Professional ethics is part of the broad field of applied ethics and assesses the moral dimension of human activity in occupations that have professional status. These occupations include law, medicine, ministry and by extension higher education, journalism, engineering, and management.
Professional ethics is concerned with the moral conduct and standards governing the profession and its members. This area of study examines issues, problems, and the social responsibility of the individual practitioners as well as of the profession itself in light of philosophical principles, including duty and obligation.
Associations made up of professionals set standards in order to secure the competence and integrity of members engaged in private practices. In some fields, such as medicine and law, there are also structures that monitor their conduct. In many cases civil law also reinforces these standards through a process of examinations and licensing. Professional ethics do not only provide guidelines that govern the relationship between professional and client, but they also define norms governing the professional's responsibility to colleagues and the public as a whole.
Most professions have a code of ethics or other statement of their professional practice's norms, but such statements are only partial representations of the profession's norms and obligations. The full content of these norms is determined in an ongoing dialogue between the expert group and the larger community. Therefore, it is hard to determine a profession's norms and well-known moral categories such as autonomy, beneficence and justice are only a starting point.
One way to examine the norms of a profession is in terms of nine categories of professional obligation as identified from studies of numerous professional groups. These categories provide a set of questions, each centering on a certain aspect of a profession's norms.
The first category concerns the chief client or clients of a profession. The chief client is a category or categories of persons and the profession and its members are chiefly committed to serving the well-being of these persons. The second category is about the central values of the profession. A professional group is not expected to be expert in its clients' whole well-being, but only in certain aspects or a set of values and the profession's job and obligation is to work to secure these values for the clients. The third category refers to the ideal relationship between professional and client. This category of professional norms concerns the proper roles of a professional and the client as they make a number of judgments and choices about the professional's intervention aimed at bringing about certain values for the client.
The fourth category addresses sacrifice and the relative priority of the client's well-being. According to most sociologists studying professions, one of the characteristic features of a profession is "commitment to service" or "commitment to the public. In a similar way, clients' best interest or service to the public hold a prominent place in most codes of ethics and other self-descriptions offered by professional organizations. The fifth category considers competence, which refers to the fact that every profession's obligation is to acquire and maintain the expertise that is necessary to undertake professional tasks and it is obligated to undertake only tasks within the profession's competence.
The sixth category is about the ideal relationship between co-professionals. It concerns the norms of each profession about the proper relationship among members of the same profession as well as among members of different professions in case they are dealing with the same client.
The seventh category addresses the relationship between the profession and the larger community and concerns the diverse relationships between the profession and persons who are neither clients nor co-professionals.
The eighth category concerns access to professional services. Given that every professional is committed to the values central to his or her profession he or she cannot be consistently indifferent if a significant number of people in the society do not get the professional assistance they need to achieve these values.
The ninth and final category addresses integrity and education. This relates to how a person communicates to others what he or she stands for in his or her acts, in how he or she chooses these acts and in how the person presents himself or herself to the others in carrying them out.
One of the theoretical issues raised by professional ethics is the extent to which a profession's norms and principles override a professional's individual rights and other moral principles.