CYC-Online 87 APRIL 2006
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Mark Smith

This month I continue my personal exploration into philosophical issues by considering the area of ethics. There has been an upsurge in interest in professional ethics of late, often without any understanding of wider ethical thinking.

Traditionally, codes of ethics have said something about the aspirations of particular professional groups. They can set out a vision of personal emancipation or social justice and noble intent in the pursuit of such goals. They are, by and large, written by professionals for professionals.

This has changed. In recent years, politicians and bureaucrats have taken a greater interest in ethics. Codes of ethics have been developed on the back of a perception, real or manufactured, of public distrust in professionals. Professions can no longer be trusted to act in good faith, so need codes of ethics to set out what they should and shouldn’t do and what the public might be able to expect from them. The rationale is to provide workers with a framework within which they can work competently and in which members of the public can have confidence. Codes of ethics often become intertwined with codes of conduct, regulating how people should behave. On the surface all of this might sound pretty reasonable and rational (although regular readers of this column might remember that rationality isn’t all it might seem).

There are of course different ways of considering the above understanding of ethics. It can assume that there are right and wrong ways of doing things and that these will be right or wrong regardless of prevailing circumstances. This is the kind of thinking that has its roots in the philosophy of Immanuel Kant. One present day practice legacy might be the notion of “best practice”. Those in agency HQs like the notion of “best practice.” It holds out the prospect of things being nice and clear-cut and applicable across the range of work settings. When individuals transgress they can be held to account.

But we need to ask whether there are or can be universalisable standards of “best practice” or even of proper behaviour. Surely there must be a context to such notions. What might be right for one child might not for the next. Different cultures and different periods of history might well consider that our notions of what constitutes “best practice” in our particular context would be ridiculous in theirs. I am reminded of this in my regular discussions with a Bangladeshi PhD student in the department. His description of residential care in his country would be considered anathema to professionals in this country. To me, it is not necessarily either better or worse, it is just different, although, I’d have to say that there are aspects related to the basic value base of care from which I think we may have something to learn.

Thankfully there are other ethical frameworks beyond those that stress universalisable principles. Ancient Greek philosophers were concerned with the personal qualities of individuals and developed the notion of virtue ethics, whereby a person's own characteristics or virtues ascribed a particular moral sense to them. It is important to bear this in mind in work with children and youth, or indeed in any human services setting. Personal qualities or virtue ethics rather than just competence in following rules are what people will look for and remember. I’ve written in a previous column about relational ethics or ethics of an encounter – what happens when we come face to face with another human being. Situated ethics demand that we consider what is right in the context of the situation we find ourselves in, rather than being bound by abstract rules and principles. Discourse ethics require that what is ethical is subject to free and open discussion among participants in a particular context. So there are lots of different ways of thinking about ethics, which embrace the complexity of the human condition and of the kind of ethical decisions we need to take in daily practice. Unfortunately, the bureaucratic impulse is to equate ethics with rules.

Rule bound ethical frameworks make me wonder who they are really for. Are they for the unqualified benefit of those we work with or might there be elements of them that are for organisational protection or managerial control over workers? When this becomes the case, as I’d argue it can, then codes of ethics or codes of conduct can be used to beat people up. I’m not sure about the ethics of that.

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