Ethical Frames

Please find below a blog article I wrote for my ethics department at Kaplan:

Understanding our Ethical Organizational Frames: Directing Students towards Purposeful Action rather than Simple Motion.

Rebecca Lea McCarthy

We have had some great articles on the pedagogical approach to teaching and philosophy. But I wanted to explore how I am working at bridging my research on ethics with communication and sociological framing theory. Since ethics for me is not only the study of morality but of action and critical thinking, I would like to explore a pragmatic approach where the three areas of inquiry intersect. Further, if we can teach our students to learn how to negotiate the more difficult ethical topics in a rational and open way, and to avoid either/or ethical frames of argument in their public as well as private lives, we have given them life and civic skills that will lead to better understanding.

Considering many ethical topics, and certainly the ones we ask our students to consider, ethics is ripe for either/or frames of argument that hinders communication and community debate on topics of interest. For example, topics such as cloning, abortion, and same sex marriages are typically framed in this either/or formula where the “good guys” are pitted against the “bad guys” (good and bad being subjected to which side of the either/or argument you are on). Kenneth Burke in Attitudes Towards History, suggests that we must break free of polarizing argument frames in order to transcend to a space of agreement or identification. Specifically, Burke suggests that absolute opposing options of either “A” or “B” offer no room for a meeting place. To obtain transcendence, Burke suggests “adopting” another point of view from which “A” and “B” “cease to be opposites” (336). In Burke’s example, “A” and “B” represent polarizing frames that reinforce their opposing positions. A frame, then, is a word, phrase or concept that evokes a “conceptual structure used in thinking” (Lakoff, Simple Framing 2006, para. 1, Tarrow 2005, 61)that helps us identify with an idea, concept, stereotype, and so on (for example: I am a Facebook user vs. I am a MySpace User; I am a Mac vs. I am a PC). The cognitive linguist George Lakoff states that frames consist of four morals: (1) “Every word evokes a frame.” (2) “Words defined within a frame evoke the frame.” (3) “Negating a frame evokes the frame,” and (4) “evoking a frame reinforces that frame” (“Simple Framing,” para. 1). Thus, if you were told not to “think of an elephant,” you would find the task impossible since the word “elephant” reinforces the conceptual image of an elephant. You cannot, for example, immediately envision a monkey, because, using a soft determinism point of view, “every time a neural circuit is activated [in the brain], it is strengthened” (para. 1).

It is vital to note that Lakoff’s insistence of neural circuit activation implies that “deep frames” are rooted in our values and principles (para. 13), and work on an unconscious reaction (intuition) level in the same way that ideology is said to sway individuals. According to this view, the neural circuit activation is responsible for our unquestioning loyalty to a political party or a product, or even values we hold to be true (such as spiritual or national allegiances). To this end, Goffman (1974) states that most of us are unaware of our organizational frames and would be “unable to describe the framework with any completeness if asked” (21). As such, the study of ethics and the different types of consequential and non-consequential reasoning becomes vital to our critical thinking and action process, because such investigation works to unveil our organizational frames – and encourages us to engage in purposeful and ethical action. From a Burkean (Burke, A Rhetoric of Motives 1969) point of view, we must be aware that deep frames (also referred to as a primary or master frame) can reduce action to motion, creating “a kind of inverted transcendence” (10) or sheer motion, because an individual is no longer “in conscious or purposive motion” (14). Considering ethics, this is where our nonconsequential understanding of intuition comes into play as a valid mode for conducting ethical actions. Here, reactions without thought and pure “intuition” take over any critical thinking processes—indeed we move from a soft determinist to a complete determinist framework. Indeed, many employers of deep frames rely on the fact that humans will simply react to the frame used instead of critically questioning or responding to the assumptions upholding the deep frame. This often occurs with polarizing frames that rely on an appeal to pathos. For example, this is seen when politicians resort to fear tactics to get your vote. Or even when our parents threatened: “I brought you into this world, and I can take you out of this world as well.”

