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Authoring a Code of Ethics: Observations on Process and Organization by Andrew Olson

Andrew Olson graduated in May of 1998 from Augustana College, Sioux Falls, SD, where he majored in mathematics and physics and minored in philosophy. As a summer intern at the Center for the Study of Ethics in the Professions, Andrew participated in the Center’s Codes of Ethics Online project making an online archive of codes available to Internet users worldwide. The following article presents an analysis of the codes of ethics included in this project, as well as a guide to producing codes of ethics. The highlighted text can be followed as links to references on the Internet.

For more information about writing codes, please see our Fall 1999 issue of Perspectives on the Professions,"Writing a Code of Ethics",and our new section of the codes site,"Other Resources for Writing a Code of Ethics".

What, exactly, is a code of ethics, and is it really of any value? The answer to the second question is easy. Yes, a code of ethics fulfills many purposes within an organization. A code of ethics increases ethical sensitivity and judgement, strengthens support for individuals’ moral courage, and helps to hone an organization’s sense of identity. Unfortunately, the first question proves to be a little more difficult to answer. A lack of appropriate answers to the question is not the source of difficulty; rather, it is the abundance of appropriate answers that makes definitively answering the question a difficult undertaking. As an active team member of the Center for the Study of Ethics in the Professions (CSEP) Online Codes of Ethics Project, I have had the unique opportunity to observe over 500 different codes of ethics from a great variety of professions, institutes, associations, societies, and other organizations. It is through this experience that I have found the variety of codes of ethics to be almost as great as the variety of groups that have written codes. In the following paragraphs I will attempt to describe what a code of ethics entails and, consequently, how one might begin writing or revising a code of ethics.


I. Why such variety?

Upon reflection, it is not surprising that one will observe so much variety in codes of ethics. Codes of ethics are written by specific groups of people for specific groups of people, each group having its own purpose for existence and its own means of accomplishing its purpose. Consequently, each group encounters a unique set of ethical challenges. If, while observing hundreds of codes of ethics, I found that codes of ethics were very similar, then the usefulness of codes of ethics specific to a group would be in jeopardy. What would be the use of writing hundreds of codes of ethics when one or two codes would suffice for all groups? Fortunately for proponents of code writing, my observation is that one or two codes do not suffice for all groups. The reason, I hypothesize, lies at the very heart of the purpose of codes of ethics.


Codes of ethics are to be reflections of the morally permissible standards of conduct which members of a group make binding upon themselves. These standards of conduct often reach beyond or delve deeper into societal morality in order to give guidance to people within a group on issues that are specific to the group. Often, codes of ethics prioritize commonly conflicting principles, which underlie the standards of conduct within an organization, either by explicitly weighting the principles or implicitly ordering the principles in order to give guidance on how one is to act as a morally responsible agent of the group when situations require an element of compromise between principles. For example, as a profession, engineers have agreed that a commitment to public safety is essential when acting as a professional engineer. This agreement is reflected in professional engineering codes such as the "Code of Ethics for Engineers" adopted by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET). Likewise, codes of the healthcare professions tend to attribute a similar priority to a commitment to upholding the dignity of, respect for, and responsibility to the individual patient/client. Both the engineering professions and healthcare professions are deeply concerned with the health and welfare of individuals and the public, yet the differences in the focus of their codes of ethics reflect the differences in the challenges that engineers and healthcare workers face while attempting to address this concern.


Because different groups are composed of different people with different purposes having differing means of accomplishing differing ends, priorities specific to one group may be incongruous with those of another group. For instance, continuing the above example, engineering professions tend to place greater importance on engineers’ responsibility to society while healthcare professions tend to place greater importance on the responsibility to the individuals within the society. Through an informal survey of engineering and healthcare codes of ethics published on CSEP’s Online Codes of Ethics Project, one can see that all engineering codes organized according to the relationship model described in the following paragraphs begin with relations/obligations to the public while all healthcare codes following the same model begin with relations/obligations to the patient. The reason for this difference in priorities is not that engineers lack concern for individuals or that healthcare professionals do not care about society. The difference occurs because the tasks of engineers often directly involve the improvement of conditions of society (or at least groups within society); in contrast, the tasks of healthcare professionals directly involve the improvement of the condition of individuals. Therein lies the reason for writing codes of ethics specific to a group of people. The type of activities engaged in by members of the group determines the situations in which the practice of ethical conduct may be jeopardized.


II. Process and Organization

This idea of moral responsibilities specific to a group is also central to the process of writing a code of ethics. A helpful way to start any project of significant size is with a statement of purpose. With this in mind, begin writing a code of ethics by asking yourself and members of your organization, "Why does my (our) organization want to develop a code of ethics?" Generally speaking, it seems that codes of ethics with a clearly defined purpose are more clearly stated and better organized. Many codes make effective use of defining a purpose by beginning the document with a preamble or a statement of intent. The preamble sets the tone of the document and outlines both the purpose of the organization and the purpose of the code. The statement of intent fulfills a similar purpose, but it focuses more on the purpose of the code and less on the purpose of the organization than does a preamble. Both are good ways to set the tone of the code and to establish a feel of cohesion within the group that is essential to the proper functioning of a code.


