Using a Code of Ethics

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 webliography 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
The Funeral Ethics Association
Online Ethics Center