Using Codes of Ethics

The Ethics Center Library began collecting codes of ethics over 20 years ago. As our collection grew, more people became aware of its existence and began asking for access. At that time, the best the library could do for individuals who were not in the Chicago area was to photocopy the requested code and mail it to the requestor. With the advent of the Internet, it seemed clear that digitizing the codes and making them accessible over the World-Wide Web would benefit researchers, students, and professionals alike.

Codes of ethics are controversial documents. Some writers have suggested that codes of professional ethics are pointless and unnecessary. Many others believe that codes are useful and important, but disagree about why. IIT's Center for the Study of Ethics in the Professions is committed to the importance of codes of ethics, and we have undertaken the Online Ethics Codes Project in order to enhance access to a very wide variety of codes. Why are we so committed to this project?

It may help the user of these documents to understand something about the debate surrounding codes of ethics. At one end of the spectrum, John Ladd has argued that codes of ethics serve no good purpose whatever. Ladd argues that ethics should be open-ended and reflective, and that relying on a code of ethics is to confuse ethics with law. He further asserts that it is mistaken to assume that there is a special ethics for professionals which is separate from the ethics of ordinary human beings within a moral society. Professionals, he suggests, have no special rights or duties separate from their rights and duties as moral persons, and therefore codes of ethics are pointless and possibly pernicious.

A different sort of attack on the usefulness of codes of ethics comes from Heinz Luegenbiehl. Luegenbiehl acknowledges that codes of ethics do have some sociological value. Luegenbiehl writes,

The adoption of a code is significant for the professionalization of an occupational group, because it is one of the external hallmarks testifying to the claim that the group recognizes an obligation to society that transcends mere economic self-interest (p. 138).

But he believes that ultimately codes of ethics create moral problems rather than helping to resolve them. Luegenbiehl notes that practicing professionals rarely turn to their codes of ethics for guidance, and that the guidelines within the codes sometimes seem internally inconsistent. He also voices a concern similar to Ladd's -- namely, that implementation of a code of ethics may be in conflict with the moral autonomy we expect of individuals.

In response, Harris et al. argue that all three of Luegenbiehl's criticisms can be surmounted. They suggest that though most practicing professionals do not routinely consult their codes of ethics, it does not follow that they do not know about or care about the contents of their codes. Further, the fact that codes of ethics sometimes seem internally inconsistent can be addressed by understanding codes of ethics not as recipes for decision-making, but as expressions of ethical considerations to bear in mind. We should view them as an ethical framework rather than as specific solutions to problems.

Finally, the authors argue that moral autonomy is not really compromised by codes of ethics.

If a code's provision can be supported with good reasons, why should a profession not include an affirmation of those provisions as part of what it professes?...this does not preclude individual members from autonomously accepting those provisions and jointly committing themselves to their support. (p. 34)

Michael Davis makes a strong positive case for professional codes of ethics. Davis argues that codes of ethics should be understood as conventions between professionals. Davis writes,

The code is to protect each professional from certain pressures (for example, the pressure to cut corners to save money) by making it reasonably likely...that most other members of the profession will not take advantage of her good conduct. A code protects members of a profession from certain consequences of competition. A code is a solution to a coordination problem. (p. 154)

Davis goes on to suggest that having a code of ethics allows an engineer to object to pressure to produce substandard work not merely as an ordinary moral agent, but as a professional. Engineers (or doctors, or clergy, etc.) can say "As a professional, I cannot ethically put business concerns ahead of professional ethics."

Davis give four reasons why professionals should support their profession’s code:

First…supporting it will help protect them and those they care about from being injured by what other engineers do. Second, supporting the code will also help assure each engineer a working environment in which it will be easier than it would otherwise be to resist pressure to do much that the engineers would rather not do. Third, engineers should support their profession's code because supporting it helps make their profession a practice of which they need not feel…embarrassment, shame, or guilt. And fourth, one has an obligation of fairness to do his part…in generating these benefits for all engineers. (p. 166)

Harris et al. summarize Stephen Unger's analysis of the possible functions of a code of ethics:

First, it can serve as a collective recognition by members of a profession of its responsibilities. Second, it can help create an environment in which ethical behavior is the norm. Third, it can serve as a guide or reminder in specific situations…Fourth, the process of developing and modifying a code of ethics can be valuable for a profession. Fifth, a code can serve as an educational tool, providing a focal point for discussion in classes and professional meetings. Finally, a code can indicate to others that the profession is seriously concerned with responsible, professional conduct
(p. 35).

For all these reasons, IIT's CSEP decided to dedicate a part of its collective resources to making these codes of ethics available on the World-Wide Web. We hope that you find this new resource to be a valuable tool, whether you are a student, an in structor, a professional, or all three. We have also provided a Users Guide with some suggestions about how to make the best use of these codes. If you have questions or comments concerning the use of these materials, or if you develop an interesting new classroom or workshop exercise using them, please let us know.

CSEP gratefully acknowledges the funding from National Science Foundation that made it possible to put the codes online.

