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 kicked off with a Codes of Ethics Day 2018 on January 26 (see below). This will be followed by Codes of Ethics Day 2019 on May 14, and a third and final event in the series in 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 addresses on 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, or for any other reason, then you are also very welcome to join us. 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. One ambition is to produce a Code of Ethics Online Toolkit that can distill the most important elements of producing and overseeing a code of ethics in whatever context.
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.
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 took place on January 26 2018 in Senate House, London. It looked at codes tied to a variety of professions, such as codes for policing, or for clergy, etc.
Codes of Ethics Day 2019 will take place on May 14 2019 at the Open University building in Camden. It will look at codes governing particular behaviours (whistleblowing, bulling, etc.)
Codes of Ethics Day 2020 will take place at a time and place tbc.
Participants will be a mix of academics with an interest in professional ethics and representatives from various professional contexts, 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.
The Codes of Ethics Project is 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 the Code of Ethics 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.
The project is supported by the Open University and the Arts and Humanities Research Council.