Professional ethics

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A 12th-century Byzantine manuscript of the Hippocratic oath.

Professional ethics encompass the personal, organizational and corporate standards of behaviour expected of professionals.[1]

Professionals, and those working in acknowledged professions, exercise specialist knowledge and skill. How the use of this knowledge should be governed when providing a service to the public can be considered a moral issue and is termed professional ethics.[2]

Professionals are capable of making judgements, applying their skills and reaching informed decisions in situations that the general public cannot, because they have not received the relevant training.[3] One of the earliest examples of professional ethics is probably the Hippocratic oath to which medical doctors still adhere to this day.

Components[edit]

Some professional organisations define their ethical approach in terms of a number of discrete components.[4] Typically these include:

Implementation[edit]

Most professions have internally enforced codes of practice that members of the profession must follow to prevent exploitation of the client and to preserve the integrity of the profession. This is not only for the benefit of the client but also for the benefit of those belonging to the profession. Disciplinary codes allow the profession to define a standard of conduct and ensure that individual practitioners meet this standard, by disciplining them from the professional body if they do not practice accordingly. This allows those professionals who act with conscience to practice in the knowledge that they will not be undermined commercially by those who have fewer ethical qualms. It also maintains the public’s trust in the profession, encouraging the public to continue seeking their services.

Internal regulation[edit]

In cases where professional bodies regulate their own ethics, there are possibilities for such bodies to become self-serving and to fail to follow their own ethical code when dealing with renegade members. This is because of the nature of professions in which they have almost a complete monopoly on a particular area of knowledge. For example, until recently, the English courts deferred to the professional consensus on matters relating to their practice that lay outside case law and legislation.[5]

Statutory regulation[edit]

In many countries there is some statutory regulation of professional ethical standards such as the statutory bodies that regulate nursing and midwifery in England and Wales.[6] Failure to comply with standards can thus become a matter for the courts.

Examples[edit]

For example, a lay member of the public should not be held responsible for failing to act to save a car crash victim because they could not give an appropriate emergency treatment. This is because they do not have the relevant knowledge and experience. In contrast, a fully trained doctor (with the correct equipment) would be capable of making the correct diagnosis and carrying out appropriate procedures. Failure of a doctor to help in such a situation would generally be regarded as negligent and unethical. An untrained person would not be considered to be negligent for failing to act in such circumstances and might indeed be considered to be negligent for acting and potentially causing more damage and possible loss of life.

A business may approach a professional engineer to certify the safety of a project which is not safe. Whilst one engineer may refuse to certify the project on moral grounds, the business may find a less scrupulous engineer who will be prepared to certify the project for a bribe, thus saving the business the expense of redesigning.[7]

Separatism[edit]

On a theoretical level, there is debate as to whether an ethical code for a profession should be consistent with the requirements of morality governing the public. Separatists argue that professions should be allowed to go beyond such confines when they judge it necessary. This is because they are trained to produce certain outcomes which may take moral precedence over other functions of society.[8]:282 For example, it could be argued that a doctor may lie to a patient about the severity of their condition, if there is reason to think that telling the patient could cause them so much distress that it would be detrimental to their health. This would be a disrespect of the patient’s autonomy, as it denies them information on something that could have a great impact on their life. This would generally be seen as morally wrong. However, if the end of improving and maintaining health is given a moral priority in society, then it may be justifiable to contravene other moral demands in order to meet this goal.[8]:284 Separatism is based on a relativist conception of morality that there can be different, equally valid moral codes that apply to different sections of society and differences in codes between societies (see moral relativism). If moral universalism is ascribed to, then this would be inconsistent with the view that professions can have a different moral code, as the universalist holds that there is only one valid moral code for all.[8]:285

See also[edit]

Further reading[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Royal Institute of British Architects - Code of professional conduct
  2. ^ Ruth Chadwick (1998). Professional Ethics. In E. Craig (Ed.), Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. London: Routledge. Retrieved October 20, 2006, from http://www.rep.routledge.com/article /L077
  3. ^ Caroline Whitbeck, "Ethics in Engineering Practice and Research" Cambridge University Press, 1998 page 40
  4. ^ RICS- MAINTAINING PROFESSIONAL AND ETHICAL STANDARDS
  5. ^ Margaret Brazier, ‘’Medicine, Patients and the Law’’, Penguin, 1987 page 147
  6. ^ The Bristol Royal Infirmary inquiry-Professional regulation - nursing: the UKCC
  7. ^ Michael Davis , ‘Thinking like an Engineer’ in Philosophy and Public Affairs, 20.2 (1991) page 158
  8. ^ a b c Gewirth, Alan (Jan 1986). "Professional Ethics: The Separatist Thesis". Ethics 96 (2): pp. 282–300. JSTOR 2381378.