Philosophy 2730F/G Lecture Notes - Lecture 6: Financial Statement
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Media Ethics, Class 6:
Deriving Ethical Principles for Media in a Democracy from Adam Smith’s
B. Lawrence Souder
We have completed our limited attempt to define the effect of the mass media on
human nature and provide an account of the role of the media in a democratic
Our two articles from last class began our survey of attempts to identify specific
ethical principles we should use to evaluate the actions of the media, given our
understanding of the media as an independent, neutral, and critical provider of
information in a democratic society.
Buckley argued that when it comes to the distribution of the broadcast spectrum, a
competition limited by a concern for democratic ideals will be preferable from
behind a veil of ignorance than a competition regulated by market forces alone.
Stoll attempted to show that an appeal to three prominent ethical theories all show
that mass media outlets have an imperfect moral duty to represent a diverse set of
views in a democratic society, a duty that will at least sometimes take priority over
the pursuit of profit.
The article we consider today continues our exploration of particular ethical
principles; specifically, Souder maintains that a model for media ethics can be
extrapolated from a combination of Adam Smith’s economic and moral systems.
B. Lawrence Souder – A Free Market Model for Media Ethics
The central elements of Adam Smith’s account of capitalism (free market, wealth,
character of citizens, and perfect liberty) can be replaced by analogy (free press,
information, informed citizens, and democracy) to serve as principles of Media
Ethics in democratic societies, which yields the following ethical requirement:
beneficiaries of the media system have a moral obligation to maintain the system’s
I. Introduction – The structure of the argument
(a) As a set of private businesses global mass media needs an ethical system,
ideally one drawn from the ethical resources of the ‘free market’
(b) An integrated version of Adam Smith’s economic and ethical work can
generate that ethical system
(c) The financial news sector will be used as a demonstration of the effectiveness
of that model.
II. The Free Market and the Free Flow of Information in Democracies
The media represents a special case of economic analysis, since the search for
profit is often at odds with the search for truth.
Since the decision makers in the mass media are not really the journalists but are
instead individuals in the board room, it is implausible to think they would accept a
system of ethics designed for journalists... they need a system that is tied to their
unique position, one that will also serve their interests.
So a good case study for a system of media ethics that reflects the realities and
needs of our corporate world is the financial press, since their reporting has a
significant impact on the health of the global market.
The basic assumption behind Adam Smith’s economic thinking is that economic
systems are a mechanistic component of a mechanistic universe...
What this means is that such systems are predictable, and can be explained by
identifying four points of reference, all of which are causally related and serve as
the primary, distinct elements of the closed system:
a. The Free-Market, b. Wealth, c. the Character of Citizens, and d. Perfect Liberty.
The Free Market is, for Smith, a combination of psychological, social, and political
conditions that allow for unobstructed commerce.