This module is a resource for lecturers  


Key issues


Professional ethics can be taught as a subject that deals with written codes and other standards of conduct that applies to all professions. Another approach is to teach professional ethics as it applies to a specific profession such as medical ethics, business ethics, legal ethics, bioethics, and media ethics. Occasionally, courses and degree programmes combine the two approaches by introducing general professional ethics at the outset and then applying these principles to one or more professions. This Module will primarily address the topic at large and then tackle overarching questions, such as role morality and conflicts with personal ethics, as well as professional codes and whether aspirational guidelines are effective. All professions raise ethical issues, so the need for professional ethics and for the consistent expression of integrity across all professions is highlighted. As many professions have their own set of professional ethics, conceptual room is made for lecturers to address issues arising from a specific set of professional ethics.


Personal, theoretical and professional ethics

To understand the subject of professional ethics, students need to understand the difference between personal, theoretical and professional ethics. As used in this Module, these three different but occasionally overlapping perspectives can be used to analyse and solve different ethical problems.

E4J Integrity and Ethics Module 1 defines ethics as "the attempt to arrive at an understanding of the nature of human values, of how we ought to live, and of what constitutes right conduct" (Norman, 1998, p. 1). This definition of ethics is helpful in understanding the notion of personal ethics, which refers to the values and standards by which people determine how to act in their daily lives. Personal ethics are frequently deep-seated principles about what is right and wrong, and they help define who we are as individuals. Our personal ethics applies to a wide variety of issues, including what we do in our private lives, such as when we interact with family and friends, and how we treat the people we interact with in public.

Students will come to the Module with their own set of personal ethics. To be clear, personal ethics comprise the values and standards that determine how we act, but they are not merely our inclinations or preferences, even if we feel quite strongly that those preferences are right. To constitute an ethical position, personal ethics must be based on a principled belief, not merely a personal opinion.

Our personal ethics can have many sources. Some of these sources are related to what we might think of as our personal experiences, such as our family upbringing, religion, culture, societal norms, and peers. Our personal ethics are, however, likely to also include aspects of theoretical ethics. Theoretical ethics are the doctrines developed by philosophers to explain how to make the right ethical decisions, such as utilitarianism, deontology and virtue ethics. As noted in Module 1, utilitarianism states that ethical decisions should be based on an assessment of the likely consequences of an action, and that actions that create the greatest good should be pursued. Deontology posits that decisions must be based on principles and duties, so in this approach you should take certain positions because they are right even if they have negative consequences. Defenders of virtue ethics argue that ethics is fundamentally the study of the good character, of the character of the laudable person, rather than the consequences of our actions (utilitarianism) or the underlying principles that inform our action (deontology).

Professional ethics, by contrast, is concerned with establishing primarily the values, principles and standards that underlie a profession's responsibilities and conduct (Davis, 2003). To understand what is meant by profession, it is useful to compare it to the term occupation. Sometimes "occupation" and "profession" are used interchangeably, but they mean different things. An occupation is the work that someone does to earn a living, while a professional is usually a more highly trained person, a member of a professional body who must pass tests certifying that he or she can practice the profession.  A professional is also subject to specialized professional rules. Any person could provide a good or service to the public, but a professional is normally associated with a group of persons providing the same good or service who organize themselves to achieve a societal good, in a morally acceptable way that sets standards for performance. For example, librarians organize to present information to the public, and doctors organize to cure sick persons ( Weil, 2008).

We can briefly explore the distinction between personal, theoretical and professional ethics by using the example of lying. Lying is normally thought of as wrong, although most people lie on some occasions in a way that is consistent with their personal ethics. Different theories of ethics take different approaches to lying, and the example of lying allows students to consider deontology and Kant's well-known position that one should not lie even when the stakes are very high. Students should also consider what professional ethics say about lying? Should a medical doctor lie to a patient about his or her condition if the doctor thinks it is in his or her best interest?

In addition to the differences between personal, theoretical and professional ethics, another distinction in this area is between professional ethics - the values, principles and standards associated with a particular profession - and workplace ethics, which are the rules that govern behaviour in the workplace. For example, employees are entitled to a safe, non-discriminatory workplace. If a supervisor realizes that employees are discriminating against or harassing an employee based on race or religion, the supervisor can raise this issue, implement an awareness training programme, and follow up with employees to ensure the measures are effective. This programme improves the workplace environment and makes it more likely that all employees are treated in an ethical manner, but it is not limited to one profession's set of ethics. A negative example of workplace ethics might be if a supervisor hands out discount vouchers for the supervisor's partner's beauty salon to the small group of employees under the supervisor's authority, thereby putting pressure on the employees to patronize the business. This activity may violate workplace ethics because the supervisor is using his authority over the employees to financially benefit the supervisor's partner. Both examples address workplace ethics, but their relevance is not limited to any particular professional group, so these issues would probably not be analysed as a matter of professional ethics.

