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Article

What is professional ethics?

Nursing Ethics
2014, Vol. 21(2) 239244
The Author(s) 2013
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10.1177/0969733013484485
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Bob Brecher
University of Brighton, UK

Abstract
The very term professional ethics is puzzling with respect to what both professional and ethics might mean.
I argue (1) that professionalism is ambiguous as to whether or not it is implicitly committed to ethical practice;
(2) that to be professionally ethical is at best ambiguous, if not in fact bizarre; and (3) that, taken together,
these considerations suggest that professional ethics is something to be avoided rather than lauded.
Keywords
Codes, ethics, morality, professional, professional ethics

Introduction
The very idea of professional ethics seems or ought to seem decidedly odd. Its referent is already ambiguous. Is it to do with the ethics of a particular profession, such as nursing, teaching or prostitution? If so, then
why professional ethics rather than nursing ethics, teaching ethics or prostitution ethics? Presumably,
the thought is that there is something common to the professions in light of which their ethical pursuit is in
some way generic. But then, why have different codes for different professions? And what is it that they
have relevantly in common? Perhaps it is simply the assumption that their pursuit has to be ethical
in order to count as a professional one. But then, might one not make a similar claim about just any of our
paid pursuits? If not if shelf-stacking in a supermarket, plumbing, toilet-cleaning or janitoring can count as
such even if pursued unethically or not pursued ethically then perhaps the term profession is to be understood as serving to differentiate work that cannot count as such unless pursued ethically. But how plausible
is that? Do unethical professionals really thereby cease to count as professional? I shall pursue these issues
in the following section on professionalism. In the section, Professional Ethics, I shall pursue the other arm
of the ambiguity of professional ethics, the sense it carries of being professional about ethics, of acting
responsibly in respect of the ethical obligations and responsibilities characteristic of ones profession. Even
to make the point, of course, is already to point to the oddity of such a notion. Do ordinary people, or
professional people in the course of their ordinary rather than their professional lives, not fulfil this tautologous requirement simply insofar as they act ethically? Perhaps you do not think that being professional
about ethics is odd. But if that is so, then substitute morality for ethics: professional morality really?
The monstrosity of professional morality is revealing. Even if you do not agree with the Kantian thought
that to be a person is already to be an inescapably and universally moral being (a big issue, of course), the
thought of a particular morality as the purview of a specialist group of people professionals is at least too
close for comfort to the incongruity of a professional person, as contrasted with professional person.

Corresponding author: Bob Brecher, University of Brighton, 10-11 Pavilion Parade, Brighton, BN2 1RA, UK.
Email: r.brecher@brighton.ac.uk

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But before pursuing these specific issues, it will be as well to distinguish the two sorts of objection
I shall be offering to the idea of professional ethics, related as they nonetheless are.i The first is that
professional ethics is on one conception of morality a self-contradictory notion. It supposes
that there are (broadly understood) local contexts that either have their own, particular, ethics or that
universal ethics that is to say, universally valid moral principles need to be interpreted within such
local contexts.
I shall not say much about the first of these approaches, involving as it does just about all the fundamental
problems of moral philosophy, merely noting that it brings with it all the problems of relativism and/or
subjectivism, and that that renders ethics at best no more than local systems of what might be termed serious etiquette. Put another way, and as against Bernard Williams famous argument in Ethics and the Limits
of Philosophy,1 this would be mistakenly to eviscerate morality of any content. This is, of course, no more
than an assertion, justification of which would require (at least) another, and far longer, paper. But to the
extent that it turned out to be valid, to that extent professional ethics would be merely symptomatic of
a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of morality.
The second approach may perhaps appear plausible. But it is nonetheless misconceived: in offering the
relevant set of interpretations as ready-made, as a set of formulae against which practitioners may check
their practice, it eliminates the need for the practitioners concerned themselves to do that work, to think for
themselves and act accordingly. It allows one to act in a certain way on the say-so of others rather than acting as a moral agent, to behave as a young child might when (rightly) told to do something rather than to act
as a person, that is to say as an agent. Again, I cannot defend here the broadly Kantian view of morality,
rational action and personhood which that reflects. Nonetheless, it seems to me that the idea of acting for
the right reasons (She needs gentle handling) as opposed to acting because one has been told that that is
the right thing to do (The code emphasizes respect for the patient) has a grip that goes well beyond devotees of Kant. The codification required by the need for interpretation is central: it is because following a
code and acting morally are not at all the same thing that codes of professional ethics are objectionable, and
professional ethics as a matter of actual fact consists in codes. Perhaps one could delineate a conception of
professional ethics that does not take the form of codes (an interesting task that would, I think, require also a
recasting of the idea of what a profession is). But given the realities of the neo-liberal dispensation under
which we live, this theoretical question, important though it is, matters less than professional ethics as
actually instantiated. Indeed, that is the point of writing this piece at all.
On either of these two possible views of professional ethics, then, morality is denied. And that is one
basic reason for supposing the notion contradictory: or at least, contradictory if ethics is held to retain any
moral content at all. But if it does not, then the question arises, What are professional ethics concerned with
if not with morality? which takes us back to Bernard Williams.
But suppose you disagree. Suppose, for example, that you take ethics to be a matter of exercising virtue,
or, like Williams, of living a certain sort of life; or that you take morality to be in some deep way subjective
or relative to particular communities, ways of life; or whatever. One interesting concomitant of all these
views is that the notion of professional ethics becomes no less problematic than on a Kantian view of
morality. To put it very schematically, how can you be exercising virtue if you are following a rule (i.e.
a professional code)? Or if morality is a matter of living (a) certain kind(s) of life, then again, what kind
of life of moral life would it be where your professional life consisted merely in playing a role, in acting
out what it is to be a good nurse? And if there is, in the end, no such thing as morality, but only subjective
preferences or social conventions, ways of life or practices, then why do professional ethics matter at all,
other than in terms of a nurse not breaking their contract?

