OBJECTIVES OF CODES OF PROFESSIONAL “ETHICS”
In order to be crystal clear about the purposes and objectives of a code, we must begin by asking: to whom is the code addressed? Although ostensibly codes of ethics are addressed to the members of the profession, their true purposes and objectives are sometimes easier to ascertain if we recognize that codes are in fact often directed at other addressees than members. Accordingly, the real addressees might be any of the following- (a) members of the profession, (b) clients or buyers of the professional services, (c) other agents dealing with professionals, such as government or private institutions like universities or hospitals, or (d) the public at large. With this in mind, let us examine some possible objectives.
First, the objective of a professional code might be “inspirational,” that is, it might be used to inspire members to be more “ethical” in their conduct. The assumption on which this objective is premised is that professionals are somehow likely to be amoral or submoral, perhaps, as the result of becoming professionals, and so it is necessary to exhort them to be moral, e.g., to be honest. I suppose there is nothing objectionable to having a code for this reason, it would be something like the Boy Scout’s Code of Honor, something to frame and hang in one’s office. I have severe reservations, however, about whether a code is really needed for this purpose and whether it will do any good; for those to whom it is addressed and who need it the most will not adhere to it anyway, and the rest of the good people in the profession will not need it because they already know what they ought to do.
For this reason, many respectable members of a profession regard its code as a joke and as something not to be taken seriously. (Incidentally, for much the same kind of reasons as those just given, there are no professional codes in the academic or clerical professions.) A second objective might be to alert professionals to the morals aspects of their work that they might have overlooked. In jargon, it might serve to sensitize them or to raise their consciousness. This, of course, “is a worthy goal it is the goal of moral education. Morality, after all, is not just a matter of doing or not doing, but also a matter of feeling and thinking. But, here again, it is doubtful that it is possible to make people have the right feelings or think rightly through enacting a code. A code is hardly the best means for teaching morality. Thirdly, a code might, as it was traditionally, be a disciplinary code or a “penal”
code used to enforce certain rules of the profession on its members in order to defend the integrity of the professional and to protect its professional standards. This kind of function is often referred to as “self-policing.” It is unlikely, however, that the kind of disciplining that is in question here could be handled in a code of ethics, a code that would set forth in detail criteria for determining malpractice. On the contrary, the “ethical” code of -a profession is usually used to discipline its members for other sorts of “unethical conduct, ” such as stealing a client away from a colleague, for making disparaging remarks about a colleague in public, or for departing from some other sort of norm of the profession. (In the original code of the Royal College of Physicians, members who failed to attend the funeral of a colleague were subject to a fine!) It is clear that when we talk of a disciplinary code, as distinguished from an exhortatory code, a lot of new questions arise that cannot be treated here; for a disciplinary code is quasi-legal in nature, it involves adjudicative organs and processes, and it is usually connected with complicated issues relating to such things as licensing.
A fourth objective might be to offer advice in cases of moral perplexity about what to do: e.g., should one report a colleague for malfeasance? Should one let a severely defective newborn die? If such cases present genuine perplexities, then they cannot and should not be solved by reference to a code. To try to solve them through a code is like trying to do surgery with a carving knife! If it is not a genuine perplexity, then the code would be unnecessary. A fifth objective of a professional code of ethics is to alert, prospective clients and employers to what they may and may not expect by way of service from a member of the profession concerned. The official code of an association, say, of engineers, provides as authoritative statement of what is proper and what is improper conduct of the professional. Thus, a code serves to protect a professional from improper demands on the part of employer or client, e.g., that he lie about or cover up defective work that constitutes a public hazard. Codes may thus serve to protect “whistle-blowers.” (The real addressee in this case is the employer or client.)
SECONDARY OBJECTIVES OF CODES–NOT ALWAYS SALUTARY
I now come to what I shall call “secondary objectives,” that is, objectives that one might hesitate always to call “ethical,” especially since they often provide an opportunity for abuse. The first secondary objective is to enhance the image of the profession in the public eye. The code is supposed to communicate to the general public (the addressee) the idea that the members of the profession concerned are service oriented and that the interests of the client are always given first place over the interests of the professional himself. Because they have a code they may be expected to be trustworthy. Another secondary objective of a code is to protect the monopoly of the profession in question. Historically, this appears to have been the principal objective of a so -called code of ethics, e. g., Percival’s code of medical ethics. Its aim is to exclude from practice those who are outside the professional in-group and to regulate the conduct of the members of the profession so as to protect it from encroachment from outside.
Sometimes this kind of professional monopoly is in the public interest and often it is not.
Another secondary objective of professional codes of ethics, mentioned in some of the literature, is that having a code serves as a status symbol; one of the credentials to be considered a profession is that you have a code of ethics. If you want to make your occupation a profession, then you must frame a code of ethics for it; so there are codes for real estate agents, insurance agents, used car dealers, electricians, barbers, etc., and these codes serve, at least in the eyes of some, to raise their members to the social status of lawyers and doctors.
MISCHIEVOUS SIDE EFFECTS OF CODES OF ETHICS
I now want to call attention to some of the mischievous side-effects of adopting a code of ethics:
The first and most obvious bit of mischief, is that having a code will give a sense of complacency to professionals about their conduct. “We have a code of ethics,” they will say, “so everything we do is ethical.” Inasmuch as a code, of necessity, prescribes what is minimal, a professional may be encouraged by the code to deliver what is minimal rather than the best that he can do. “I did everything that the code requires”.
Even more mischievous than complacency and the consequent self-congratulation, is the fact that a code of ethics can be used as a cover-up for what might be called basically “unethical” or “irresponsible” conduct.
Perhaps the most mischievous side-effect of codes of ethics is that they tend to divert attention from the macro-ethical problems of a profession to its micro-ethical problems. There is a lot of talk about whistle-blowing. But it concerns individuals almost exclusively. What is really needed is a thorough scrutiny of professions as collective bodies, of their role in society and their effect on the public interest. What role should the professions play in determining the use of technology, its development and expansion, and the distribution of the costs (e.g., disposition of toxic wastes) as well as the benefits of technology? What is the significance of professionalism from the moral point of view for democracy, social equality, liberty and justice? There are lots of ethical problems to be dealt with. To concentrate on codes of ethics as if they represented the real ethical problems connected with professionalism is to capitulate to struthianism (from the Greek word struthos=ostrich).
One final objection to codes that needs to be mentioned is that they inevitably represent what John Stuart Mill called the “tyranny of the majority” or, if not that, the “tyranny of the establishment.” They serve to and are designed to discourage if not suppress the dissenter, the innovator, the critic.
By way of conclusion, let me say a few words about what an association of professionals can do about ethics. On theoretical grounds, I have argued that it cannot codify an ethics and it cannot authoritatively establish ethical principles or prescribed guidelines for the conduct of its members as if it were creating an ethics! But there is still much that associations can do to promote further understanding of and sensitivity to ethical issues connected with
professional activities. For example, they can fill a very useful educational function by encouraging their members to participate in extended discussions of issues of both micro – ethics and macro – ethics, e.g., questions about responsibility; for these issues obviously need to be examined and discussed much more extensively than they are at present especially by those who are in a position to do something about them.