I’m going to spend a few posts thinking out loud about the the Academy’s Code of Ethics. I should emphasize that this is not an official statement, but my own personal interpretation. As with everything here at the Ethicist, it’s part of a conversation, not the last word on something. Please let me know what you think. Let’s talk about it.
The word “ethics” derives from the Greek “ethos”, meaning “habitual character and disposition; moral character; habit, custom; an accustomed place.” To me, this emphasizes the rather ordinary nature of ethical behavior. Ethical behavior does not usually require any drama; one just does one’s work properly, decently. This underlying ordinariness of ethical action can be seen in the Code’s “General Principles”, which state that Academy members should comport themselves with responsibility, integrity and respect. While this may seem pretty straightforward, adhering to such principles is, of course, as difficult as, well, being alive. That difficulty is what being a human being in a social milieu is all about.
At the core of the Code’s definition of responsibility lies the idea that our work is carried out within relationships that are based on trust. This, in turn, requires us to define our roles and obligations clearly; after all, we have to know who we can trust in what matters. It also requires us to avoid conflicts of interest, which undermine trust, and even to actively help others without being compensated, which builds trust. To draw on etymology again: being responsible means being “answerable”. Ethical people, we might say, are able to account for their actions.
The Code defines integrity as a concern for “accuracy, honesty, and truthfulness”. Basically, we try to ensure that when when people are talking to us, they don’t come to believe things that are untrue. So we don’t lead them to believe we have qualifications we don’t have. We don’t lead to believe that our rivals are less competent than we know they are. We don’t misrepresent the facts, or obscure our sources of the facts. We don’t, in short, claim to know something we don’t understand or to own something that isn’t ours. The commonsense injunctions against lying and stealing capture this principle nicely.
Finally, the Code invokes the principle of respect–specifically for the rights and dignity of others. And here we can begin to see the difficulty that an ethical life implies. After all, treating one person with respect may come into conflict with your responsibilities to another; certainly, being honest with someone is not always the most respectful thing you can do. The Code sorts the concern with confidentiality under “respect”; clearly this sometimes precludes being entirely truthful, which it sorts under “integrity”. (Even to let on that you know something about someone that you are not allowed to say can be a breach of their privacy.) There’s an important ethical tension here.*
There is a lively discussion these days about the importance of being aware of your “privilege”. Do your words and actions carry extra weight because they channel a power that is rooted in history of injustices, whether of race, or class, or gender, or sexuality? If so, these injustices are, importantly, historical. The list will no doubt have to be amended in the future as we become aware of forms marginalization we haven’t seen before. The value of the Code is that it requires us to face these issues explicitly, and then to work through them as our cultural values, personal morals, and actual responsibilities change throughout our careers. Like I say, it’s as difficult as being alive. Doing it well is correspondingly rewarding.
P.S. In a post from 2013, Kathy Lund Dean put this point forcefully: “Ethical and principled behavior is de-stabilizing to important, instrumental relationships in business, and there are costs to that.” I’ll write more about this in my next post.