Close Menu

Professional Ethics

In the first section, we gave a brief definition of what is meant by professional ethics. In this section, we will briefly present some concepts and suggest some readings that take a look at the history of what is meant by a profession, some differing ways to think about professional ethics, and a brief analysis of what is meant by professional responsibility. We will then offer some preliminary thoughts on how to identify ethics issues in what you teach, and offer some beginning ideas of how to begin emphasizing these issues in the classroom. Finally we will go back to the "Catalyst B" case study that you read earlier, and look at it in conjunction with a code of ethics to see how your (or your students) concept of the case may change when looking at it from the point of view of a professional.

What is a Profession?


1. "Profess": a public declaration, vow on entering a religious order. a commitment (vows) to serve for a good end.

2. 16th century: commitment to learned pursuits (three learned professions are divinity, law, and medicine, then the military); being an authority on a body of knowledge, belonging to an occupation; being skilled, being a fractioned, not an amateur.

3. 19th century (late): "New professions have come into existence, and the old professions are more esteemed" Oxford English Dictionary) (1)

Occupation and Profession

An Occupational Group:

1. Delivers important services

2. Makes a commitment to serve the public

3. Claims a special relationship to the marketplace, not merely in the rough and tumble; distinguished from a trade.

An Occupation Becomes a Profession when:

1. A group of individuals sharing the same occupation organize to work in a morally permissible way, or to work to support a moral ideal. (i.e. Doctors organize to cure the sick, librarians organize to promote access to information, etc.) (2)

2. Members set and follow special standards for carrying on their occupational work.

* At least one of these standards must go beyond what law, the marketplace, ordinary morality (what a ordinary moral person must do) and public opinion demand. (i.e. a good mercenary only needs to fulfill the terms of his contract, a good, professional soldier must serve his country honorably, even when ordinary morality, law, and public opinion do not require it.) (3)

* These special standards are morally binding to “professed” members of the profession. If a member freely declares (or professes) herself to be part of a profession, she is voluntarily implying that she will follow these special moral codes. If the majority of members of a profession follow the standards, the profession will have a good reputation and members will generally benefit; if the majority of members violate these voluntary standards, professed members of a profession will be at a disadvantage or at the least receive no benefit from declaring a profession. (4)

A Professional is a member of an occupational group (characterized above) who:

1. Sees other members, including those employed elsewhere, as peers/colleagues

2. Exercises judgment in the performance of occupational tasks and follows relevant professional standards.

3. Accepts the profession's agreement to work in a morally permissible way (often expressed as a code of ethics) as determining in part the obligations of the role.

Professional Codes of Ethics

A code of ethics... prescribes how professionals are to pursue their common ideal so that each may do the best she can at a minimal cost to herself and those she cares about (including the public...). 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 (and more likely then otherwise) that most other members of the profession will not take advantage of her good conduct... A code is a solution to a coordination problem.” (Davis, Michael. “Thinking Like an Engineer” pp.153-4).

(For the next section, it may be helpful to look at a code of ethics. Take a look at the National Association for Professional Engineers Code of Ethics. What sections of the code mention the following obligations?)

Individual Professional Obligations:

1. An individual’s professional obligations are derived from the profession and its code, tradition, society's expectations, contracts, laws, and rules of ordinary morality

2. A professional has obligations to his/her

Other Professionals- relations of collegiality, specific expectations of reciprocity
Profession as a collectivity
Society - responsibility to serve the public interest

Upshot: A professional is not a mere hired gun; responsibilities go with knowledge and position.

Individual Responsibility:

1. Sphere of tasks – daily/regular responsibilities

2. For outcome caused by one’s actions or decisions

3. Liability - answerability for one’s actions or decisions

4. Capacity - to appreciate, to control one's behavior

5. Moral responsibility - looking ahead to and caring about what happens to oneself and others.

Levels of failing to meet one’s individual responsibility:

Negligence – failure to meet the appropriate standards of care (or that level or quality of service ordinarily provided by other normally competent practitioners of good standing in that field, contemporaneously providing similar services in the same locality and under the same circumstances). (5)

Gross negligence – falling way below the standard of care

Deliberate wrongdoing.

Professional Ethics

1. Define the profession's special relation to the market place.
Members earn livelihood in professional roles, accepting certain standards.

2. In the form of:

a. Codes
b. Other measures
c. Continuing Education
d. Support mechanisms for members

Professional Competence/Autonomy


Entails knowledge and responsibility i.e. meeting an appropriate standard of care. (6)


Individual- governs his or her own conduct, often using moral rules as a basis, and exercises a considerable degree of discretionary judgment within her daily work, but accepts the limits within a cooperative practice.

Profession- Prescribes standards for itself. Is accountable to the public.

Important questions to ask when obligations conflict:

  • What seems to be the primary obligation?
  • Which violation will cause more harm?
  • Knowledge/consent of those affected?
  • Is there a way to make these obligations compatible?

Tension Between Professional Standards and Moral Rules

e.g. Judge foreclosing on a widow. Look for alternative that does the least harm.

Ethics as a Context of Professional Work (and identifying ethical issues in what you teach)

I. Ethics and other professional standards: some similarities

A. Same purpose as other standards, namely

1. Standardize profession's work

2. Protect public, serve client, support other standards, etc.

B. Similar development

1. Begins with common sense

2. Modified based on experience of profession

3. Never final (since experience continues)

C. Needs practical context to make sense

1. Each profession is defined by a certain sort of judgment, not merely by the knowledge such judgment presupposes:

e.g. you are not an engineer because you know what engineers know but because you can—and generally do—show the good judgment characteristic of engineers.