With thanks to an anonymous referee for suggesting this needed to be clarified.

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Furthermore, and this brings me to the second sort of objection to professional ethics, in the present
political conjuncture neo-liberal shock and awe the issue of the ethicisation of public life as an ideological weapon serving the neo-liberal revolutionaries is particularly urgent. What better way is there of
preventing people from thinking about the rights and wrongs of what their employer is telling them to
do of, for example, National Health Service (NHS) managers preventing nurses from thinking about their
patients needs than by imposing on them a code of professional ethics which, so to speak, does the thinking for them? If right and wrong are defined in terms of a set of rules, a code, which it is a nurses job to
follow, then there is no need and no opportunity for nurses to think about how to conduct themselves
vis-a`-vis their patients. Even their patients can all too easily become problematic, as all too many readers
doubtless know all too well. Again, that is why the main focus of what follows is professional ethics as actually extant, that is to say in the form of codes.

Professionalism
The historical transformation of a job into a profession conjoins redescription and new naming a fundamentally political matter. How should we understand and assess such transformations? Are they a welcome
means of safeguarding the public by assuring adherence to basic standards of practice through
self-regulation, and in particular ethical self-regulation? Or are they rather an efficient means of protecting
from the public those who can achieve professional status? Or both? All these are political issues, which is
why debate about what constitutes and/or what should constitute a profession has always been politically
freighted.
What is the difference between someone who is and someone who is not a professional; between, for
example as things stand today a nurse and a shelf-stacker? One element is expertise and its certification.
So while a shelf-stacker may need some initial training, that is the limit: no particular expertise is required
and so no certification in respect of it comes into question. But then, why are plumbers, toilet-cleaners and
train drivers not professionals? Well, perhaps driving trains, while it requires much more training than shelfstacking, is something that more or less anyone could do if they chose to. It is more like driving a car than
like surgery: just about everyone can learn to drive; but surgery, like tennis, requires skills that most of us
just do not have. Perhaps that is why the idea of driving trains as a profession sounds (at least) less farfetched than that of cleaning toilets as a profession, and why the oldest profession is ambiguously
regarded. That suggests another element of professionalism, the idea that being a professional is something
that goes across a whole lifetime, or at least a significant part of it, in such a way that that life is identified, by
oneself and by others, in terms of the profession in question: academic, doctor or barrister, but not toiletcleaner, shelf-stacker or (maybe) plumber. Again, prostitution is particularly interesting in this regard: here,
identification by others and self-identification might but might not diverge.
How these elements are understood and evaluated of course changes over time and place: hence, for
example, the comparatively recent professionalisation of engineers and nurses. What matters, and what I
suspect plays a large part in professionalisation as in de-professionalisation, a far less common phenomenon until the success of the unfolding neo-liberal revolution is of course status. (That is why the
neo-liberals regard the professions as an enemy: status is to be conferred on those and only on those whose
talent is for making money, a talent the exercise of which is carefully not described in either professional
or non-professional terms unprofessional in one sense though the financiers clearly are. Professional
banker or professional financier rightly have connotations not very different from professional
criminal.) The status conferred by protecting the public against quacks and incompetents versus the status
