Function of Codes of Ethics

Ethics codes can be distinguished according to two principle categories: the group enacting the code, and the functions of the code within that group.


Professional: applying only to members of a certain profession

Organizational: applying only to members or a certain class of members of the association formally enacting code

Practice-specific: applying to anyone involved in a certain voluntary practice (1)

Functions of Codes of Ethics:

Inspiration and Guidance

Codes provide a positive stimulus for ethical conduct and helpful guidance and advice concerning the main obligations of the members of the group to which it applies. Generally, a code will begin with  broad commitments. The remaining functions of the code contribute to the development and interpretation of these commitments. See, for example, the American Medical Association’s Code of Medical Ethics. The Code is structured in a way that foregrounds the more general ideals and commitments, which are outlined in the “Principles of Medical Ethics” section. Each of the following Chapters, meanwhile, provides in-depth guidance on topics morally relevant to medical ethics. More specific directions may be given in supplementary statements or guidelines, such as one finds in the Ethical Guidelines for Organ Transplantation. These supplementary guidelines aid in the application and interpretation of codes in certain circumstances.


Codes give positive support to those seeking to act ethically. A publicly proclaimed code allows a person who is under pressure to act unethically to say: “I am bound by the code of ethics of my profession, which states that…” This provides a level of group cooperation in taking stands on moral issues. Moreover, codes can potentially serve as legal support in courts of law for those seeking to meet work-related moral obligations. Click here to read a case study that involves a [md1] conflict between what a supervisor asks of a professional and what her profession requires.

Deterrence and Discipline

Codes can serve as the formal basis for investigating unethical conduct. Where such investigation is possible, prudence becomes a motive for acting ethically. Occasionally, violations of ethics codes are grounds for the revocation of the ability to practice professionally, such as one finds with the role of the American Bar Association’s Model Rules of Professional Conduct in disbarment procedures.

Education and Mutual Understanding

Codes can be used in the classroom and elsewhere to prompt discussion and reflection on moral issues and to encourage a shared understanding among professionals, the public, and government organizations concerning the special moral responsibilities of individuals in professions, organizations, and/or a specific practice. For example, see the National Society of Professional Engineers Code of Ethics, which encourages a form of “sustainable development” that meets human needs while conserving and protecting environmental quality. For an example of how ethics codes be revised or manipulated in order to permit certain activities, see the New York Times summary of the 2015 Hoffman Report. The Report documents the American Psychological Association’s collusion with the United States Department of Defense and Central Intelligence Agency, which enabled psychologists’ participation in “enhanced interrogation” techniques during the George W. Bush administration.

 Contributions to Public Image

Codes can present a positive image to the public of an ethically guided profession,  organization, or practice. Where the image is warranted, it can help members more effectively serve the public. It can also win greater powers of self-regulation for the group itself, while lessening the demand for more government regulation. The reputation of a profession, organization, or practice, like the reputation of an individual or a corporation, is essential in sustaining the trust of the public.

 Shared Standards

The diversity of moral viewpoints among individual practitioners makes it essential that a profession, organization, or practice establish explicit standards, in a particular minimum  standard beyond what law, market, morality, and public opinion would otherwise require. In this way, the public is assured of a good conduct and professionals, organizations, and other practitioners are provided a fair playing field in which to compete.

Functions defined in Martin, Mike W. and Schinzinger, Roland, Ethics in Engineering, 2nd edition, New York: McGraw Hill, 1989. Some of the language has been adjusted in order to make the categories more applicable to ethics codes in general and not simply ethics codes in engineering. Also, several of the categories have been supplemented by changes in the 4th edition of Ethics in Engineering.

An Example Ethics Code

Notes in this code will be shown in italics, to illustrate what portions of the ethics code perform the functions discussed above. 

American Association of University Professors, Statement on Professional Ethics, 1987


From its inception, the American Association of University Professors has recognized that membership in the academic profession carries with it special responsibilities. The Association has consistently affirmed these responsibilities in major policy statements, providing guidance to professors in such matters as their utterances as citizens, the exercise of their responsibilities to students and colleagues, and their conduct when resigning from an institution or when undertaking sponsored research. The Statement on Professional Ethics that follows sets forth those general standards that serve as a reminder of the variety of responsibilities assumed by all members of the profession.

Deterrance and Discipline: 
In the enforcement of ethical standards, the academic profession differs from those of law and medicine, whose associations act to ensure the integrity of members engaged in private practice. In the academic profession the individual institution of higher learning provides this assurance and so should normally handle questions concerning propriety of conduct within its own framework by reference to a faculty group. The Association supports such local action and stands ready, through the general secretary and Committee B, to counsel with members of the academic community concerning questions of professional ethics and to inquire into complaints when local consideration is impossible or inappropriate. If the alleged offense is deemed sufficiently serious to raise the possibility of adverse action, the procedures should be in accordance with the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure, the 1958 Statement on Procedural Standards in Faculty Dismissal Proceedings, or the applicable provisions of the Association's Recommended Institutional Regulations on Academic Freedom and Tenure.

The Statement

Inspiration and Guidance: 
I. Professors, guided by a deep conviction of the worth and dignity of the advancement of knowledge, recognize the special responsibilities placed upon them. Their primary responsibility to their subject is to seek and to state the truth as they see it. To this end professors devote their energies to developing and improving their scholarly competence. They accept the obligation to exercise critical self-discipline and judgment in using, extending, and transmitting knowledge. They practice intellectual honesty. Although professors may follow subsidiary interests, these interests must never seriously hamper or compromise their freedom of inquiry.

 Education and Mutual Understanding:
II. As teachers, professors encourage the free pursuit of learning in their students. They hold before them the best scholarly and ethical standards of their discipline. Professors demonstrate respect for students as individuals and adhere to their proper roles as intellectual guides and counselors. Professors make every reasonable effort to foster honest academic conduct and to ensure that their evaluations of students reflect each student's true merit. They respect the confidential nature of the relationship between professor and student. They avoid any exploitation, harassment, or discriminatory treatment of students. They acknowledge significant academic or scholarly assistance from them. They protect their academic freedom. 

Shared Standards:
III. As colleagues, professors have obligations that derive from common membership in the community of scholars. Professors do not discriminate against or harass colleagues. They respect and defend the free inquiry of associates. In the exchange of criticism and ideas professors show due respect for the opinions of others. Professors acknowledge academic debt and strive to be objective in their professional judgment of colleagues. Professors accept their share of faculty responsibilities for the governance of their institution.

IV. As members of an academic institution, professors seek above all to be effective teachers and scholars. Although professors observe the stated regulations of the institution, provided the regulations do not contravene academic freedom, they maintain their right to criticize and seek revision. Professors give due regard to their paramount responsibilities within their institution in determining the amount and character of work done outside it. When considering the interruption or termination of their service, professors recognize the effect of their decision upon the program of the institution and give due notice of their intentions.

Contributions to Public Image:
V. As members of their community, professors have the rights and obligations of other citizens. Professors measure the urgency of these obligations in the light of their responsibilities to their subject, to their students, to their profession, and to their institution. When they speak or act as private persons they avoid creating the impression of speaking or acting for their college or university. As citizens engaged in a profession that depends upon freedom for its health and integrity, professors have a particular obligation to promote conditions of free inquiry and to further public understanding of academic freedom.

(1)Groups defined in Davis, Michael, “Codes of Ethics,” The International Encyclopedia of Ethics, ed. Hugh LaFollette, 2013.