The design and dissemination of health and risk messages invariably involves moral and ethical issues. The choice of the topics, the focus on particular recommended practices, the choice of particular groups to be the intended recipients of the messages and their inclusion in or exclusion from the message development process, all raise ethical issues. Further, the persuasive tactics used to influence people to change their attitudes and beliefs and to adopt recommended changes in their lives also raise ethical concerns. For example, persuasive tactics may infringe on people’s privacy when people view images they may find intrusive, offensive, or cause them distress. Tactics that “tug” at people’s emotions may infringe on their unhindered ability to make a conscientious decision. Employing digital media and sophisticated advertising and marketing tactics also elicits ethical challenges both related to their manipulative potential and their differential reach: all of which may contribute to social and health disparities. In addition, the practices recommended in health and risk messages may conflict with values people cherish. For example, people could be urged to change the way they communicate with their spouses on intimate issues, relinquish the consumption of favorite traditional foods—or messages may raise issues that recipients find taboo according to their culture or religious beliefs. Health and risk messages may have unforeseen and unintended adverse effects that could affect people’s emotional and physical aspects by inadvertently contributing to people’s sense of guilt through shaming or stigmatization. Also, on the cultural and social level, such messages may contribute to an idealization of a certain lifestyle or commercialization of products and celebrities associated with the messages. Philosophical and ethical frameworks typically used in communication ethics, bioethics, communication campaigns, and social marketing literature emphasize the central guiding principles of personal autonomy and privacy with the aim to ensure equity and fairness. The obligation to avoid “doing harm” includes concerns regarding labeling, stigmatizing, and depriving; the obligation to help; the obligation to respect people’s autonomy to make free choices, particularly concerns regarding persuasion tactics and manipulations and the use of threat tactics, provocative appeals, distressing images, framing tactics, cultural sensitivity, and moral relativism; the obligation to obtain consent; the obligation to truthfulness; the obligation to sincerity; the obligation to correctness, certitude, and reliability; the issue of personal responsibility; equity obligations including concerns regarding segmentation and “targeting”; the obligation to comprehensibility; the obligation of inclusion; utility and efficiency considerations; the “harm reduction” approach; and concerns regarding social value priorities and “distortions,” which includes prosocial values as moral appeals.
Ann Neville Miller
Many health- and risk-related behaviors have moral implications. Most obvious are altruistic behaviors like blood donation. However, issues related to promoting the wellbeing of friends and family members, such as being sure that they don’t drive drunk, and the generalized obligations that attend environmentally relevant behaviors like participating in recycling programs, also tap into moral concerns. For promoting such issues, moral appeals may be appropriate. Moral appeals are messages that acknowledge individuals’ evaluative beliefs about universal rights and wrongs. Appeals to morality produce a sense of obligation and responsibility because morals are viewed as self-evident facts. Three explanations for why people engage in moral behavior are discernible in current scholarship, each with implications for structuring moral appeals: activation of social expectations, activation of personal norms, and arousal of emotion. The first of these is based on the subjective expected utility tradition. From this perspective, the key to successfully encouraging morally relevant behavior is maximizing benefits and minimizing costs. Because prosocial behaviors are enforced by social sanctions, many of these costs and benefits are socially bestowed. Thus, altruism at its core is hedonism. Theories that focus on activation of personal norms, in contrast, contend that people sometimes make decisions to donate blood, demonstrate for healthcare reform, recycle, and so on simply because they view it as their duty and responsibility to do so. When people realize in a concrete situation that their actions have consequences for the welfare of others, and that they are personally responsible for those outcomes, personal norms for the specific case are generated from internalized moral values. In this view, a central concern with moral appeals is ensuring that messages are aligned with internalized norms and that relevance and personal responsibilities are clearly communicated. Finally, theories of emotional arousal stress that although cognitive appraisals of personal and social norms are necessary, they are insufficient to incite people to selfless behavior. Rather, people engage in helping or altruistic behavior because moral appeals are emotionally arousing. Emotions associated with such appeals include empathic concern and guilt. Guilt appeals especially have been found to be as effective in eliciting compliance when behaviors have moral significance as other popular compliance-gaining strategies. Positive emphasis on responsibility and induction of hypocrisy are also techniques that rely on the appeal to moral beliefs.