Ethics and Excuses: The Crisis in Professional Responsibility

By Banks McDowell | Go to book overview
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7
The Informal Moral Codes

Most of the discussion and teaching of professional ethics accepts the formal professional codes as the grounding and the authoritative promulgation of ethical norms for the profession. The formal professional codes do have certain important functions. Their preamble, hortatory language, and general principles set up the profession's high aspirations or goals, although at a sufficiently abstract level that they seldom provide practitioners with adequate practical guidelines. The formal codes set outer limits on the range of acceptable conduct. Finally, they are public-relations documents, which tell the public in what ways a member of the particular profession differs or is supposed to differ from ordinary service providers.

In professional schools, students master the subject matter of the formal code sufficiently well to pass an examination and then tend to forget its details as they do much of the other formal knowledge they have learned and then have little direct use for. The code will usually be revisited only during public pronouncements about the honor of being a professional or when a professional is accused of having acted unethically. Although it may be used to establish unethical conduct, it is used more often to show that in fact the questionable conduct was in compliance with the code, that is, as an excuse.

Behind or beside the formal code is an informal moral code for professional activity. 1 Such informal codes also exist for the society as a whole and affect professionals as well. We are all responsible to layers of morality: first, the formal ethical principles one learns from religious, cultural, and formal education; second, an informal moral code learned from watching

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