Ethics and Excuses: The Crisis in Professional Responsibility

By Banks McDowell | Go to book overview

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Introduction:
The Ethical Crisis?

There seems to be a growing consensus that our society faces a crisis in professional ethics. While this maybe a subset of a more general crisis in ethical responsibility, my primary interest is in professionals, who are traditionally expected, or at least claim, to display a higher level of ethics than the general population. Much of my analysis in this book may apply, however, not only to professionals and the excuses given when it is claimed they have acted unethically, but to everyone.

There is certainly unease about professional ethics, not only by the professionals themselves, but by the general public, who are the clients or consumers of professional services. In recent decades, more courses about ethics have been introduced into professional schools. Professional associations are worried about the public image of professionals as being unethical. Books about professional ethics are proliferating.

There are serious issues captured in the statement "There is an ethical crisis for professionals." There is, however, confusion about exactly what those problems may be. Five years ago, I prepared a presentation for an ethics conference entitled "The Excuses that Make Professional Ethics Irrelevant." My thesis was that for ethics, the norms are largely matters of voluntary compliance and if an actor can find excuses that justify to himself those of his actions that might be labeled unethical, the ethical requirements lose force. The more I worked with that notion, the more I discovered that excuses serve not only the function of avoiding ethical responsibility, which is the way we usually think about them, but they are also useful in deciding how to apply and adapt ethical norms in specific contexts. In ad

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