To assure that a code of ethics functions properly, the group or a representative body of the group must formulate it. Michael Davis, CSEP Senior Research Fellow, states in "Ethics Across the Curriculum," "Ethics consists of those morally permissible standards of conduct each member of a group wants every other (member) to follow even if their following them would mean he or she had to follow them too." If we accept this as a plausible definition of ethics, as I think we should, then it is reasonable to assert that writing a properly functioning code of ethics is a collective task. Without a reasonable amount of group consensus concerning morally permissible standards of conduct relevant to the group, the code finds its home scribbled on a sheet of paper rather than in the actions and decisions of members of the group.


To defeat the argument that codes of ethics are merely well meaning statements on a rarely seen and even less frequently and effectively implemented document, a code of ethics must truly reflect the virtues of the group. It is reported that many groups find it difficult to agree on the pertinent and essential virtues of the group to be included in the code. Compromise seems to be the norm. For example, in "Moral Blueprints" Samuel Florman recounts the development of the American Society of Civil Engineers’ code of ethics. He states, "The original code had enjoined the engineer to show "due regard" for the public. In revision, "proper regard" was proposed and rejected as a weak compromise; only "paramount" would do." Through a process of achieving consensus, writing a code of ethics becomes an excellent group-defining task. Consequently, a well-defined membership in the group, an outcome of devising and publicizing a code, aids in the functioning of the code. Through identification as a member of the group, a member’s sense of duty to other members of the group and to the group’s collective agreements expressed in the code is strengthened. As a result, the effectiveness of the code of ethics is also strengthened.

Although the following list is certainly not exhaustive, here are some questions one might consider when deciding what should be included in the code:

  1. Who are the persons or groups of persons affected by your organization or the members of your organization, and how are they prioritized?
  2. What are your organization’s main areas of action?
  3. What unethical decisions and actions would your organization like to prevent, and how could they be prevented?
  4. What type of ethical problems are members of your organization most likely to encounter?
  5. How can conflicting principles be resolved?


After your organization has answered these questions and formulated what needs to be included in the organization’s code of ethics, the next step is to decide how to organize the code. Just as principles within a code differ from group to group, so too, methods of organization differ from group to group. These differences are illustrated in the examples that follow. Factors that may affect how a group organizes its code could include such aspects as length of the code, how statements for inclusion in the code were formulated, and with what form of organization are members of your group most familiar. For example, if there is a small amount of information to be included in the code, then a simple ordered list may be the most appropriate method of organization. On the other hand, if there is a large amount of information to be included in the code, then more structured methods of organization may be most appropriate. For instance, if relationships were a major consideration in the formulation of statements, then it seems most appropriate to organize the code according to relationships. However, if relationships were not a major consideration but principles were a major consideration, then it seems most appropriate to organize the code according to principles and guidelines for the principles. The concept is rather simple, but it is mentioned here because its importance outweighs its simplicity.


Most codes can be placed into one of three commonly occurring categories as illustrated by codes included in the Online Codes of Ethics Project. The codes in the first category, brief codes, have a small list of statements that rarely have much structure at all. However, even a small list of statements can provide guidance to members of a group if consideration is given to how the list can be prioritized. Other groups use the descending form: Preamble/Statement of Intent, Fundamental Principles, Fundamental Canons, and Guidelines for the Principles and Canons. This form centers on each principle individually and applies the principle to many relationships that members of the group may encounter. In contrast, another common form of organization of well-developed codes is one that highlights relationships between the group or member(s) of the group and other groups of society such as the public, clients, or employers. Such methods of organization often divide the code into sections that begin with such headings as Relations/Obligations to the . . . followed by a list of standards and guiding statements relevant to the relationship.

Although a comprehensive survey of all of the codes on CSEP’s Online Codes of Ethics Project has not been performed, an informal survey of the project’s index categories that contain a significant number of codes has resulted in observations of trends within the index categories’ codes (See Table 1 below). A survey of the business organizations’ codes reveals that most business codes follow either the brief code model or the relationship model. Those business professionals’ codes that follow the relationship model always begin with a section devoted to an "obligation to professionalism" followed by separate headings for relations with clients, employers, and real property and equipment. On the other hand, most engineering codes follow the brief code model or the principles model. However, the engineering codes that do follow the relationship model begin with relations/obligations to the public followed by separate headings for relationships with employers, clients, and other engineers. The structures of the healthcare professions’ codes are more evenly balanced between the three models. Yet, even in the codes structured in accordance with the brief model or the principles model, the importance of the relationship between the healthcare worker and the patient is emphasized. In addition, the healthcare codes that follow the relationship model begin with relations/obligations to the patient followed by separate headings for the public and the profession. These trends seem to reflect an engineer’s strong obligation to the public, a healthcare worker’s priority to the patient, and a business professional’s commitment to his or her profession.


