Truth, Telling the Truth, and Being Truthful: Affect, Nonverbal Communication, and the Constitution of Ethical Relationship

Michael M. Harmon, Administrative Theory & Praxis, 2011, 33, 509-529.

Abstract: This article links Oliver Sacks’s examination of receptive (or global) aphasia with Julian Jaynes’s hypothesis concerning the origin of reflective consciousness to clarify the role of nonverbal communication in the constitution of ethical relationships. The vehicle for explicating that linkage is a recent play by Orion White, The Girl Who Changed into a Dog. Commentary on selected scenes from the play suggests a conception of ethics based on the following assumptions: (1) Ethics is fundamentally relational rather than principled; (2) owing to its relational character, ethical action is determined by the particularities of the contexts as understood by the actors involved in them; (3) spoken language provides a better medium than written language for developing and sustaining these ethical relationships; (4) the affective dimensions of spoken utterances are no less important than their cognitive dimensions for “truthfully” depicting those contexts; (5) the affective dimensions of spoken utterances are influenced in crucial ways by nonverbal signals and responses “including both tone of voice and body language” in addition to their verbal content; (6) the primary ethical obligation of people in relationship is to assist one another in creating situationally appropriate and emotionally satisfying courses of action; and (7) the ability to feel shame, although initially more painful than the guilt people feel on hearing judgments that they have violated principles, is an essential requirement for leading an ethical life.