A further distinction in this area is between professional ethics and organizational culture, or how the culture and structure of an organization impacts ethical decision-making. There are overlaps between professional ethics and organizational culture, especially in discussions of corporate structures such as companies. For focused resources on this issue, lecturers can review the Ethics Systems webpage on "Corporate Culture".

It should also be noted that some professions are guided by ethical standards that span multiple professions. For example, professionals involved in medical or biological research (or other areas of research involving human and animal subjects) are subject to both their professional ethical standards as well as a set of ethical guidelines pertaining to the conduct of research. The latter is often referred to as research ethics, and is the focus of institutional review boards (IRBs) or research ethics committees (RECs) that scrutinize and approve research projects based on whether they adhere to research ethics. On issues of medical ethics and research ethics lecturers can consult UNESCO's Bioethics Core Curriculum.

Professional ethics embody the values and goals of a profession, such as transparency and accountability, the provision of high quality and effective services, and responsibly to clients or customers. Compliance with professional ethics protects the individual professional as well as the honour of the profession. Because professional ethics reflect the values and goals of the profession, some aspects of professional ethics vary greatly between professions. In addition to containing goals and values particular to the profession, professional ethics can also reflect aspects of theoretical ethics like utilitarianism, or the virtues that professionals should strive to attain.

Professional ethics may include standards for performing a professional service that are also required in legally binding sources such as laws and administrative regulations. Professionals frequently have an expertise that is beyond the understanding of a non-professional. This means that a client cannot fully assess the quality of a professional's work, and they place their trust in the professional because he or she is a member of a professional group that adheres to certain standards.

When professionals encounter ethical problems, they should be guided by their professional ethics. However, since it would not be possible to remove a professional's personal ethics, any ethical decision-making in a professional context should take personal ethics into account. This is normally not a problem, unless personal and professional ethics are in conflict, an issue addressed in this section's discussion of role morality.


Potential conflicts between role morality and personal morality

One of the most difficult issues raised by professional ethics are conflicts between role morality and personal ethics. Sometimes the issue is described as a conflict between professional ethics and common morality, with common morality meaning the personal ethics subscribed to by many persons. The "role" in role morality refers to the role played by a profession in society. Professions require that persons in their profession carry out specialized practices in order to reach professional goals, and these practices do not necessarily raise ethical issues. For example, most professionals are required to perform their duties up to a certain standard, and this obligation to clients is not controversial.

Sometimes, however, professions allow or require behaviours that conflict with personal ethics. Some behaviours that conflict with personal ethics are more widely accepted as justified, if not by everyone then by society in general. War creates destruction and horror that conflicts with personal ethics, but many people would argue that a soldier could be justified in killing an enemy soldier in a battle. This is an example of a conflict of personal and professional ethics. By contrast, if the facts were changed and the killing was necessary to protect loved ones from deadly assault, then an argument might be made that personal ethics could be used to justify killing another person.

Other examples of conflicts between personal and professional morality are also difficult to resolve. For example, lawyers maintain confidentiality of client information in order to encourage clients to confide in them, which in turn enables the lawyer to assist in resolving the dispute in the right way. But should a lawyer keep information provided by a client confidential, such as a confession to a crime, if it would result in the wrongful conviction of another person? Should a therapist, who keeps client information confidential in order to encourage disclosure of painful matters so that the client can experience improvement and relief, keep a client's threats to another person a secret? Luban (2007) reviews a number of examples like these, and he notes that many professions maintain some form of confidentiality obligations, which in turn raise questions about potential conflicts between role morality and personal ethics.

When students become professionals, how will they handle these kinds of dilemmas? If someone agrees to enter into a profession and abide by rules of professional ethics, can he or she decide not to follow those rules because they conflict with personal ethics? The tension between personal and professional ethics is a true dilemma with no clear answer, because it raises the question of which set of ethical values (personal or professional) are more fundamental. Once the reason for both sets of values is understood, persons experiencing this dilemma may feel pulled toward both of sets of values. Luban's writings on role morality and lawyers suggests a four-step strategy to help resolve questions of role morality.

Luban's four-step strategy for resolving questions of role morality
(Luban, 1988, p. 131)

In order to follow a professional rule that conflicts with personal ethics, an individual would have to be able to:

  1. justify the relevant societal institution, based on the moral good it does;

  2. justify the professional's role, based on the structure of the institution;

  3. justify the particular role obligation in question, by showing that the behaviour required is essential to that role; and

  4. justify the act demanded by the role, by showing that the role obligations require the action.

