Getting Started: Helping a New Profession Develop an Ethics Program
Both of us have been involved with helping professions, especially new scientific or technological professions, develop ethics programs—for undergraduates, graduates, and practitioners. By “ethics program”, we mean any strategy for teaching ethics, including developing materials. Our purpose here is to generalize from that experience to identify the chief elements needed to get an ethics program started in a new profession. We are focusing on new professions for two reasons. First, all the older professions, both in the US and in most other countries, now have ethics programs of some sort. They do not need our advice to get started. Second, new professions face special problems just because they are new—everything from deciding who belongs to the profession to formalizing ethical standards so that they can be taught. Our purpose in this paper is to generalize from our experience and to identify some of the fundamentals for getting an ethics program started in a new profession. We present our recommendations in the form of response to 6 questions anyone designing an ethics program for a new profession should ask. We realize that our brief discussion does not provide a complete treatment of the subject. Our purpose has been to point in the right direction those considering an ethics program for new profession.
Both of us have helped professions, especially new scientific or technical professions (such as software engineering and geophysical information systems), develop ethics programs—for undergraduates, graduates, and practitioners. By “ethics program”, we mean any strategy for teaching ethics, including drafting materials. By “new profession”, we mean an existing occupation, discipline, or other group that some of the members of which have begun to think of as a profession. The professional status of a “new profession” is generally contested both inside and outside but the contest concerns something relatively specific, whether the group in question is, or at least should be, voluntarily organized to earn a living by openly serving a moral ideal in a morally-permissible way beyond what law, market, morality, and public opinion would otherwise require.1
Our purpose here is to generalize from our experience with new professions to identify the chief elements needed to get an ethics program started in such a profession. We are focusing on new professions for two reasons. First, all the older professions, both in the US and in most other countries, now have ethics programs of some sort. They do not need our advice to get started (though even they may find what we say useful for review or appraisal of existing programs). Second, new professions face special problems just because they are new—everything from defining who belongs to the profession to formalizing ethical standards so that they can be taught. This article takes the form of question and answer. The six questions are intended to be what is on the mind of a professional who consults us (whether or not the question is ever stated). The corresponding answers are what we would now say in response.
How do I know when a new profession needs an ethics program?
The short answer is that a new profession always needs an ethics program because professional ethics is always more than “just common sense”.
The long answer requires making clear what we mean by “ethics”. We do not mean ordinary morality (Don’t lie, Keep your promises, Help the needy, and so on)—which is part of common sense. We also do not mean the field of philosophy that goes by that name (the attempt to understand morality as a rational undertaking). By “ethics” we mean those special (morally permissible) standards of conduct that apply to members of a group just because they are members of that group. A profession’s ethics are standards that apply to members of that profession just because they are members. Like the profession’s technical standards, of which they are in fact the most general part, they are an achievement of the profession, part of what makes a member of the profession something more than a mere individual expert. They help to standardize the work of the profession.
Like the rest of us, a professional learns morality all through life—from direct experience, discussion with others, history, fiction, and so on. Professionals need not learn philosophical ethics at all. But the profession’s ethics must be learned if the profession is to have ethical standards of its own (a living practice). Those standards can only be learned in a professional school, from appropriate books (when they exist—as they generally do not in a new profession), or from experience. Experience is a poor teacher—though its lessons are seldom forgotten. It is a poor teacher because it gives the test before the lesson, because the cost of each lesson is high, and because its treatment is never systematic. Schools, including professional schools, exist to make learning from experience as rare as possible. For most students, books are a poor substitute for school. We learn skills best from those who have them and know how to pass them on.2
How can I convince the profession of the need for an ethics program?
This question concerns the politics of the profession in question. No two professions are alike. Our experience is that three considerations seem to be especially helpful in convincing a profession that it needs an ethics program. The first is that professions close to the new profession, especially the more established ones, already have such programs. Such programs are, in effect, standard operating procedure for any profession. The second is a program to propose. Professions are much more likely to consider adopting a program if they have a concrete candidate to consider. If a program is not yet available or not easily constructed, argue that with innovations and new knowledge come new challenges, including ethical challenges, which require consideration of new ethical guidelines, new ethical skills, and therefore, new subject matter in the classroom; then find a funding agency to support development of the ethics program so defined. Outside support is a surprisingly effective argument. Third is the existence of at least one recent scandal concerning the profession in question. Convincing a profession to adopt an ethics program is, in part, a matter of timing.
How do I identify the profession’s chief ethical problems?
There are at least 4 ways to identify the profession’s ethical problems (ways which can be combined). One is a formal open-ended survey of practitioners. Another is holding sessions at professional meetings at which practitioners are first presented with a problem for discussion and then, after a brief discussion, are asked to suggest problems for further discussion. Third is to look through the professional literature for problems. Fourth is to adapt problems already developed for an adjacent field and then ask practitioners whether these adapted problems are “realistic”.
Always collect more problems than you think you need. Some will fail to spark discussion, spark the wrong sort of discussion, spark only a brief discussion, or otherwise not serve as required. Note that we don’t start by asking professionals a question like “What are the most significant ethical problems in your field?” We do not for at least two reasons. First, our experience is that this doesn’t work. Most professionals simply don’t have or cannot recall a class of problems they would consider “ethical”. What they recall are individual problems. Often they are not sure whether they are even “ethical”; what they are sure of is that they were, in one way or another, troubling. Second, practitioners rarely have a sense of their profession as a whole. What they are sure of, and therefore, what they are willing to talk about, are problems that they themselves see or hear about. A question that invites them to draw on that experience is much more likely to solicit useful problems than a question that invites them to think more abstractly.
