Few today would deny the importance of communication in our daily lives. At the same time, these statements imply a particular narrative about the nature of communication: communication is depicted as a useful form of transmission, transfer, or exchange between persons. In this story, communication is described as a uniquely human tool, one that is used to share ideas or thoughts, ideally in order to bring people together...though it can also drive them apart. This story emphasizes the neutrality, the objectivity, of communication as a process. Its ethicality, on this view, depends upon a communicator's content, or perhaps upon how one communicates, whether one's purposes are beneficial or malign. As described in this narrative, communication ethics are, at best, ancillary and, at worst, optional concerns—if communication is simply a useful transactional tool, when one communicates, or even teaches another how to communicate, one need not concern oneself with questions of ethics, though one could, and, we might argue, should.
The mission of the Waterhouse Family Institute for the Study of Communication and Society grows out of a different narrative about the nature of Communication—one that sees communication to be the process through which we establish our relationship to ourselves, to one another, and to the world that we share.
On this view, ethics are not ancillary or optional in the study and practice of communication. The world that we communicatively constitute is one for which we bear a grave responsibility—a responsibility for what is wrought in and by our use of symbols. As a result, communication should be seen as an inherently ethical activity. Communication ethics does not bear simply upon content or use, but upon all facets of our world, the meanings that we communicate into existence. We cannot communicate without also bearing responsibility for the self, the other, the world that we thereby bring into being. This narrative suggests that courses in communication ethics, or programmatic mission statements—even ones rooted in Catholic teachings—do not do justice to the intrinsically ethical nature of communication. However, this view of Communication also explains why the WFI originated at Villanova University, a Catholic Augustinian university--because we are uniquely called to attend to questions of values in inquiry, questions or social justice, the connection between education and morality.
The Communication Department at Villanova University has elected to heed this call, to make ethics not an afterthought, but the centerpiece of the study of communication. Through the Waterhouse Family Institute for the Study of Communication and Society, we hope to realize the potential of communication to create a more just world.