conferred by membership of a club closed to the public is a familiar issue in considerations of the histories of
the professions. In short, the very idea of professionalism is politically and morally ambiguous.
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Ethics
For some 20 years now, ethics have been blooming everywhere in our neo-liberal utopia. The United
Kingdom announced in 1997 that it would pursue an ethical foreign policy, an intention not rescinded
despite Afghanistan, Iraq, rendition and all the rest of it. Every organisation worth its salt proclaims its ethical principles: even Atos, for example, the private company awarded a contract to conduct the assessment
of the capacity of people with disabilities to undertake paid work, despite what it actually does,2 which is
reminiscent of nothing so much as the conduct of US army psychologists advising torturers at Guantanamo
Bay and elsewhere,3 proclaims a code of ethics.4 In the town where I live, there is even a fleet of white vans
claiming to provide ethical parking management. Rorty was certainly right about two things: anything
can be redescribed to be made to look good or bad5 and no description is morally neutral.6,ii
It is of course unsurprising that this increasing insistence on proclaiming that what one does is ethical
should come at a time and in a place where the values of the so-called free market rampant commodification and material egoism have become the common sense of the times, a common sense that is entirely
antithetical to ethical concerns. After all, the homo economicus of the neo-liberal junta is a surprising ethical
subject. For none of its various instantiations thrusting entrepreneur, self-reliant unencumbered citizen,
happy shopper would find themselves at home in any of the three central traditions of Western ethical
thought. Homo economicus cannot be a model of a balanced, virtuous life of the sort envisaged within
an Aristotelian framework according to which . . . happiness is activity in accordance with the highest
virtue7 nor an agent content to follow Kants injunction So [to] act that you use humanity, whether in your
own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end, never merely as a means,8 nor
one who could allow, with John Stuart Mill, that [T]o do as you would be done by, and to love your neighbour as yourself, constitute the ideal perfection of utilitarian morality.9
In part, the ubiquity of ethics may reflect a genuine concern however misguided to operate capitalism
with a human face, as with Fairtrade; in part, it constitutes a cynical attempt to disguise the neo-liberals
free market and its values. In practice, of course, these motivations often and easily work together.

Professional ethics
Integrity is one of the groups core values being a responsible business partner, employer, customer and supplier is an important part of our strategy and forms an essential foundation on which we carry out our business. In
our view, ethical behaviour of corporations should not be just a reaction to regulation or legal compliance, but a
means of doing business that gives customers, employees, partners and communities the confidence that they are
working with an ethical organisation that is not prepared to compromise on its integrity just to achieve its objectives or to make money.10

The corporation in question is G4S, the United Kingdoms largest private security organisation, with interests in prisons, immigrant detention centres, Palestine, Afghanistan and more, and a corporation notorious
even by the usual ethical standards of such professional providers.11 Might that not give one pause? But
perhaps I am being too cynical: of course, actually existing professions are to some extent self-serving, and
their embrace of ethics is an integral part of that function; and in fairness, if the notion of a professional is to
be defended, then it has to be distinguished from its various and all too common deformations. The fact that
much of what is pursued in the name of ethics in fact answers to legal, rather than to moral, concerns is
perhaps a deformation that could be remedied, rather than being a deep-rooted problem about the very idea
ii

Still pre-eminent, despite her own later changes of direction, is Dale Spenders Man Made Language.6

