Toward Professional Ethics in Business

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Toward Professional Ethics in Business
J. N. Hooker
Graduate School of Industrial Administration
Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA 15213 USA
March 1996

Abstract
Before a code of professional ethics can be formulated for business managers, it must be understood why management should be considered a profession and what should be its central mission. This paper proposes answers to these questions.

1 Introduction
There are two kinds of ethical obligation in business. There are obligations that business people have simply as human beings. There are further obligations they have as members of a profession.
There is a difference. If a friend tells you that you should take an aspirin a day to prevent heart disease, then you don’t really expect him to know what he is talking about. The friend should be sincere and perhaps should practice what he preaches before offering advice, but you would expect nothing more. If a physician, however, advises you to take an aspirin a day, you expect her to have expert knowledge on the subject and to weigh your individual case carefully before prescribing medication. Most people, when confronting a choice, are faced with one

question.
1. What should I do as a human being?
The professional, when confronting a choice, is faced with three questions.
2. What should I do as a human being?
3. What should I do as a professional?
4. If there is a conflict, how should I resolve it?
Conflicts are possible. For example, a physician may feel that a situation calls on her to assist in euthanasia. Medical ethics, as traditionally interpreted, proscribes euthanasia on the ground that it is harmful to the patient. This interpretation has become controversial, but suppose for the moment that it is correct. The physician must decide whether the special obligations of her profession override the obligations that would otherwise bind her as a human being.

1

Unlike medicine and law, business is not even in a position to pose the second and third questions above. There is no generally accepted code of professional behavior in business, beyond the basic duties of honesty, etc., that apply to human beings in general. It is not even obvious to everyone that business people should be considered professionals. The aim of this paper is to address this failing. It suggests why business ethics have been slow to evolve, why we need professional ethics in business, and what their content might be. But before this can proceed, there must be some clarification of what professional ethics are and why we have them.

2 Why Professional Ethics?
We have professions for a reason. It is summed up in the example of the physician who prescribes aspirin: we need to know whom we can trust to apply expert knowledge. If physicians did not identify themselves as members of profession, it would be much harder to know.

The two key words here are expert and trust. Two defining traits of a profession are


expertise in a particular area, and



the disposition to apply it responsibly.

The first item calls for professional competence. The second calls for professional ethics. The third defining trait is,


the members of a profession profess.

They identify themselves as members of a recognized order, so to speak, so that others know they can be trusted. In fact the original sense of the word ‘profess’ is to take the vows of a religious order. On this understanding of a profession, it is clear why professional obligations can, and perhaps should, occasionally conflict with normal obligations. Consider again the physician. Imagine there is a drug that is routinely used in other countries but is not yet approved in her country. Imagine further that she believes the patient should have the drug, but she is bound by professional ethics not to prescribe it. Perhaps there is social value in having medical professionals who can be relied upon to prescribe medication conservatively, even when they...
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