The question, “How can I tell the difference between ethical and unethical writing?” is asked by the writer, not the reader. The question implies that many writers cannot quickly, easily, or automatically see unethical examples in their own writing.

If you’re not a writer, or you think it’s easy to tell the difference between ethical and unethical writing, then you’re free to stop reading now.

There is no way to adjust your Word or Apple settings to identify unethical phrasing. So far, there’s no AI app or algorithm to detect unethical writing.

Here’s the first challenge. If you’re writing only for yourself, say in a diary, is there any need to be “ethical?” If your answer to that is “no,” you can safely stop here. Your only risk is fooling yourself.

In general, ethical writing recognizes the implicit contract between authors and readers. The reciprocal is the absence of that implicit contract. If the author breaches the contract, the reader is harmed. The implicit contract allows readers to assume the author is the sole originator, and that sources or any text and ideas borrowed from another writer are noted. A breach of the implicit contract is rarely knowable, much less visible, to the reader. Accordingly, authors must examine their own work carefully before publication to assess ethical compliance. Red lines are rare and judgment is always called for. It’s much harder than most writers know.

Say you were involved in a wide-ranging conversation over dinner and drinks about a political candidate’s position on a controversial subject. Perhaps gun politics. Someone argues the debate should not be about gun ownership but rather gun violence. Someone else narrows that line of discussion from all guns to just assault rifles. A different voice slices deeper and says the “doable” thing is to prohibit the general public from buying high-volume magazines.  Months go by. You remember how the larger discussion narrowed by moving from gun ownership down to limiting the purchase of high-volume magazines. You post the end “idea” (limiting big mag buys) over your social network. Is this ethical writing? Do you own that idea about limiting high-volume magazines? If not must you note your source? If your source denies being the source, what should you do? Recall the social post? Take it to court?

The absurdity of the gun discussion is a good way to examine what the ethical construct—the existence of an implicit contract based on original work and giving approbation to borrowed ideas—really means. It was never intended to apply to informal, social, low-risk written conversations. The importance of the implicit contract between authors and readers lies in the relationship between authors and readers. There is no mutual understanding, or implicit contracts between social media friends. There is an implicit contract between readers of published works by authors.

To be crystal clear, I’m not talking about unethical authors. That’s a larger subject—fake reviews—phony credentials—lying about sales, awards, rejection slips, friends, experience, experiences, or actual writing. This little blog is about authors treating their readers unethically, in the writing itself. The larger subject is well-covered by other authors, notably, Lissa Gromly, whose June 4, 2018 post is well-worth your time.[1] She said, and I whole-heartedly agree, “Authors are supposed to be those entertainers with everyone’s best interests in mind while adhering to a standard upright holding.” Ms. Gromly’s test, writing with “everyone’s best interests in mind,” is a fine start when assessing your own writing ethics.

Goodreads has an unethical authors’ shelf on its website.[2] You can use to find videos featuring unethical authors.[3] There’s an Amazon Alert purporting to identify “unethical authors” and disclaiming fake reviews.[4] It’s called the “Thumbs-Down Authors List.” Lastly, all of us ought to reflect on what ethics means to our civilization, including authors. “Ethics is based on well-founded standards of right and wrong that prescribe what humans ought to do, usually in terms of rights, obligations, benefits to society, fairness, or specific virtues.”[5]  Moral philosophy is the branch of philosophy that involves systematizing, defending, and recommending concepts of right and wrong conduct.

Our relationship with our readers is the difference between right and wrong.

Gary L StuartI am an author and a part-time lawyer with a focus on ethics and professional discipline. I teach creative writing and ethics to law students at Arizona State University. Read my bio.

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