THE QUEST FOR A CODE OF PROFESSIONAL ETHICS: AN INTELLECTUAL AND MORAL CONFUSION
My role as a philosopher is to act as a gadfly. If this were Athens in the fifth century B. c. you would probably throw me in prison for what I shall say, and I would be promptly condemned to death for attacking your idols. But you can’t do that in this day and age; you can’t even ask for your money back, since I am not being paid. All that you can do is to throw eggs at me or simply walk out! My theme is stated in the title: it is that the whole notion of an organized professional ethics is an absurdity-intellectual and moral. Furthermore, I shall argue that there are few positive benefits to be derived from having a code and the possibility of mischievous side effects of adopting a code is substantial. Unfortunately, in the time allotted to me I can only summarize what I have to say on this topic. 1. To begin with, ethics itself is basically an open-ended, reflective and critical intellectual activity. It is essentially problematic and controversial, both as far as its principles are concerned and in its application. Ethics consists of issues to be examined, explored, discussed, deliberated, and argued. Ethical principles can be established only as a result of deliberation and argumentation. These principles are not the kind of thing that can be settled by fiat, by agreement or by authority. To assume that they can be is to confuse ethics with law-making, rule making, policy-making and other kinds of decision making. It follows that, ethical principles, as such, cannot be established by associations, organizations, or by a consensus of their members. To speak of codifying ethics, therefore, makes no more sense than to speak of codifying medicine, anthropology or architecture. 2. Even if substantial agreement could be reached on ethical principles and they could be set out in a code, the attempt to impose such principles on others in the guise
Reprinted from Rosemary Chalk, Mark S. Frankel, and Sallie B. Chafer, eds., AAAS Professional Ethics Project: Professional Ethics Activities in the Scientific and Engineering Societies (Washington, D.C.: AAAS, 1980), pp. 154-59, with permission from the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
of ethics contradicts the notion of ethics itself, which presumes that persons are autonomous moral agents. In Kant’s terms, such an attempt makes ethics- heteronymous; it confuses ethics with some kind of externally imposed set of rules such as a code of ethics which, indeed, is heteronymous. To put the point in more popular language: ethics must, by its very nature, be self-directed rather than other-directed. 3. Thus, in attaching disciplinary procedures, methods of adjudication and principles that one calls “ethical” one automatically converts them into legal rules or some other kind of authoritative rules of conduct such as the bylaws of an organization, regulations promulgated by an official, club rules, rules of etiquette, or other sorts of social standards of conduct.
To label such conventions, rules and standards “ethical” simply reflects an intellectual confusion about the status and function of these conventions, rules and standards. Historically, it should be noted that the term “ethical” was introduced merely to indicate that the code of the Royal College of Physicians was not to be construed as a criminal code (i.e., a legal code). Here “ethical” means simply non-legal. 4. That is not to say that ethics has no relevance for projects involving the creation, certification and enforcement of rules of conduct for members of certain groups. But logically it has the same kind of relevance that it has for the law. As with law, its role in connection with these projects is to appraise, criticize and perhaps even defend (or condemn) the projects themselves, the rules, regulations and procedures they prescribe, and the social and political goals and institutions they represent.
But although ethics can be used to judge or evaluate a disciplinary code, penal code, code of honor or what goes by the name of a “code of ethics,” it cannot be identified with any of these, for the reasons that have already been mentioned.
SOME GENERAL COMMENTS ON PROFESSIONALISM AND ETHICS
5. Being a professional does not automatically make a person an expert in ethics, even in the ethics of that person’s own particular profession — unless of course we decide to call the “club rules” of a profession its ethics. The reason for this is that there are no experts in ethics in the sense of expert in which professionals have a special expertise that others do not share. As Plato pointed out long ago in the Protagoras, knowledge of virtue is not like the technical knowledge that is possessed by an architect or shipbuilder. In a sense, everyone is, or ought to be, a teacher of virtue; there are no professional qualifications that are necessary for doing ethics. 6. Moreover, there is no special ethics belonging to professionals. Professionals are not, simply because they are professionals, exempt from the common obligations, duties and responsibilities that are binding on ordinary people. They do not have a special moral status that allows them to do things that no one else can. Doctors have no special -right to be rude, to deceive, or to order people around like children, etc. Likewise, lawyers do not have a special right to bend the law to help their clients, to bully witnesses, or to be cruel and brutal-simply because they think that it is in the interests of their client. Professional codes cannot, therefore, confer such rights and immunities; for there is no such thing as professional ethical immunity.
7. We might ask: do professionals, by virtue of their special professional status, have special duties and obligations over and above those they would have as ordinary people? Before we can answer this question, we must first decide what is meant: by the terms “profession” and “professional,” which are very loose terms that are used as labels for a variety of different occupational categories. The distinctive element in professionalism is generally held to be that professionals have undergone advanced, specialized training and that they exercise control over the nature of their job and the services they provide. In addition, the older professions, lawyers, physicians, professors and ministers typically have clients to whom they provide services as individuals. (I use the term “client” generically so as to include patients, students, and parishioners.) When professionals have “individual clients, new moral relationships are created that demand special types of trust and loyalty. Thus, in order to answer the question, we need to examine the context under which special duties and obligations of professionals might arise. 8. In discussing specific ethical issues relating to the professions, it is convenient to divide them into issues of macro-ethics and micro-ethics. The former comprise what might be called collective or social problems, that is problems confronting members of a profession as a group in their relation to society; the latter, issues of micro-ethics, are concerned with moral aspects of personal relationships between individual professionals and other individuals who are their clients, their colleagues and their employers. Clearly the particulars in both kinds of ethics vary considerably from one profession to another. I shall make only two general comments. 9. Micro-ethical issues concern the personal relationships between individuals. Many of these issues simply involve the application of ordinary notions of honesty, decency, civility, humanity, considerateness, respect and responsibility. Therefore, it should not be necessary to devise a special code to tell professionals that they ought to refrain from cheating and lying, or to make them treat their clients (and patients) with respect, or to tell them that they ought to ask for informed consent for invasive actions. It is a common mistake to assume that all the extralegal norms and conventions governing professional relationships have a moral status, for every profession has norms and conventions that have as little to do with morality as the ceremonial dress and titles that are customarily associated with the older professions. 10. The macro–ethical problems in professionalism are more problematic and controversial. What are the social responsibilities of professionals as a group? What can and should they do to influence social policy? Here, I submit, the issue is not one of professional roles, but of professional power. For professionals as a group have a great deal of power; and power begets responsibility. Physicians as a group can, for instance, exercise a great deal of influence on the quality and cost of health care; and lawyers can have a great deal of influence on how the law is made and administered, etc. 11. So-called “codes of professional ethics” have nothing to contribute either to micro-ethics or to macro–ethics as just outlined. It should also be obvious that they do not fit under either of these two categories. Any association, including a professional association, can, of course, adopt a code of conduct for its members and lay down disciplinary procedures and sanctions to enforce conformity with its rules. But to call such a disciplinary code a code of ethics is at once pretentious and sanctimonious. Even
worse, it is to make a false and misleading claim, namely, that the profession in question has the authority or special competence to create an ethics, that it is able authoritatively to set forth what the principles of ethics are, and that it has its own brand of ethics that it can impose on its, members and on society. I have briefly stated the case against taking a code of professional ethics to be a serious ethical enterprise. It might be objected, however, that I have neglected to recognize some of the benefits that come from having professional codes of ethics. In order to discuss these possible benefits, I shall first examine what some of the objectives of codes of ethics might be, then I shall consider some possible benefits of having a code, and, finally, I shall point out some of the mischievous aspect of codes.