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Language of Professional Ethics

Professional Ethics: A Brief Introduction

In general, the field of professional ethics is the study of the principles and standards that underlie a profession’s responsibilities and conduct. It examines the ethical dilemmas and challenges met by practitioners of a profession, the way in which professionals organize and develop ethical standards for members of their profession, and how these standards are applied in everyday practice.

The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy describes professional ethics as:

“A term designating one or more of (1) the justified moral values that should govern the work of professionals; (2) the moral values that actually do guide groups of professionals, whether those values are identified as (a) principles in codes of ethics promulgated by professional societies or (b) actual beliefs and conduct of professionals; and (3) the study of professional ethics in the preceding senses, either (i) normative (philosophical) inquiries into the values desirable for professionals to embrace, or (ii) descriptive (scientific) studies of the actual beliefs and conduct of groups of professionals. Professional values include principles of obligation and rights, as well as virtues and personal moral ideals such as those manifested in the lives of Jane Addams, Albert Schweitzer, and Thurgood Marshall. (1)

Michael Davis describes Professional Ethics in this way.

"A profession is a number of individuals in the same occupation voluntarily organized to earn a living by openly serving a certain moral ideal in a morally permissible way beyond what law, market, and morality would otherwise require. Professions organize all, or part, of a single occupation in a certain way. Professional ethics are the special standards defining the ...way the would-be profession is to pursue its moral ideal. These standards are arbitrary (more or less) in the way promises are. Ordinarily morality sets limits on professional ethics without determining the content. One cannot deduce professional ethics from morality or moral theory." (2)

In other words, professional ethics are the standards that an organized group of people working in the same occupation develops and holds to be the ideal way to practice their "profession". These standards only apply to members of their profession, whereas morality applies to every rational person. So, while the ethical standards for the profession of engineering may endorse the moral maxim to value human life, the actual standard, "Engineers shall hold paramount the safety, health and welfare of the public" (3) applies only to members of the profession of engineering.

The study of professional ethics seeks to help individuals working in a profession make ethical decisions when faced with a moral dilemma. By gaining an understanding of the core ethical standards of a profession, knowledge of the professional standards of practice that may apply to their situation, and other influencing rules or factors, a professional has the tools to decide how they should act in a given situation.

(1) "professional ethics." The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy. 1999. CredoReference. 10 July 2007 .)

(2) Davis, Michael. "Five Kinds of Ethics Across the Curriculum." Teaching Ethics. 4.2 (Spring 2004) 8.

(3) Section II.1 "National Society of Professional Engineers Code of Ethics." January 2006. National Society of Professional Engineers. Last viewed, 11 July 2007.

Prudence, Morality, Law, and Ethics: Some Distinctions

What is the distinction between "morals" and "ethics"?

Is there a difference between an unethical action and an unlawful action?

Is it appropriate to discuss concepts of ethics and morality in a class setting?

When talking about professional ethics, a number questions often arise. Terms such as "moral " and "immoral," "just" and "unjust" are used in everyday conversation, but often the definitions of these terms vary from person to person. Some individuals might worry about the appropriateness of using terms like "morality" in a classroom setting; a term that so often is used in the context of religion. The first morning of EAC workshops was spent answering some of these questions by giving some definitions and drawing some distinctions between terms used in discussing moral philosophy in general and professional ethics in particular. What follows is a copy of the handout used in this workshop session.


VALUE1—entity valued.

e.g. "Among our society's values are painting, money, and winning."

VALUE2—the standard by which something is to be valued.

e.g. artistic values (that is, the standards by which art should be judged); money (as measure of market value).

VALUE3—the consequence of applying a standard to an entity ("the evaluation").

e.g. "The only value this car has is as junk."

"Value" is probably too ambiguous a word to use in any discussion of ethics. (My unabridged dictionary lists 10 more senses!)

Right and Wrong

RIGHT (in loose sense)—what, all things considered, is permitted by the appropriate standard.

e.g. “That's all right.”

RIGHT (in strict sense)—what, all things considered, is required by the appropriate standard.

e.g. “The right answer here is not '5' but ‘+ 5’.”

WRONG—what, all things considered, is not allowed by the appropriate standard.

e.g. “2 + 2 = 5 is wrong.”


Good and Bad

GOOD—what tends to support obedience to the appropriate standard.

e.g. good work habits

BAD—what tends to undermine obedience to the appropriate standard.

e.g. bad working conditions

Rational and Irrational

(No really good definition, but this minimum definition will do.)

X (an agent) is rational insofar as:

1) X wants to avoid death, sickness, pain, loss of liberty, loss of opportunity, and the like (except as means to some good);

2) X believes that people can cause each other death, sickness, pain, and so on; that people can achieve such consequences by withholding food, cutting off parts of their body, and so on; and other similar matters of common knowledge;

3) X can plan acts giving due weight to these wants and beliefs;

4) X can act according to plan.

X is irrational insofar as X is not rational. (Note: degrees)

Prudent and Imprudent

PRUDENT—what, all things considered, is permitted by those standards of conduct a rational person wants to follow even if others do not follow them.

e.g. Generally, it is prudent to eat enough to live.

IMPRUDENT—what is not prudent.

e.g. Wasting money is generally imprudent.

Prudence differs from rationality:

prudence is a standard of conduct while rationality (as used here) is just a description of a characteristic of persons.

Prudence is not necessarily a matter of means only. Some ends are imprudent.

e.g. it is imprudent to seek death for no reason. (That is, among the standards a rational person would want to follow, even if others do not, is "Don't seek death without a good reason".)

