Monday, December 7, 2009

The Function and Value of a Code of Ethics

A code of (professional) ethics generally appears when an occupation organizes itself into a profession. Usually, the code is put in writing and formally adopted. Even when formalization is put off, however, the code may still be a subject of frequent reference, whether explicitly, as in “Our code of ethics,” or implicitly, as in, “That would not be proper for one of us.”


Why this connection between codes of ethics and organized professions? Several explanations have been offered over the years. But, for our purposes, the most helpful is that a code of ethics is primarily a convention between professionals. According to this explanation, a profession is a group of persons who want to cooperate in serving the same ideal better than they could if they did not cooperate. Engineers, for example, might be thought to serve the ideal of efficient design, construction, and maintenance of safe and useful objects. A code of ethics would then prescribe how professionals are to pursue their common ideal so that ach may do the best she can at minimal cost to herself and those she cares about. The code is to protect each professional from certain pressures (for example, the pressure to cut corners to save money) by making it reasonably likely that most other members of the profession will not take advantage of her good conduct. A code protects members of a profession from certain consequences of competition. A code is a solution to a coordination problem.


According to this explanation, an occupation does not need society’s recognition in order to be a profession. It needs only a practice among its members of cooperation to serve a certain ideal. Once an occupation has become a profession, society has a reason to give it special privileges (for example, the sole right to do certain work) if, but only if, society wants to support serving the ideal in question in the way the profession has chosen to serve it. Otherwise, it may leave the profession unrecognized.


A profession, as such, is like a union in that it is organized to serve the interests of its members, and unlike a charity or government, which is organized to serve someone else’s interest. But professions differ form unions in the interest they are organized to serve. Unions are, like businesses, primarily organizations of self-interest. They exist for the benefit of their members, just as businesses exist for the profit of their owners. A profession, in contrast, is organized to help members serve others-according to a certain ideal expressed in its code of ethics. In this sense, professions are organized for public service. That, I think, is true by definition. But it is not a mere semantic truth. When a group of individuals constitute themselves as a “profession,” they explicitly invoke this way of understanding what they are up to. They invite examination according to the standards proper to such an undertaking. They give what they do a distinct context.


Understanding a code of ethics as a convention between professionals, we can explain why engineers cannot depend on mere private conscience when choosing how to practice their profession, no matter how good that private conscience and why engineers should take into account what an organization of engineers has to say about what engineers should do. What conscience would tell us to do absent a certain convention is not necessarily what conscience would tell us given that convention. Insofar as a code of professional ethics is a kind of (morally permissible) convention, it provides a guide to what engineers may reasonably expect of one another, what (more or less) “the rules of the game” are. Just as we must know the rules of baseball to know what to do with the ball, so we must know engineering ethics to know, for example, whether, as engineers, we should merely weigh safety against the wishes of our employer or instead give safety preference over those wishes.


A code of ethics should also provide a guide to what we may expect other members of our profession to help us do. If, for example, part of being an engineer is putting safety first, then Lund’s engineers had a right to expect his support. When Lund’s boss asked him to think like a manager rather than an engineer, he should, as an engineer, have responded, “Sorry, if you wanted a vice-president who would think like a manager rather than an engineer, you should not have hired an engineer.”


If Lund had so responded, he would, as we shall see, have responded as “the rules of the engineering game” require. But would he have done the right thing, not simply according to those rules but all things considered? This is not an empty question. Even games can be irrational or immoral. People are not merely members of this or that profession. They are also persons with responsibilities beyond their professions, moral agents who cannot escape conscience, criticism, blame, or punishment just by showing that they did what they did because their profession required it. While we have now explained why an engineer should, as an engineer, take account of his profession’s code of ethics, we have not explained why anyone should be an engineer in this sense.


Let me put the point more dramatically. Suppose Lund’s boss had responded to what we just imagined Lund to say to him: “Yes, we hired an engineer, but-we supposed-an engineer with common sense, one who understood just how much weight a rational person gives a code of ethics in decisions of this kind. Be reasonable. Your job and mine are on the line. The future of Thiokol is also on the line. Safety counts a lot. But other things do, too. If we block this launch, the Space Center will start looking for someone more agreeable to supply boosters.”


If acting as one’s professional code requires is really justified, we should be able to explain to Lund (and his boss) why, as a rational person, Lund should support his profession’s code as a guide for all engineers and why, even in his trying circumstances, he cannot justify treating himself as an exception.


“There has been a dramatic increase in the ethical expectations of professions over the past ten years. Increasingly, customers, clients and employees are deliberately seeking out those who define the basic ground rules of their operations on a day to day….”

(Quote from the website of the International Ethical Business Registry)


A code of Ethics is important for the following purposes:

  • To define accepted/acceptable behaviors;
  • To promote high standards of practice;
  • To provide a benchmark for members to use for self evaluation;
  • To establish a framework for professional behavior and responsibilities;
  • As a vehicle for occupational identity;
  • As a mark of occupational maturity;

(From the website of Life Skills Coaches Association of BC)


“The need for special ethical principles in a scientific society is the same as the need for ethical principles in society as a whole. They are mutually beneficial. They help make our relationships mutually pleasant and productive. A professional society is a voluntary, cooperative organization, and those who must conform to its rules are also those who benefit from the conformity of others. Each has a stake in maintaining general compliance.” (Stuart Altmann, Chair, Ethics Committee, Animal Behavior Society.)


“…instruments for persuasion both of members of (a) profession and the public. They enhance the sense of community among members, of belonging to a group with common values and a common mission.” (Kultgen, J. 1988, Ethics and Professionalism, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, pp.212-213)


A profession’s ethical standards must be compatible with our common morality, but they go beyond our common morality. You could say that they interpret our common morality for the specific details of work of a particular occupational group.” (By Vivian Weil, from her paper “Prospects for International Standards”)


“The very exercise of developing a code is in itself worthwhile; it forces a large number of people…to think through in a fresh way their mission and the important obligations they as a group and as individuals have with respect to society as a whole.” (DeGeorge, Richard T. 1987, Military Ethics: A Code of Ethics for Officers, National Defense University Press, Washington.)

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