Professional Ethics

Should we think of professional ethics as a subset of our general ethics, or as somehow being distinct? One respect in which the moral expectations that govern any given profession differ from our more general ethics is that, for very many people, their broad code of ethics is frequently literally eternally chiseled in stone, e.g., the Ten Commandments-unalterable, non-negotiable, unevolving and not subject to review. Professional ethics, however, change, as they must, as technology, science, social norms, legislation and dominant ideologies evolve. For example, before the adoption of "brain death" as the medical standard that defines death, to "pull the plug" or not was neither an option nor a dilemma.

One purpose of any code, but especially moral codes, is predictable consistency-We want the professionals who serve us to be reliable and dependable. Another purpose of professional codes of ethics is fairness and impartiality-The service we get should not vary in quality in ways that depend on something other than how much we pay for it. A third is compartmentalization: Professionals are expected to refrain from conduct that in crossing certain lines, e.g., demarcation of a client from a lover, compromises the objectivity, credibility and reputation of the professional and his profession.
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Professional ethics are standards of behavior within a given profession. Certain professions, by their nature, have very strict and high standards of conduct, especially in "high-stakes" professions, such as medicine, in which service is often a matter of life or death. For example, society expects doctors to try to heal people and above all "do no harm" and lawyers to respect client confidentiality and to vigorously defend clients they may abhor. Being members of certain professional organizations like the American Bar Association or the American Medical Association holds individuals to higher standards than what is generally accepted as good business ethics.

Organizations should be sure that employees are abiding by the ethics that govern their profession. Executives and managers should, ideally, be members of professional organizations and follow their standards of conduct. When hiring, human resources departments should try to attract candidates that either are members or intend to become members of professional organizations. Individual employees should always try to uphold the ethics that are customary for their profession. On the other hand, it can be argued that professionals have an ethical duty to review their ethics as social, cultural, technological, scientific, informational and ideological changes occur. For example, it can be argued that physicians have a moral and professional obligation to consider giving greater emphasis to prevention of disease than they and medical schools traditionally have.

Having higher ethical expectations of certain professions helps to keep them accountable. With greater trust and responsibility comes greater accountability. It also preserves the good name of a profession. In some professions, unethical practices can get one banned from the workforce.

As technology and our understanding evolve, it is not surprising to expect our ethics to evolve as well. Despite, the presumed immutability of some ethical codes, e.g., the Ten Commandments, professional ethics can be expected to evolve in tandem with evolving technologies and societies.

Some examples of professional codes of ethics can be found within the following organizations: American Dental Association, American Football Coaches Association, American Medical Association, American Psychological Association, The Australian Computer Society, The British Computer Society, Canadian Information Processing Society, Computer Society of South Africa, The Hong Kong Computer Society, The Institute for the Management of Information Systems, Singapore Computer Society, and many others.