If the institution produces sufficient good, and all connections between the steps are established, then the professional act should be performed even if it conflicts with personal ethics (Luban, 2007, p. 490).This four-step strategy is not an algorithm that invariably leads to the right solution, but rather a heuristic framework that allows professionals and others to critique professional rules. If the occasion warrants, someone applying the framework could determine that despite widespread reliance on a professional rule or requirement, it should not be followed. An example, based on Luban (1988, pp. 129-133), is provided immediately below.

Assume that a charitable organization has the goal of getting food to countries suffering from famine. The organization hires people to fulfil different roles to get the food delivered, including an employee with the job of securing trucks inside a country that will transport the food from a warehouse to people in the country who need it. The trucks available to make this delivery in the country are held by an unscrupulous individual, understood to be involved in various kinds of illegal activity such as extortion. The employee is fairly certain that the money provided by the organization for the food delivery will be used by the truck owner for illegal purposes, some of which are likely to result in threats or actual injury to people. But trucks are needed for the delivery and there is no other available transport, so if the employee does not use the truck owner, the food will not get to the people who need it.

The employee is in a dilemma, because pursuant to personal ethics the employee would normally not give business to a criminal or even indirectly support criminal activities. The employee, however, can resolve the dilemma by evaluating the good done by the institution and the links between the institution and the employee's action. The act of giving business to the truck owner is required by the employee's role obligation (getting trucks to deliver food), which in turn is required in order to perform the institution's task (getting food to the persons who need it), which finally is required by the institution's positive moral good, that of saving the lives of people dying of starvation. Taken together, the employee could determine that the role requirement outweighs the personal ethics of not giving business to a known criminal.

The four-step evaluation can result in a finding that the professional requirement should not be performed if the connection between any of the four steps breaks down. For example, if other trucks were available, but it would be a small amount of additional work for the employee to get them, then there is nothing wrong with steps 1-3, but the employee cannot satisfy step 4, justifying the act by showing that the role obligations require it. In that case, professional ethics do not outweigh personal ethics.

The four-step evaluation process is formulated to assist with dilemmas specifically arising out of conflicts between personal and professional ethics. However, as noted in the beginning of this Module, personal, theoretical and professional ethics are all perspectives that can be brought to bear on an ethical problem. Thus, it may be possible to resolve the employee's dilemma above using a different ethical perspective, for example, utilitarianism or how to achieve the greatest good for the largest number of people.


Professional codes of ethics or conduct

The subject of professional codes is something which most students will encounter when they start employment. Like professional ethics, professional codes normally include core values of a profession. Codes can embody professional ethics, but they are different from professional ethics, as they are more formal systems of regulation, they are usually written, and they are often promoted by a professional organization. Codes are one manner of articulating and sharing professional ethics, but there are others as well, such as the oath that some professionals take when they are approved to practice their profession. The Hippocratic Oath taken by medical doctors is a famous example. A modern version is the Physicians' Oath approved by the World Medical Association.

In addition to reinforcing profession-specific goals, codes are used by organizations to increase integrity in both the public and private sectors. Codes are also viewed internationally as a means to prevent corruption. For example, the United Nations Convention against Corruption recommends that states adopt codes of conduct for the "correct, honourable and proper performance of public functions" (article 8) as well as for the "correct, honourable and proper performance of the activities of business and all relevant professions and the prevention of conflicts of interest" (article 12).

Highly detailed professional codes can raise the question of whether their provisions unfairly restrict professionals in their day-to-day performance. They can also raise the question of who has the authority to tell professionals, often highly trained individuals, what to do in their interactions with clients and the public. Some people argue that ethics cannot be legislated, as ethical decisions cannot be enforced from the outside but must spring from an individual's own ethics (Lichtenberg, 1996, pp. 14-17). This argument asserts that codes of professional ethics are not compatible with what ethics really is. Lichtenberg notes that this conception of ethics is synonymous with the notion of personal ethics, reviewed above. She agrees that associating ethics with autonomous and freely chosen action is correct to some extent. At the same time, Lichtenberg argues that there is value in increasing the probability that professionals will act in the right way, and that this is one of the functions of a code (Lichtenberg, 1996, p. 15). Professionals can come under pressure from others to act improperly, and a code can provide a reason for them to act in the way they know they should. Lichtenberg observes that sometimes we care a lot about whether someone reaches the right decision based on his or her personal ethics, and sometimes we care less about this. Taking on professional responsibilities means that professional behaviour becomes more important, and that personal ethics are not the only matters that should guide our decision-making.

Another potential problem with professional codes is that they sometimes seem to state the obvious, raising the suspicion that they are more public relations exercises than real guidance for required behaviours. Understanding this objection requires a distinction between aspirational codes (also referred to as codes of ethics) which provide goals for professionals to reach, and disciplinary codes (also referred to as compliance-based codes or codes of conduct) which provide sanctions for failure to meet code requirements. Aspirations can be standards to meet or matters to avoid. They can be stated with different degrees of precision. They are not necessarily addressed to actual behaviour, and they can recommend that the professional strives to have certain attitudes, character, and take certain points into consideration during a decision-making process. It should be clarified, however, that in many case the distinction between aspirational codes and disciplinary codes will not be so clear cut. Thus, for example, there are a number of professional ethics codes that despite being aspirational in part also provide for sanctions in the case of serious misconduct. In these cases, not every violation will warrant sanctions but serious violations will.

By contrast, disciplinary codes impose sanctions for non-compliance with the professional code. Sanctions can take the form of fines, formal or informal reprimands, or ultimately expulsion from the professional group or removal of professional status. Disciplinary codes impose sanctions in order to motivate professionals to follow rules in the code. This raises the question of whether codes without sanctions have any effect on professionals. To help answer this question, we can note that professional codes without sanctions embody and reflect the experience of many people over time, and so they guide behaviour in ways that go beyond what an individual professional could anticipate. In some circumstances, codes teach professionals new behaviours which, as non-professionals, they did not know about. Codes without sanctions may not affect professionals' intent on behaving wrongly, but some people violate the law even though there are extremely severe sanctions, so disciplinary codes would also be ineffective in those circumstances. Assuming that professionals want to carry out their professional duties properly, a professional code without sanctions helps them do that.

Lichtenberg provides a different example that shows how codes without sanctions can make the harmful effects of wrongful professional behaviour apparent, and in such cases, a professional willing to reflect on their actions would be helpfully guided (Lichtenberg, 1996, 18-19). University professors who engage in inappropriate relationships with their students may not see their behaviour as a violation of their professional ethics. After all, students can choose what to do. The professor may feel somewhat uncomfortable with what they are doing, but they may not have grasped all the consequences of their behaviour. A professional code that prohibits certain kinds of relationships between professors and students at a minimum increases the likelihood that professionals will think about the behaviour that the code addresses. Codes can make professionals see what they are doing in a new light.

Another reason for having professional codes, whether or not they include sanctions, is their symbolic value, in that they publicly express ideas or values (Lichtenberg, 1996, p. 23). Symbolic value reflects the fact that it is one thing for a person to act a certain way in private, but another thing to publicly advocate for that position. For example, if a professional code prohibits providing services below a certain standard, then individual clients benefit from that standard, but society as a whole benefits as well because the standard announces the profession's commitment to a certain standard.

Examining actual professional codes allows students to discuss issues arising out of codes in a real life context, and this Module suggests that students examine two professional codes. The sample codes provided in the Module are for psychologists, one from Asia and another from South Africa, and they offer sufficient detail for comparison. Lecturers should feel free to substitute these for other sample codes, particularly if students are being trained for a particular profession. For example, in the case of law students, lecturers can refer to examples of legal or judicial ethics codes to illustrate the issues discussed in the Module. Lecturers could also compare professional codes from different professions, but this kind of comparison might be appropriate for more advanced students or as part of a stand-alone course, as students at an early stage of study may have difficulty in comparing codes of different professions given the divergent goals that professions have.

It is important to emphasize to students that ethics codes do not in themselves guarantee ethical conduct. It is not realistic to assume that each member of the profession will at all times know the correct application of their relevant codes and carry out ethical action. Therefore, to enhance compliance with ethics codes, it is important to cultivate ethical competence in parallel to educating professionals about their relevant ethics code. Ethical competence refers to the ability of professionals to realize that they are facing an ethical dilemma which calls for applying the ethics code or seeking external advice.



  • Davis, Michael (2003). Language of professional ethics .
  • Lichtenberg, Judith (1996). What are codes of ethics for? Codes of Ethics and the Professions. Margaret Coady and Sidney Bloch, eds. Victoria: Melbourne University Press.
  • Luban, David (1988). Lawyers and Justice: An Ethical Study. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  • Luban, David (2007). Professional ethics. A Companion to Applied Ethics. R.G. Frey and Christopher Heath Wellman, eds. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.
  • Norman, Richard (1998). The Moral Philosophers. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Weil, Vivian (2008). Professional ethics .
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