Ethics are guiding principles encompassing the standards of behavior expected by a person or group. Professional ethics are those that apply to a specific profession and will vary based on the specific knowledge, skills and duties of those in the role. One of the best-known examples of professional ethics is the Hippocratic oath sworn by doctors to do no harm to those they are treating. While this is a good ethical standard for most people, it applies more directly to those in the medical profession than those working as a lawyer. That is why there are many types of ethics for many different professions.
Each profession will have its own different codes of ethics, but some universal ethical principles may apply to people across all professions. Generally, people in all lines of work should adhere to a basic list of professional ethics that include the concepts of honesty, trustworthiness, loyalty, respect for others, adherence to the law, accountability and avoiding harming others whenever possible.
Many industries, such as the legal and medical fields, institute professional codes of conduct that are based on ethical principles. These codes specify standards of behavior for those involved in the profession. These are often governed by a professional association such as the American Bar Association that overlooks those in the legal field. The association may create and modify rules as time goes on and help members of the field understand the expectations set out for persons in that line of work.
In many cases, failure to adhere to these guidelines can result in removal from the professional society and sometimes result in an inability to work in that area. Sometimes, violating these codes of conduct can even result in criminal charges if the offense is great enough. For example, it is unethical for a prosecutor to tamper with evidence to secure a conviction. The American Bar Association considered that when creating their Ethics of Discovery. If a lawyer violates these rules, he could be disbarred, meaning he can no longer practice law, and he could also be charged with a felony or misdemeanor depending on what state he practices in.
Codes of conduct help professions in many ways. They can build public confidence in the profession's trustworthiness, ensure greater transparency with clients, make challenging ethical decisions easier for those in the profession, create a unified understanding of acceptable practices by everyone in the field and make it easier for others working with the profession to know what to expect.
Those operating in the legal field must balance their responsibility to defend their client or prosecute criminals with their ethical obligations to be truthful and uphold the law. While they have a responsibility to advocate zealously on behalf of their clients, they should never strive to win at all costs. They also have an ethical obligation to maintain confidentiality and to avoid conflicts of interest. These all must be balanced against one another, and the legal field is full of difficult ethical decisions. An attorney, for example, must uphold the law, so if they know a client intends to lie on the stand, they cannot willingly introduce it as false evidence. This means that if they cannot convince the client to tell the truth, they may ask to recuse themselves from the case rather than aid someone in committing perjury.
Ethics also detail how an attorney may get paid, though not precisely how much. For example, while a lawyer who handles accident lawsuits may agree their client can pay on contingency and only pay if he wins, a divorce attorney cannot make such an agreement with her client based on a prospective alimony payment.
While the Hippocratic Oath may be the most famous ethical code, it is far from the only ethical standard of the medical field. The American Medical Association first created their Code of Medical Ethics in 1847 at the founding meeting of the association. Among other ethical guidelines, doctors and nurses must maintain patient confidentiality, respect the patient's dignity, be honest in all professional interactions and respect all human rights. Sometimes, one of these principles may contradict another, for example, when a patient with a terminal disease wishes to prematurely end her life rather than suffer. While ending a life can be seen as a form of harm, so can letting a patient suffer and when the patient believes her dignity will be lost through suffering, a doctor may want to aid her or he may feel comfortable helping anyone end their life for any reason.
Physicians are also expected to follow the law and seek changes in laws that are considered contrary to the benefit of their patients. This is why many doctors often advocate on behalf of end-of-life legislation or against laws allowing insurers to exclude coverage of certain conditions.
A free press is a cornerstone of the American Constitution, but the value of a free press able to expose governmental and institutional corruption is greatly reduced when the public doesn't trust the media. While some publications and journalists ignore these ethical standards to earn more money through sensationalist or even outright dishonest reporting, the majority of publications attempt to uphold public trust in the media through ethical reporting.
The Society of Professional Journalists says that an ethical journalist will always act with integrity. The group bases their Code of Ethics on the following principles: "Seek Truth and Report It," "Minimize Harm," "Act Independently" and "Be Accountable and Transparent." Sometimes, reporters must balance one of these principles against another to make the right ethical decision in their reporting. For example, if someone is accused of bombing a building, a reporter may write about the person in an attempt to seek truth and report it. But she could be harming the individual at the same time, particularly given that a wrongly accused person could have his life destroyed by such reporting even if he is later proven to be innocent.
Even if reporters are not part of the SPJ, many news organizations such as the New York Times and Washington Post have their own similar standards of ethics that staff reporters and contracted freelancers are required to adhere to while working on behalf the company.
After hearing about scandals like Apple intentionally designing products to fail after the warranty expires, it's no wonder that The National Society of Professional Engineers has their own code of ethics. The organization created this code in an attempt to promote the principles of honesty, impartiality, fairness and equity to best protect the public health, safety and welfare. As such, engineers are asked to only perform services in the areas of their competence, issue public statements only in a truthful and objective manner and to avoid deceptive acts. Like many professional organizations, the NSPE requires its members to conduct themselves honorably, responsibly, ethically and lawfully to maintain the reputation and honor of the profession.
The National Association of Realtors seeks to eliminate practices that may damage the public or bring discredit to the real estate industry. As such, their Code of Ethics and Standard Practices seeks to prevent fraud, misappropriation of funds and discrimination. In addition, the code urges realtors to avoid gaining an unfair advantage over competitors and to refrain from making unsolicited comments about one another.
It is always a good idea to know the commonly accepted ethical practices of a profession or company for whom you work. Most professional organizations and many larger companies have their own code of ethics. These can usually be found by searching for the profession, organization or company's name, followed by the words "code of ethics."