Professional Ethics: Caught and Taught

Article excerpt



Public discourse about ethical behavior, rapidly changing technology and social conditions, and expectations of professionals call for a discussion ofprofessional ethics. Themes from the codes of ethics of selected professional associations comparable to AAFCS are examined for their similarities. The relationship between academic honesty and ethical practice is explored, and a summary of approaches to teaching ethics is provided. To foster critical thinking about professional ethics and professional practice, a set of discussion questions is presented.

In professional practice, encountering and making ethical choices is inevitable. Questions similar to the following may be faced:

* Is it justified to break the pledge of confidentiality to a client if the health and well-being of other members of his or her family are at stake and not being informed places them at greater risk?

* What does a teacher do when he or she suspects plagiarism by a talented student who has suffered deep personal loss and is under great emotional strain?

* What steps should be taken by an employee when he or she becomes aware that quality controls have been breached in order to meet seasonal production quotas for children's toys?

* What is the responsibility of a research team to human subjects when findings from another study purporting a more effective intervention are announced midway through the team's project?

* What should an employee do when he or she suspects that a professional colleague is inflating the travel expenses being reported to their employer?

Employees in the field of family and consumer sciences often face ethical decisions. The development of students enrolled in colleges and universities into future professionals, therefore, should include, at a minimum, discussion of professional ethics and an understanding of the American Association of Family and Consumer Sciences (AAFCS) Code of Ethics and Principles of Professional Practice. Likewise, development of practical reasoning skills for ethical action in families, workplaces, and communities is an essential component of the curriculum of secondary family and consumer sciences programs. (See National Standards for Family and Consumer Sciences Education, National Association of State Administrations for Family and Consumer Sciences, 1998). Ethical beliefs are modeled in professional practice and ethical principles are included in the curriculum and in-service professional development. Thus, it can be said that professional ethics is both "caught" and "taught," that is, transmitted implicitly through example and explicitly through teaching and dialogue.

The purpose of this article is to explore professional ethics as they are reflected in the codes of ethics of professional organizations and to foster critical thinking by teachers and students about how ethical principles are transmitted, explored, and adopted. Themes from codes of ethics of selected professional associations comparable to AAFCS are presented and discussed. Next, the expressed need for instruction in professional ethics and the role of academic honesty as a precursor for professional ethics are discussed. Approaches to explicitly teaching ethics are reviewed. Finally, a set of questions which may serve as a guide for dialogue about ethical issues facing family and consumer sciences professionals is presented. The AAFCS Code of Ethics and Principles of Professional Practice provide the primary point of reference for the discussion.


Professional ethics emanate from moral values, cultural norms, beliefs, and professional practice. Beneficence (doing good), nonmaleficence (doing no harm), autonomy (freedom to think and act), fidelity (trustworthiness and loyalty), and justice (fair treatment) have been identified as the foundational principles that undergird professional practice and thus the code of ethics of the American Psychological Association (Kitchener, 2000; Welfel and Kitchener, 1999). …