Table 1

Index Category Brief    Model  Principles Model Relationship Model Total Surveyed
Business 57.1% (8) 7.1% (1) 35.7% (5) 14
Engineering 47.8% (10) 38.1% (8) 14.3% (3) 21
Healthcare 51.4%(19) 29.7% (11) 18.9% (7) 37

Note: The Online Codes of Ethics Project is an ongoing archive. This survey is of the codes archived as of August 26, 1998.

A code of ethics is a means of uniquely expressing a group’s collective commitment to a specific set of standards of conduct while offering guidance in how to best follow those codes. As such, authors of a code of ethics should explore methods of organizing a code and use of language in the code that will be well received by the codes’ intended participants. For example, while the statement "An ye harm none, do as ye will" may not be an appropriate statement of nonmaleficence for use in the American Psychological Association’s code of ethics, it may be perfectly appropriate and effective as a part of the code of ethics for the Covenant of the Goddess, an organization "founded in 1975 to increase cooperation among Witches . . ." with a presumably long tradition of the use of Old English., Nevertheless, the code of ethics adopted by the American Psychological Association does include a statement of nonmaleficence that may be more appropriate for its audience. It states, "Psychologists take reasonable steps to avoid harming their patients or clients, research participants, students, and others with whom they work, and to minimize harm where it is foreseeable and unavoidable." In addition, if one’s group closely identifies itself and its work with the people involved, then a code of ethics that follows the relationship model above may be most appropriate. However, if one’s group more closely identifies itself and its work with concepts and principles of the occupation, then a code of ethics that follows the descending principles model may be most appropriate. In either case, the code should both state the principles and offer guidance in how the principles should be followed. Giving guidance encourages participants in the code to develop and practice moral reasoning based on the collectively agreed-upon principles of the group enumerated in the code.


III. The Balancing Act

When writing a code of ethics, the code’s authors must compose the code with a finely tuned attention to balance. A good code is written with the awareness that the code will be used in a variety of different situations, and each situation will prompt those involved to refer to the code for specific guidance. This presents an interesting challenge to the code’s authors who must write the code with enough information to be of use in the specifics of a situation while remaining general enough to be used for a wide variety of situations. It is most likely this challenge that has prompted many authors to extend their code of ethics with sections entitled Suggested Guidelines for use with the Fundamental Canons of Ethics, Standards of Practice, or Rules and Procedures.,, In such sections, the authors attempt to foresee situations one might encounter that call for ethical considerations. Within these sections, the authors describe how one should interpret the principles of the code of ethics pertaining to one’s specific situation. In many instances these guidelines will attempt to provide guidance on how to resolve conflicting principles. It is likely that these additional sections will add some time and effort to the writing process. However, much of what will be included in an additional "guidelines" section should surface in the initial brainstorming and writing process.

IV. Criticism and Optimism

While it is surprising and encouraging to see such a large volume of codes of ethics coming from such a wide variety of organizations, much can and should be done to improve many of the codes’ contents. The brevity of many codes seems insufficient for fulfilling the many purposes of a code of ethics. While codes that are short in length and content do illustrate an organization’s commitment to fundamental principles, these codes may fail to give substantial guidance to the organization’s members in situations which often require some sort of give and take between fundamental principles. It is important for a code of ethics to include such guidance for two reasons. First, it is important that through the development of a code an organization make collective agreements about what conduct is ethical and what conduct is unethical. As previously stated, reports from organizations that have been through the code writing process suggest that making such agreements is not as easy as one might think it should be. This suggests that organizations that have failed to engage in this process of achieving consensus may not be unified in their belief of what is ethical conduct. If this is true, then how can it be expected that members of the organization will act ethically when what the organization considers to be ethical conduct is not clearly defined? Second, the practice of ethics is always situation-specific. A code of ethics lacking in guidance fails to address this very important aspect of the practice of ethics; thus, the code will likely fail at accomplishing its intended purposes.


In spite of criticism, optimism certainly has its place with respect to the continual development of codes of ethics. One of the assets of an archive of ethics codes such as that which is being maintained by the Center for the Study of Ethics in the Professions is that it provides a view of the development of organizations’ codes of ethics. Codes of ethics change with time due to changes in society, changes in organizations, and a desire to improve the effectiveness of a code. In this sense, a code of ethics should be thought of as a living document. In order to maximize its utility, a code must be adapted to the changing atmosphere of an organization and the environment in which the organization operates. In fact, many of the archived codes began with forms of codes very similar to those about which I have indicated concern. However, through a process of revision, these codes have become examples of what I have previously described as well-developed codes. It is encouraging to see such developments taking place in many codes of ethics. From this perspective, the future of codes of ethics and their ultimate usefulness are left to the authors and their responsible fulfillment of the tasks of authorship. The challenges and methods of overcoming the challenges are many, but the rewards of increased ethical sensitivity and judgement, strengthened support for individuals’ moral courage, and an organization’s honed sense of identity are a necessity to any ethically responsible organization and a much needed benefit to society.


Andrew Olson, 1998