Behavioral Ethics: Ethical Practice Is More Than Memorizing Compliance Codes


Disciplines establish and enforce professional codes of ethics in order to guide ethical and safe practice. Unfortunately, ethical breaches still occur. Interestingly, it is found that breaches are often perpetrated by professionals who are aware of their codes of ethics and believe that they engage in ethical practice. The constructs of behavioral ethics, which are most often discussed in business settings, attempt to explain why ethical professionals sometimes engage in unethical behavior. Although traditionally based on theories of social psychology, the principles underlying behavioral ethics are consistent with behavior analysis. When conceptualized as operant behavior, ethical and unethical decisions are seen as being evoked and maintained by environmental variables. As with all forms of operant behavior, antecedents in the environment can trigger unethical responses, and consequences in the environment can shape future unethical responses. In order to increase ethical practice among professionals, an assessment of the environmental variables that affect behavior needs to be conducted on a situation-by-situation basis. Knowledge of discipline-specific professional codes of ethics is not enough to prevent unethical practice. In the current article, constructs used in behavioral ethics are translated into underlying behavior-analytic principles that are known to shape behavior. How these principles establish and maintain both ethical and unethical behavior is discussed.

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Correspondence to Frank R. Cicero.

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Cicero, F.R. Behavioral Ethics: Ethical Practice Is More Than Memorizing Compliance Codes. Behav Analysis Practice (2021).

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  • Ethics
  • Behavioral ethics
  • Ethical decisions
  • Professionalism
  • Interdisciplinary
  • Behavior analysis