The Codes of Ethics Project

Codes of ethics (or of conduct, of practice, or values statements, etc.) are a ubiquitous feature of professional life. This project is geared towards understanding what valuable functions they can have and to finding ways of enhancing their capacity to fulfill these functions.

The project will kick of with a Codes of Ethics Day on October 27th 2017 (see below; expressions of interest in the project welcome!)

Overview and context

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 Autumns of 2017, 2018, and 2019. Participants – academics and non-academic professionals – can be involved as much or as little as their circumstances and interests dictate.

Goals and strategy

The goal of this sub-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 a range of key questions (see below).

The learning strategy will be, above all else, collaborative. We will bring together representatives from policing, commerce, law, social work, medicine, translation, sport, etc., along with 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.

To keep commitment levels reasonable, activity will be centred on a Codes of Ethics Day each year (details below). We will also: 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.

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 hard-drives or being 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 entirely voluntary. What hangs on this choice?

Tweaking codes of ethics There seem to be some common traps into which Codes of Ethics 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 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 is different in its 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 much value, and we must consider these charges. Might they 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.?

Codes of Ethics Days

Codes of Ethics Day 2017 will be October 27th in Senate House, London. This will be the inaugural event for the Codes of Ethics Project. 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 Resources Page.