2. Judgment can only be exercised in a context.

A large part of what makes a professional's judgment useful is its ability to appreciate certain features of certain contexts

e.g. engineer sees hoisting of a large beam as an engineering problem (what forces are at work, etc.), while lawyer sees it as a legal problem (what liability might arise).

Teaching Professional Ethics

Identifying Ethical Issues

Once you begin thinking about the ethical issues professionals in your field encounter on a day-to-day basis, it becomes relatively easy to identify ethical issues in what you teach. What follows are a few suggestions of how to begin to do this, and how to focus students’ attention on these issues without greatly changing your class syllabus.

A. Read your profession's code of ethics—what issues?

If it's in the code, it probably comes up.

B. Draw on your practical experience—what bothered you?

C. Ask practitioners what comes up in their work?

D. Collect newspaper stories, novels, short stories, web sites, and the like that deal with your profession—what comes up there?

E. Look through texts on your profession's ethics. (For example, see the Codes of Ethics Collection)

F. Ask your students to write up problems based on their work experience or on the work experience of someone they interview.

G. Think about writing a report on research, design work, or evaluation of the material covered in course: what problems arise in reporting technical results?

H. Ask: how the activity in which such technical judgment is relevant could harm someone or embarrass members of your profession?

Ethics in the classroom

Strategy—make room for judgment by adding context:

A. Rewrite problems to include more information.

e.g. instead of “liquid” emptying into a “basin”, why not a specific highly toxic chemical emptying into a specific river? Did students notice how much was going in? Why didn't they flag the problem? How many people might die as result? Responsibility beyond particular technical questions?

Not just safety, also utility (e.g. specs not suitable to locale), cost (e.g. unnecessarily expensive materials), and so on.

B. Create mini-design problems.

group similar problems, ask students to do the usual calculations, then give enough context so that what has been calculated are various solutions to same practical problem and ask for a recommendation. Which approach should we take and why? One approach could be cheaper in the short run, another cheaper in long run, another safer, and so on. What is professional responsibility here?

C. Forensics.

Assign students to study report of some disaster (or scandal) relevant to material of course: How do “we” avoid such a disaster “next time”?

Disasters are effective in teaching ethics because they are both real and dramatic.

Students develop a sense for how easy it is to mess up (that is, add to their “moral imagination”), how important professional standards really are.

Tip: Don't use too many disasters. If you only use cases studies in your class that show failures to exercise ethical judgment, students may become cynical about the very possibility of professionals behaving ethically. (7)

D. Investigate technical standard (relevant to course)

e.g. How was this table developed? Why do we record lab observations in ink, at time, in books that cannot leave lab? (What disasters led “us” to draw line here?) Stories.

E. Assign responsibilities now.

e.g. treat lab rules as professional standards, explaining rationale for these standards (safety, preserving immediacy to catch small clues, making it possible for others to pick up where you left off, protecting against suspicion, and so on)—or (as in D) make students figure out their rationale.

e.g. do work with “real world” effects (sampling river for EPA)


(1) "Profession" II (7) a. Oxford English Dictionary. June, 2007.

(2) Davis, Michael “Is Engineering a Profession in Japan?” pp.7-8

(3) Davis, “Is Engineering a Profession Everywhere?” pp. 8.

(4) Davis, “Is Engineering a Profession in Everywhere?” pp. 8-9.

(5) Definition from case, Paxton v. County of Alameda (1953) 119 C. A. 2d 393, 398, 259 P. 2d 934)

(6) From “Glossary – Standards of Care” Online Ethics Center for Engineering & Science. 1/31/2006 6:57:46 PM National Academy of Engineering Accessed: Tuesday, October 21, 2008 “The standard of care is the degree of care that a reasonably prudent person would exercise in some particular circumstances. In negligence law, if someone’s conduct falls below such a standard, then the person may be liable in tort for injuries or damages resulting from his or her conduct. In professional malpractice cases, a standard of care is applied to measure the competence as well of the degree of care shown by a professional’s actions.”

(7) Davis, Michael. “Developing and Using Cases to Teach Practical Ethics.” Teaching Philosophy20:4 (December 1997) p.364.


Recommended Reading:

Andre, Judith. “Role Morality as a Complex Instance of Ordinary Morality.” American Philosophical Quarterly 28:1 (January 1991) 73-80.

This article looks at how the role an individual assumes in society (such as “engineer” or “physician,” when it is a voluntary role, or “grandmother” when it is not) oftentimes has a corresponding moral value, or moral obligations that can go beyond or differ from what is seen as ordinary morality. For example, lawyers have a moral obligation to help the client they are representing go free, regardless of that client’s innocence or guilt. We can old many roles simultaneously in society, and these roles are constantly shifting and being negotiated by society and by ourselves.

Davis, Michael. “Thinking Like an Engineer: The Place of a Code of Ethics in the Practice of a Profession,” Princeton University Press, 1991.

In “Thinking Like an Engineer: T author Michael Davis argues that codes of ethics are central to advising professionals on how to conduct themselves, how to judge the conduct of others, and how to understand their occupation as a profession. Using engineering as an example, Davis looks at the history of the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster, and shows the importance of professional codes of ethics and how it could have served as a guide for engineers involved in that incident.

Davis, Michael “Is Engineering a Profession Everywhere?” Philosophia Published online March 12, 2008.

In order to show how the concept of a “profession” can exist in almost any country, Davis explains the connection between “profession” (in his sense of the term) to the hard-to-translate term “code of ethics”.

Handout from 1994 EAC Workshop, modified 2008. Copyright Vivian Weil, Illinois Institute of Technology.