Works Cited:

Davis, Michael. "Thinking like an Engineer: The Place of a Code of Ethics in the Practice of a Profession". Philosophy and Public Affairs 20.2 (1991): 150-167.

Harris, Charles E., Jr., Michael S. Pritchard and Michael J. Rabins. Engineering Ethics: Concepts and Cases. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing, 1995.

Ladd, John. "The Quest for a Code of Professional Ethics: An Intellectual and Moral Confusion". Ethical Issues in Engineering. Ed. Deborah G. Johnson. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1991. 130-136.

Luegenbiehl, Heinz C. "Codes of Ethics and the Moral Education of Engineers", Business and Professional Ethics Journal 2 (1983): 41-61. Rpt. in Ethical Issues in Engineering . Ed. Deborah G. Johnson. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1991. 137-154.

Use of Codes

Codes of ethics are created in response to actual or anticipated ethical conflicts.  Considered in a vacuum, many codes of ethics would be difficult to comprehend or interpret.  It is only in the context of real life and real ethical ambiguity that the codes take on any meaning.

Codes of ethics and case studies need each other. Without guiding principles, case studies are difficult to evaluate and analyze; without context, codes of ethics are incomprehensible.  The best way to use these codes is to apply them to a variety of situations and see what results.  It is from the back and forth evaluation of the codes and the cases that thoughtful moral judgements can best arise.

At the end of this Guide you will find a short bibliography of books which contain many cases for ethical evaluation, and a short bibliography of online collections of cases.  These resources should help you make the best use of the codes of ethics collected on CSEP's website.

How might you use these codes in conjunction with cases?  Let's look at an example.

Suppose you are a librarian in a public library, and you have public access Internet terminals.  Lately you have noticed that young teenagers have been using the Internet terminals to download a variety of sexually explicit materials.  You are not the only one who has noticed this; one of the teenager's parents storms into your library and demands that you bar anyone younger than 18 from using the Internet unless there is filtering software installed.  The situation escalates, the local news media get involved, and the ordeal becomes a cause celebre. The library's director is adamant that you cannot act as the Web police for your patrons; the City Council is equally adamant that you cannot allow porn in the library.


How should you approach this conflict from the point of view of your professional ethics?

As an individual, you may have all kinds of moral objections to the downloading of pornographic material by adolescents. You may think that pornography is generally degrading to women and that harmful attitudes towards women are being perpetuated into the next generation.  You may have religious objections to representations of extra-marital sexual behavior.  You may believe that it is unethical to spend the library's publicly-funded financial resources on materials which violate the community's standards.

But you wonder what your ethical responsibility is as a librarian.  The American Library Association has a code of ethics. One of the principles in the code which looks relevant is:  "We uphold the principles of intellectual freedom and resist all efforts to censor library materials".

This guideline points pretty clearly toward removing any filtering software from the Internet terminals and toward allowing all patrons, regardless of their youth, to use the unfiltered Internet.  This conclusion is not certain, of course; one could argue that libraries have always been selective about the materials they allow into their libraries and that using professional judgement in the selection of materials is not censorship.

Still, it is probably true that the ALA code of ethics points lends more support to allowing open access to unfiltered terminals than to the opposing view.   As a professional, then, you are faced with several decisions:

Does my code of ethics really guide me towards supporting open access to unfiltered terminals?

Am I morally required to uphold a principle of professional ethics which I may find repugnant when I am reasoning as an individual?

Do I sacrifice my professionalism if I reject one or more of the guidelines in my professional organization's code of ethics?

Is there a middle way?  Can I persuade my professional organization to rethink its code of ethics and adopt language that I can endorse?

These kinds of questions can form the basis of a discussion amongst professional peers who are creating a code of ethics.  They can also be used in the classroom to generate discussion or to form the basis of an essay question.  In general, the kinds of questions to ask when reviewing the codes in relation to the cases include:

  • Does my professional code of ethics give clear advice on this type of case?
  • Could someone endorsing the opposite course of action also use the code to support her choice?
  • Do the different guidelines within the code give conflicting guidance on this type of case, or do all guidelines point to the same outcome?
  • Does my professional code of ethics conflict with my own individual moral compass?  Is there a way I can find a conscientious compromise?
  • Does a particular guideline within a professional code give acceptable guidance in one case but unacceptable guidance in another?
  • If my professional code gives very specific guidance, what general moral principles underlie the specific advice?
  • Have the framers of my professional code taken all the reasonable and likely types of cases into account before constructing the code?

Answering these questions requires reference both to the codes and to examples of specific cases.  CSEP's Online Codes Project was designed to provide easy access to a diverse collection of professional codes of ethics assembled in one easy-to-search location.  For the case studies, you may try the following resources:

Texas A&M University
NSPE's Board of Ethical Review Cases (complete collection)
Michael Pritchard's Applied Ethics Cases
University of Waterloo
American Anthropological Association
St. Louis University
Santa Clara University
 Online Ethics Center

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