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of professional ethics a misuse of professional ethics. But still, the ease with which such misuse is undertaken if misuse it is tells us something about the world as it actually is.
More fundamentally, professional ethics and especially the codes in which such ethics are encapsulated
prevent rather than encourage moral thought and moral action. A code is a set of rules: some may take the
form of advice rather than direction, but nonetheless, their form is that of rules. Rules are formulae, and to
follow the rules as a means of making the right decision is a matter of looking up the appropriate rule in the
relevant handbook. But is looking up the rules a good way of making moral decisions? Or are rules rather a sort
of moral backdrop, for use as reminders when we need them? Following Kant, to the extent that making a
moral decision, and thus acting morally, is a rational matter, to that extent it is a matter of exercising ones
rational capacity. Children learn to act morally by being told what to do, by imitating their elders that is
to say, by learning to follow rules. But actually acting morally comes later, when children are no longer
(just) children and can think for themselves. Of course, they and we might still act in accordance with a
rule, but that is quite different from merely following it, merely looking up what to do and doing it. One
way of putting this is that moral decision-making and moral action have to be internalised in order to constitute moral decision and action; another is to remind ourselves of Kants insistence that an action not
done for the right reason that is to say, for a moral reason is not a moral action at all, however morally
desirable its consequences may be.
Nor is that all. Consider the moral status of ethical codes. Who questions that and on what basis? The
Nazi doctors and nurses working in the German eugenics programme of the 1930s come to mind here,
as do the doctors pimping for Atos. For it is all too easy to suppose that if the rules do not explicitly forbid
something, then it is permissible. Worse still, the rules themselves can anyway be redescribed so as not to
apply: not patients, but subjects, not people but degenerates or defectives. This is more than a practical difficulty. If a code is to function as a code, it has to be given. But if an ethical code is to be morally
questioned, then it cannot be simply given. Either the moral critique does not apply because it countermands
the code, or, if it does, then the code is redundant: the moral critique, not the code, is doing the work.
Finally, professional codes of ethics serve to prevent certain sorts of issue from being understood as
moral matters at all: consider resource allocation and rationing, geographical inequities such as postcode
prescribing, the responsibilities of patients or private medicine. If it is not in the code, it cannot be an issue.
But the content of codes depends on what their authors think relevant, an inadequate criterion because
the world changes and with it the range of issues over which morality ranges. Nor does regularly revising
the code help much consider the regular recasting of the Helsinki Declaration (the World Medical Associations Ethical Principles for Medical Research Involving Human Subjects) for example. And it raises a
related problem. The authors of codes, however well-intentioned and however able to think disinterestedly,
cannot but bring to their work their own particular views and contexts, and however much differing views
are balanced against each other, nonetheless, a code remains just that a specific document expressing the
moral views of a specific group: that of the code-makers. Morality unlike ethics is just what overrides all
other considerations: it cannot be measured against any others, not least because there is nothing other than
itself by which morality could be measured. To weigh economic against moral considerations is already a
moral weighing. Ethical codes suggest that their contents can be weighed against other factors. That is why
they are described as ethical not moral.

Conclusion
Perhaps the strongest argument for professional codes of ethics is that professionals have enough to do without also having to try to solve moral problems, let alone moral dilemmas. The doctors, nurses, managers
or teachers expertise is one thing morality another. After all, no one expects train drivers, refuse collectors or shelf-stackers to wrestle with moral problems as part of their everyday work, and to the extent that
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being a professional is in part marked by ones work having, or being considered to have, a greater import
than mere work, and so is more likely to raise moral issues, then a code of professional ethics is a reasonable solution. At least keep the moral considerations within professional boundaries.
But then, what are the relations between our moral responsibilities as citizens as people and as, say,
managers or doctors? What happens when my moral responsibility as an academic say, to colleagues
conflicts with my moral (or political) duty as citizen?12,iii Professional ethics offers a way of avoiding these
issues rather than facing them.
Acknowledgement
The author thanks the anonymous referee for the helpfully perceptive comments.
Conflict of interest
The author declares that there is no conflict of interest.
Funding
This research received no specific grant from any funding agency in the public, commercial or not-for-profit
sectors.
References
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(accessed 22 September 2012). (For details of Atoss doctors conduct see Amelia Gentleman, Atos comes under
attack in emotional Commons debate, Guardian, 17 January 2013, http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2013/jan/
17/atos-attack-emotional-commons-debate?INTCMPSRCH (accessed 21 January 2013)).
3. Bloche MG and Marks JH. Doctors and interrogators at Guantanamo Bay. N Engl J Med 2005; 353: 68.
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Press, 1969, p. 263.
8. Kant I. Groundwork of the metaphysics of morals, 4: 429.
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10. G4S. Our ethics, http://www.g4s.com/en/Social%20Responsibility/Safeguarding%20our%20integrity/Our%20ethics/
(accessed 22 September 2012).
11. www.waronwant.org/G4S
12. Brecher B. Do intellectuals have a public responsibility? In: Aiken W and Haldane J (eds) Philosophy and its public
role. Exeter: Imprint Academic, 2004, pp. 2538.

iii

I address the issue of academics responsibilities in the chapter Do intellectuals have a public responsibility?.12

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