How do I identify the ethical principles to resolve those problems?
A good way to identify ethical principles suitable for resolving the ethical problems of a profession is to look at the profession’s code of ethics, if there is one. (Anything obvious to the profession is likely to be there.) If there is no code, then the best way to identify principles is to begin with discussion of ethical problems that seem typical of the field, especially easy problems. Keep a record of the discussion. Examine the record for principles cited during the discussion, e.g., “Protect the public”, “Don’t want to disappoint the customer”, “Loyalty”. Show the list to other practitioners to see whether they agree that the principles identified are important. Put aside for further discussion (and amendment or substitution) any principle to which more than one practitioner objects. The next time, use a somewhat different collection of cases, one that might lead to citation of principles not yet cited. As easy problems seem to yield fewer new principles, increase the proportion of harder problems. Continue until the list of principles seems to have become stable. That list is, in effect, an explication of the profession’s implicit code of ethics. It will serve to guide classroom discussion until the profession adopts an official code.
This is, we think, a good way to develop ethical principles to guide discussion of problems. There are others (Kipnis 1988; Anderson 1994; Davis 2007). But there are, we think, also some ways not to proceed. The most common mistake is to ask practitioners abstract questions, such as “What obligations do we have to society, to employers and funders, to colleagues, and to individuals in society?” Such abstract questions tend to generate answers both equally abstract and not particularly suited to the profession in question. Professionals are better at recognizing special obligations when thinking about the contexts in which they appear (that is, specific problems).
Another common mistake is to let some respected member of the field write an ethics code. The respected member, usually senior in the field, is likely to be too far from the difficulties of ordinary practice that the code is supposed to help resolve. The result is typically high sentiments ordinary practitioners regard as unhelpful.
New professions generally have new problems (as well as some they share with other professions) because they work in new ways, have new knowledge, or enter into new relations with clients, employers, public, or environment. The new problems are generally hard to predict; they become evident in practice. The profession must often learn from experience even if the individual professional does not. There is, then, a need to begin the search for ethical principles by a process that stays close to actual practice.
How do I create an ethics curriculum and guide instruction?
An ethics curriculum should have at least four objectives: (1) raising student sensitivity to ethical problems they may face in professional practice; (2) providing them with information that may help them resolve those problems (including ethical standards, history of the profession, and structure of organizations in which the profession works); (3) improving ethical judgment (that is, increasing the likelihood that students will develop a good plan of action in response to an ethical problem); and (4) increasing ethical commitment (that is, increasing the likelihood that a student will carry out a good plan once developed). The presentation of ethical materials should be structured with one or more of these objectives in mind.
One common mistake in designing an ethics curriculum is to think that the objective is to teach students ethical principles as such. The result is a direct presentation of standards or obligations. The thinking is something like, “We know we want them to be aware of their professional obligations, so why not start with those?” There are various instructional strategies and materials that fit this approach, most of which we would not recommend. Least effective would be simply asking students to enumerate their professional obligations or to commit to memory important code provisions. Somewhat more creative would be asking students to generate the provisions that could apply to selected problems or scenarios. These approaches are not likely to be successful. Students find such generative tasks both difficult and boring. But more important, since the principles are not presented within a context in which they are solving practical problems, there is little chance that students will know what to do with them when they confront an actual problem.
What will I have when I have everything I need?
The details in the answer to this question may vary considerably. But at least two things are always needed. First, the ethics program should include a set of interesting problems. These not only provide a good way to introduce students to issues in the profession (raising sensitivity), but resolving them is the best way we know to introduce students to important ethical principles, technical standards, and institutional background (adding to ethical knowledge).
Second, it is useful to have some materials that will help facilitate or guide discussion of the problems. These can include relevant readings and other supporting materials, e.g., code provisions, case commentaries, court rulings, and so on. But our experience suggests that clear guidance is also useful for the discussion of problems, for example, a decision procedure having several steps. Research also supports this idea Keefer and Ashley (2001). The purpose of the guidance is practical, e.g., to help students be more open to alternatives, to investigate aspects of the problem that might provide the means to a better resolution, and so on. The form of the support can vary from explicit presentation of reasoning steps (a decision procedure) to a structured exposure to case commentaries that exhibit the exemplary reasoning (though our experience is that the more explicit one can be about the method, the better).
Our purpose in this article was to generalize from our experience and to identify some of the fundamentals for getting an ethics program started in a new profession, especially a new scientific or technological profession. We presented our recommendations in the form of response to six questions anyone designing an ethics program for a new profession should ask. We realize that our brief discussion does not provide a complete treatment of the subject. Our purpose has been to point in the right direction those considering an ethics program for new profession.
A version of this article was presented at the Eighteenth Annual Meeting of the Association for Practical and Professional Ethics, March 5–8, 2009, Cincinnati, Ohio. We should like to thank those present, as well as one reviewer for this journal, for comments. This article relies on work performed under. NSF Grant No. 0019171 NSF Division of Information and Intelligent Systems: Collaborative Research: The Responsible Conduct of Computational Modeling and Research (Keefer, Co-PI); and NSF Grant No. SES-9985813: Ethics Across the Curriculum: Continuing to Transfer the Technology (Davis, PI).