Professional ethics

Professional ethics

Professional ethics concerns the moral issues that arise because of the specialist knowledge that professionals attain, and how the use of this knowledge should be governed when providing a service to the public. [ Ruth Chadwick (1998). Professional Ethics. In E. Craig (Ed.), Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. London: Routledge. Retrieved October 20, 2006, from]

Professional Responsibility

The professional carries additional moral responsibilities to those held by the population in general. This is because professionals are capable of making and acting on an informed decision in situations that the general public cannot, because they have not received the relevant training. [Caroline Whitbeck, ‘’Ethics in Engineering Practice and Research’’ Cambridge University Press, 1998 page 40] For example, a layman member of the public could not be held responsible for failing to act to save a car crash victim because they could not give an emergency tracheotomy. This is because they do not have the relevant knowledge. In contrast, a fully trained doctor (with the correct equipment) would be capable of making the correct diagnosis and carrying out the procedure and we would think it wrong if they stood by and failed to help in this situation. You cannot be held accountable for failing to do something that you do not have the ability to do.

This additional knowledge also comes with authority and power. The client places trust in the professional on the basis that the service provided will be of benefit to them. It would be quite possible for the professional to use his authority to exploit the client. [Michael Davis, ‘Thinking like an Engineer’ in ‘’Philosophy and Public Affairs’’ 20.2 (1991) page 165] An obvious example is that of the dentist who carries out unneeded dental work on his patients in order to gain more money. It is likely that the patient will not have sufficient knowledge to question what is being done, and so will undergo and pay for the treatment.

Codes of Practice

Questions arise as to the ethical limits of the professional’s responsibility and how power and authority should be used in service to the client and society. Most professions have internally enforced codes of practice that members of the profession must follow, to prevent exploitation of the client and preserve the integrity of the profession. This is not only to the benefit of the client but to the benefit of those belonging to the profession. For example, a business may approach an 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. [Michael Davis , ‘Thinking like an Engineer’ in Philosophy and Public Affairs, 20.2 (1991) page 158 ] Disciplinary codes allow the profession to draw 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 less ethical qualms. It also maintains the public’s trust in the profession, meaning that the public will continue to seek their services.

Problems with internal regulation

There are questions surrounding the validity of professional codes of ethics. On a practical level it is very difficult for those independent of the profession to monitor practice, leaving the possibility that a code of practice may be self serving. This is because the nature of professions is that 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. [Margaret Brazier, ‘’Medicine, Patients and the Law’’, Penguin, 1987 page 147] This meant that there was a large extent to which


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. [Alan Gewirth, “Professional Ethics: The Separatist thesis” in Ethics, vol.96, no. 2 (January 1986) page 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. [ Alan Gewirth, “Professional Ethics: The separatist thesis” in Ethics, vol.96, no. 2 (January 1986) page 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. [ Alan Gewirth, “Professional Ethics: The separatist thesis” in Ethics, vol.96, no. 2 (January 1986) page 285]


ee also

* Ethical code
* Professional responsibility

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