evidence

Another element of an ethical speech is that the information given should be based on facts and not opinion,, information that is accurate and reliable. Facts can be demonstrated or proven, while opinions are the personal views of a person that may or may not be factual. The evidence should also be accurate in the sense that it should fully and properly represent the ideas or statements of others within the context in which such ideas or statements are made. Evidence that is not accurate distorts the original message of the source of information and misleads an audience. The credibility of evidence is not only about what is stated but also about who says it. To be ethical, a public speaker must verify that the source of information they use as evidence to support claims is reliable or can be trustedtrustworthy. For example, the statements of a racist bigot in defense of racism cannot be considered reliable because of the personal disposition of the source.

Another important consideration about the credibility of evidence is crediting the sources of the information used. An ethical speaker must let the audience know the source of the information or data or statistics or images such as paintings, pictures, and drawings if the information was taken from another person’s work. Failing to credit the sources of information constitutes plagiarism.

Plagiarism is using another person’s ideas or work without crediting the source. There are three types of plagiarism: global, patchwork and incremental.

Global plagiarism is taking the entire work of another person and not crediting the source. For example, if you take a speech that was written by someone else and deliver it to an audience without letting the audience know who the original writer of the speech is, that would constitute global plagiarism.

Patchwork plagiarism on the other hand takes substantive parts, such as a paragraph, from different sources and puts them together without crediting the sources. Patchwork plagiarism is easy to commit when you highlight, copy, and paste information from different sources without crediting the sources.

The third type of plagiarism, incremental plagiarism, happens when you take a phrase or sentence from various sources and fail to credit the sources. Ethical speakers always credit their sources.

Arrangement of Ideas

One other way to be an ethical speaker is to arrange your ideas in a way that makes it easy for the audience to follow the logical flow of the message. An ethical speaker should facilitate the understanding of the message and not confuse the audience with disorderly placement of ideas. In an orderly arrangement of ideas, the audience can easily follow how one idea moves to another or relates to another, whereas in a confusing arrangement of ideas, the audience struggles to see how one point relates to another or flows into another.


An ethical speaker should always be mindful that the language used is familiar to the audience and inclusive, . Language should not toonot be too technical or abstract,; not racist, sexist, or abusive and is inclusive. Using familiar language makes it easy for the audience to understand a message being communicated, while technical or abstract language may be appropriate for a specific audience especially based on profession and level of education. Racist, sexist, and abusive language looks down on a group of people while extolling the perceived superiority of the speaker over the audience.

Respect for the audience

In addition to the above guidelines for ethical speaking, a speaker should show respect to an audience by being on time to the event and respect the time allotted for the speech. The speaker also shows respect to an audience by dressing appropriately and listening to the feedback from the audience and responding to questions from the audience honestly.


Finally, an ethical speaker should know what they are talking about, be well prepared, dress appropriately, speak clearly, engage the audience through direct eye contact and body movements that show physical/mindful presence and attention to the audience.

Other guiding principles for ethical public speaking

Many scholars of ethical communication agree that an ethical speaker should have integrity, competence, responsibility, respect, and concern (Plante, 2004). Integrity means being an honest, fair and a just person. Competence is a quality of someone who is knowledgeable and skilled in some job or task whilst r. Responsibility has to do with keeping promises and being attentive to one’s obligations. An ethical speaker should be respectful of others in terms of paying attention to their rights, needs, dignity and be concerned about the needs of others.


In this chapter, we explored the meaning of ethics, different perspectives on ethics, and distinguished between ethical and unethical speeches. We also outlined the Credo for Ethical Communication by the National Communication Association and provided practical guidelines for ethical public speaking. In the context of higher education that emphasizes the need for culturally sustaining pedagogies, an ethical speaker must be respectful of diverse audiences they address. Ethical speakers should use evidence that is based on reliable facts while considering the lived experiences and needs of the audience.

Review Questions

  1. What is your understanding of ethics and why is it important for speaking speakers?
  2. Distinguish between absolute and relativist perspectives on ethics.
  3. Identify nine principles of ethical communication outlined by the National Communication Association.
  4. Distinguish between ethical and unethical speech.

Class Exercises

  • Show a speech to the class and put students in small groups to discuss and explain why the speech is ethical or unethical.
  • Put students in small groups and ask them to make a list of things they consider ethical or unethical in a speech.

Works Cited

Encyclopedia Britannica. Ethical Relativism. https://www.britannica.com/topic/ethical-relativism. Accessed 6/5/21.

Plante, Thomas. Do the Right Thing: Living Ethically in an Unethical World. Oakland, CA. New Harbinger Publications, 2004, p. 49-145.

Powell, Colin. Interview on Larry King Live. CNN. 2011. YouTube Video. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d93_u1HHgM4. Accessed 6/5/21.

The Gifford Lectures. Relative and Absolute Value. https://www.giffordlectures.org/books/moral-values-and-idea-god/6-relative-and-absolute-value. Accessed 6/5/21.

Trump, Donald. Interview on MSNBC. YouTube Video. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jaz1J0s-cL4. Accessed 6/5/21.


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Ethics and Public Speaking Copyright © by Anthony Naaeke, Ph.D. and Eva Kolbusz-Kijne, Ph.D. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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