Professional Codes

Topics: Ethics, Sociology, Professional Pages: 14 (4609 words) Published: February 6, 2013
Professional Codes: Why, How, and with What Impact?

Mark S. Frankel

ABSTRACT. A tension between the professions' pursuit of autonomy and the public's demand for accountability has led to the development of codes of ethics as both a foundation and guide for professional conduct in the face of morally ambiguous situations. The profession as an institution serves as a normative reference group for individual practitioners and through a code of ethics clarifies, for both its members and outsiders, the norms that ought to govern professional behavior. Three types of codes can be identified — aspirational, educational and regulatory. All codes serve multiple interests and, as a consequence, perform many functions, eight of which are discussed. The process of developing a code of ethics is assessed because of the role it plays in gaining consensus on professional values and ethical norms. After discussing some of the weaknesses in current approaches to professional self-regulation, several new private and public initiatives are proposed.

Not too long ago, discussions of professional ethics were confined mainly within the professions themselves. This is no longer the case, however. In recent years, a blend of economic, social, legal, and political events has had a profound effect not only on the behavior and performance of professionals, but also on the public's expectations of them. The days of

unquestioned triist and admiration on the part of clients or the general public are past. With increasing fi"equency, the professions are exploring ways to improve professional service and to regain public confidence. It is quite timely, then, for a reassessment of the professions' moral role in society and, specifically, of codes of ethics from the perspectives of why, how, and with what impact In this paper, I do not discuss the "what," or content, of codes of ethics. The matter of content is important, to be sure. But given a choice, I prefer to focus on the more generic issues that apply to codes, whatever their content The issues for discussion here can be approached vwthout any reference to a particular profession or specialized knowledge. I will focus first on the "why" question by briefly reviewing what I refer to as the "society-profession nexus," followed by a relatively quick journey through the moral dimension of the professions and its importance for understanding die relationship among the profession as a group, the larger society, and individual professionals. I will then offer a more detailed functional analysis of codes of professional ethics. The "how" question is next with an examination of the code development process. The matter of "with what impact?" is explored from two perspectives: the current status of professional self-regulation and ways for improving the self-regulatory efforts of the professions, with special emphasis on codes of ethics.

Mark S. Frankel is Head of the Office of Scientific Freedom and Responsihility of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, where he is Staff Director of the Association's Professional Ethics Program. Prior to joining AAAS, he was Director of the Centerfor the Study ofEthics in the Professions at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago. His recent research and writings focus on the role ofprofessional societies in promoting ethical practices hy their members. He has conducted several workshops and seminars on ethicsfor corporate managers, scientists, and engineers.

The society-profession nexus
Historically, the professions and society have engaged in a negotiating process intended to define the terms of their relationship. At the heart of this process is the tension between the professions' pursuit of autonomy and the public's demand for accountabil-

Joumal of Business Ethia %: 109—115, 1989. © 1989 Kluwer Academic Publishers. Printed in the Netherlands.


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