The difference here between deep frames and reaction/motion is one of critical thinking. When we act with purpose, we are critically thinking. When we do not act with purpose, we are being moved by reaction or intuition. As Burke explains, purposeful action, dramatically considered, is defined as “the human body in conscious or purposive motion” (Burke 1969, 14). Sheer motion, on the other hand, occurs when the human body is being acted upon and is lacking conscious will. For Burke (1978), the action-motion pair constitutes a basic polarity – not unlike a type of either/or frame (809). However, whereas sheer motion, does not require symbolic action for its existence, Burke states that “there could be no symbolic action unless it was grounded in the realm of motion” (811). This distinction is vital because there are times when humans react, and these reactions are sometimes conscious reactions, and, in other moments, habitual reactions that take on the characteristics of sheer motion. For example, a conscious reaction might be when we apply non-consequential divine ethics – we follow the 10 commandments as a reaction but as a conscious reaction. We chose to be moved by the 10 commandments!

Finally, to pursue Burke’s point, it is important to realize that once a polarizing frame is introduced, one that causes only motion but not conscious action, any reference to one frame immediately brings to mind the contrasting frame not mentioned and reinforces the polar opposing energy between the two frames—often setting up a dialectical opposition where one frame is placed in direct conceptual opposition, or antithesis, to another frame (1969, 34). Thus, when I say the word “democrats,” you are likely to immediately think “republicans.” I say “pro-life” the audience things “pro-choice.” This is where the mythical good versus bad, or “god” versus “devil,” competition arises. As polar frames compete for a winning place, each conceptual frame works to discredit its competition by frequently employing a technique called scapegoating. Scapegoating works through a “god” and “devil,” or an “I say” versus “they say,” framework. In this case, the dialectical framework “represents the principle of division,” where a projected “devil” competing frame (democrats or republican – depending on where you stand on the issue), social collective, or individual becomes the “sacrificial vessel” for a so-called “god” frame (Burke, 1969, 406). As a symbolic sacrifice for a cause or for the greater good, the scapegoat or sacrificial vessel must be killed so that purification can occur and the “good” frame can reign supreme: “For one must remember that a scapegoat cannot be ‘curative’ except insofar as it represents the iniquities of those who would be cured by attacking it” (406).

However prominent the scapegoat may be in ethics, from a communication point of view, such tactics are not really moral. Further, such an approach to transcending ethical disagreements relies on fear and the use of motion rather than critical thinking. As such, it is important to remember that the use of frames also occurs on the level of purposive action. As Lakoff (2004) states in Don’t think of an elephant!, “reframing is social change” because reframing changes “the way the public sees the world. It is changing what counts as common sense” (xv). In the end, it is this social action, the active understanding of our organizational and ethical frames that we wish to offer to our students. Such knowledge will help them avoid the either/or pitfalls that halt communication processes and the ability to negotiate ethical normative standards in our local and natural communities.

Works Cited
Burke, Kenneth. “(nonsymbolic) Motion/ (Symbolic) Action.” Critical Inquiry (The University of Chicago Press) 4, no. 4 (1978): pp. 809-838.
—. A Grammar of Motives. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969.
—. A Rhetoric of Motives. California Ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, Ltd., 1969.
—. Attitudes toward History. 3rd. California: University of California Press, Ltd., 1959.
Goffman, Erving. Frame Analysis: An Essay on the Organization of Experience. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1974.
Lakoff, George. Don’t Think of an Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate. White River Junction: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2004.
—. “Simple Framing.” Rockridge Institute. Feb. 14, 2006. (accessed Dec. 18, 2008).
Lakoff, George, and John Halpin. “Framing Katrina.” The American Prospect. Oct. 7, 2005.
/web/page.ww?section=rootandname=ViewWebandarticleId=10391 (accessed Dec. 18, 2008).
Tarrow, Sidney. The New Transnational Activism. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

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