Professionals are capable of making judgments, applying their skills and reaching informed decisions in situations that the general public cannot, because they have not received the relevant training. One of the earliest examples of professional ethics is probably the Hippocratic oath to which medical still adhere to this day. Professional ethics is a set of standards adopted by a professional community. Professional ethics are regulated by standards, which are often referred to as codes of ethics. The code of ethics is very important because it gives us boundaries that we have to stay within in our professional careers. The one problem with the code of ethics is that we can't always have the answers.
Professional bodies have increasingly been at work developing, revising and refining professional codes of ethics. Professionals themselves ask for more detailed codes so as to have greater guidance. There is no longer a deference to the authority of experts on the part of the public or of the client group.
Professional ethics helps a professional choose what to do when faced with a problem at work that raises a moral issue. One can certainly study what professionals do when faced with such problems, and confine the enquiry to the description. Our concern here, however, is to assist with making choices – an approach called prescriptive professional ethics.
Obviously one can be unethical without behaving illegally. It is a common rationalization of unethical behaviour to say “well, it wasn’t illegal, so who cares?”. It is perhaps the major point of professional ethics, though, to deal with scenarios that do not involve illegality. Professional ethics covers far more issues than the law does. Many of the issues are imbedded in messy and complex factual situations, so ethical issues tend to be harder to identify than legal issues. We should have more sympathy when someone says they were confused or ignorant or thoughtless about a moral issue, as opposed to a legal problem.
How does one recognize a moral problem within professional ethics? Is the issue one of “right” or “wrong” action? Is the issue one of “good” or “bad” motives, methods or goals? Is there a “value” at stake? Is the terminology not descriptive, but prescriptive, involving words like “should”, “ought to”? We do a much better job of identifying issues in professional ethics if we are sensitive to the principles and values set out in our professional codes of ethics (that is one of their benefits – an educational function). It helps to have lists of issues available to contemplate.
It is a curse of the twentieth century to speak of ethics as being subjective or relative – “it’s all a matter of personal opinion”. Moral relativism is ultimately futile and nihilistic. There can be no real debate, guidance, judgement or resolution. Those claiming relativism are usually in a position of self-rationalization. Moral absolutism is not a tenable position either, as it leads to inflexibility and a harshness that creates its own injustices.
Most major corporations, and many smaller companies, now have Codes of Ethics, along with a range of other, issue-specific ethics documents. Such a document embodies the ethical commitments of your organization; it tells the world who you are, what you stand for, and what to expect when conducting business with you. Therefore, there are 2 important processes in forming this law: