The Codes of Ethics Project

Overview

Codes of ethics – along with codes of conduct, codes of practice, statements of values, etc. – are a ubiquitous feature of professional life. The aims of this project are to better understanding what useful functions these codes can have, and to find ways to help them fulfill these functions in practice.

The project will kick of with a Codes of Ethics Day 2018 on January 26 (see below). This will be followed by two further events in January 2019 and January 2020. The organizers will also work with project participants in between the events.

The organizers are Alex Barber and Sean Cordell, both philosophers at the Open University. If you would like to be involved, drop us an email via the contact page.

Who is it for and how will it work?

This project is for you if any of the following hold:

  • You are wondering if your organization should have a code of ethics
  • You are producing a code of ethics from scratch
  • You are responsible for implementing or reviewing a specific code of ethics
  • Your organization’s code of ethics seems dormant and you suspect a different approach is needed

If you have a general interest in codes of ethics, e.g. because you are an academic working in professional ethics, then you are also very welcome to join us.

Whether you are an academic or a non-academic professional, you can be involved as much or as little as your circumstances and interests dictate.

Activity will centre on one ‘Codes of Ethics Day’ per annum over three years (see below). Beyond that, however, we will: build a body of publicly available resources and update them after each event to reflect findings; work with individuals on particular codes; and support an ongoing network for people working on codes of ethics.

Goals and strategy

The goal of the project is to bring about improvements to existing codes of ethics, in both formulation and practical utility, by working with those in a position to effect these improvements as we develop answers to the ‘key questions’ listed below.

The strategy will be, above all else, collaborative. Over the three years of the project we will bring together representatives from policing, commerce, law, social work, medicine, translation, commerce, sport, etc., as well as interested academics, with a view to analyzing, comparing and contrasting the relevant codes in the light of the experiences and insights of these various individuals.

Key questions

The questions we address in this project will ultimately be shaped by participants, but here are some that do not have obvious answers despite their importance:

The function of codes of ethics What are they actually for? And where do they sit relative to the various other norms under which most professionals already operate, such as: the law; morality in general (e.g. ‘Don’t lie’); the specifics of employment contracts; the generic obligation to perform effectively in one’s work?

Comparing codes of ethics What are some of the key dimensions of similarity between codes of ethics? What are some core differences? What explains these parameters?

Embedding codes of ethics Some seem to end up either sitting unread on company servers, or are read but then paid no more than lip service. How can this be avoided?

Enforcing codes of ethics Some codes are enforced more rigorously than others (often reflected in their being called ‘Codes of Conduct‘ though there is no uniformity on this). Some are – and should be – entirely voluntary. What should guide this choice?

Tweaking codes of ethics There are some common traps into which Codes of Ethics often fall in their wording…

E.g. Many codes call on practitioners to act ‘with integrity’. Is this actually saying anything? If so, what?

E.g. Many advocate ‘openness’ and ‘honesty’, instead of performing the harder but more useful task of spelling out the special job-related circumstances in which openness and honesty might not be the best policy (e.g. when trying to sell a house on behalf of a client).

E.g. Many codes have no clause dealing with whistleblowing, or no obvious or credible framework for protecting responsible whistleblowers.

While every code has its own unique context, it may make sense to develop a ‘Useful checklist’ for those with responsibility for producing or updating them.

The case against codes of ethics Not everyone thinks Codes of Ethics have as much value as their popularity would suggest. We must take these charges seriously. Might codes of ethics, statements of value, etc., sometimes serve as wallpaper to cover cracks or to distract outsiders from deeper problems in a profession? Do they presuppose that ethics can be codified, and if so is this plausible? Do they prevent individuals thinking for themselves and exercising good judgement? Are they superfluous given other norms, such as the law, employment contracts, etc.? Might there be better ways of achieving the desired outcome?

Codes of Ethics Days

Codes of Ethics Day 2018 will take place on January 26 2018 in Senate House, London. This will be the inaugural event for the Codes of Ethics Project. Similar events will take place in 2019 and 2020.

Participants will be a mix of academics with an interest in professional ethics and representatives from various professions, ready to discuss the questions above or others relating to codes of ethics, their status, and how they can be optimized.

Resources and existing literature on codes of ethics

Our main focus during this project will be on the codes relating to the various professions from which participants are drawn. Links to a representative selection of such codes, and to a few more general discussions, can be found on our Code of Ethics Resources Page.

About the project

The Codes of Ethics Project is currently a stand-alone element of the larger AHRC-funded Role Ethics Network run by Dr Alex Barber and Dr Sean Cordell, both philosophers at the Open University.

Compared to the rest of the network’s work this part is geared much more towards making a direct and positive difference to existing practice. It is also more focused, looking at professional roles in particular, and at codes of ethics rather than at every aspect of the ethics of these roles.

Our plan is to run the Codes of Ethics Project over three years in the first instance, with annual events in the Januaries of 2018, 2019 and 2020. 

Support

The project is supported by the Open University and the Arts and Humanities Research Council.