Prudence is not necessarily selfish. (To act selfishly is to serve oneself whatever the effect on others.)

Since there is nothing irrational in caring about others, it is (all else equal) prudent not to harm those we care about (whatever they may do in consequence). Prudence becomes selfish only in a person who cares only for himself.


MORALITY—Those standards of conduct everyone (that is, every rational person at his rational best) wants everyone else to follow even if everyone else's following them would mean having to follow them too.

e.g. “Don't kill”, “Don't lie”, “Keep your promises”, “Help the needy”.

•Different people may have different reasons for favoring the same standard.

e.g. self interest, religious principle, benevolence.

•what is important is agreement on the standard, not that all individuals have exactly the same reasons.

•Morality may be formulated as a series of rules; but these rules have exceptions:

e.g. “except in self defense” for “Don't kill”.

Exceptions too must satisfy “everyone”.

ACTUAL MORALITY—those moral standards commonly followed.

IDEAL MORALITY—those moral standards not followed often enough to count as
common practice.

e.g. Golden Rule.

An act is moral (or morally right) if it is right (all right) according to actual morality.

An act is immoral (or morally wrong) if it is wrong (forbidden) according to actual morality.

Something (e.g. an act or person) is morally good insofar as it tends to encourage moral acts or discourage immoral ones.

Something (or someone) is morally bad insofar as it tends to discourage moral acts or encourage immoral ones.

Something (or someone) is morally evil insofar as it is both immoral and morally bad.

To be "amoral"—that is, indifferent to morality—is to be morally bad.

[Those indifferent to morality are less likely to act according to moral standards that those who care.]

Following ideal morality tends to be morally good. But sometimes the right act according to ideal morality may be imprudent, morally bad (that is contribute to immoral conduct), or even morally wrong:

e.g. showing mercy to a robber who will probably rob again.


LAW--a standard of conduct applying to members of a group whether they want it to apply or not. (Laws are rules in a system of law.)

“Law” in this sense includes customs (and some other standards not imposed by government) as well as standards governments impose.

Since, by definition, law does not necessarily correspond to what people want, it must have other means of obtaining obedience (if it is to be more than a possible practice); hence, the central place of force and punishment in our idea of law.

Fair and Unfair

FAIR—what, all things considered, is permitted under the rules of a morally permissible practice insofar as those involved participate voluntarily.

e.g. stealing bases is fair in baseball.

UNFAIR—what, all things considered, is not permitted under such a practice.

e.g. punching opponents in basket ball

UNFAIR PRACTICE—a practice not permitted under the rules of a morally permissible practice of which the practice in question is a part.

e.g. unfair labor practice

“All is fair in love and war.”

Just and Unjust

JUST—what, all things considered, is permitted under the rules of a morally permissible practice insofar as those concerned don't participate voluntarily and may nonetheless be harmed.

e.g. laws can be just or unjust (because laws apply to people whether they want it to apply or not)

e.g. a just business practice (one affecting persons other than the parties to a voluntary agreement)

UNJUST—what is not just.

e.g. stealing from a bank (even though stealing bases is not)

So, justice is to fairness much as involuntary practices are to voluntary practices.


ETHICS—any set of morally permissible standards of conduct each member of some particular group wants every other member of the group to follow even if everyone else's following them would mean having to follow them too.

—“special morality”

e.g. medical ethics, Hopi ethics, business ethics.

The ethical is always relative to a particular group and a particular standard. But ethics is nonetheless always consistent with morality. No such thing as immoral ethics, only ethos, ethic, or immoral “ethics” (e.g. “Nazi ethics” or “thieves’ ethics”).

Ethical and Unethical

An act is ethical if it is ethically right or ethically good.

e.g. She acted ethically, though only barely.

e.g. That was highly ethical (that is, not only ethically right but ethically good).

An act is unethical if ethically wrong.

An act is ethically all right if it is not unethical.

Why be ethical?

answer for group: easy (see definition of “ethical”)

answer for individual: harder (“free rider problem”) (1)

1. Prudent? — what is world like? Ring of Gyges? (2)

2. Morally good? Yes, if things aren't too bad. (tit-for-tat strategy)

3. Morally right? Did you, e.g., promise?

4. Fair? Voluntary practice?

5. Justice? Effects on third parties?

(1) Link to article "Free Rider Problem" Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. May 21, 2003.

(2) Link to Kay, Charles D. Ring of Gyges. Department of Philosophy, Wofford College. January 7, 1997.

Further Reading

Davis, Michael. "The Ethics Boom." The Centennial Review 34 (Spring,1990) 163-186.

“The Ethics Boom: A Philosopher’s History” by Michael Davis discusses the surges in interest about ethics that have occurred in the past few decades, and explains why these surges occur. Davis compares ethics booms in the early part of this century to those of today, and finds that modern ethics booms are in part an answer to the limitations of legal regulation and market forces to help coordinate people’s conduct in a way that makes life in society bearable. These ethics booms consist in the establishment of institutions such as ethics centers, journals, courses, etc, that enable social groups (such as professional organizations) to discuss ethical issues and develop common standards of conduct. These discussions are the means through which standards become a social practice.

Ladenson, Robert. Ethics in the American Workplace. Horsham, PA: LRP Publications, 1995. Chapter 1 “Some Basic Ethical Concepts”. 1-8.

This section of Ethics in the American Workplace” presents a model for understanding key ethical concepts, and how to use this system of ideas to identify ethical issues, focus of ethically significant aspects of a situation, and separate ethically acceptable from unacceptable behavior.

Handout from 24 June 2003: Ethics Across Curriculum Workshop. Copyright, Michael Davis