What is the difference between personal ethics and professional ethics?

Question to “Ask the Profs”:

questionQ: What is the difference between personal ethics and professional ethics?

Answer A: Professor Barbato:

Ethics is a word that can be used loosely, so it’s important to understand the meaning of this question by first discussing what is meant by personal ethics or professional ethics.

I assume the questioner is using the term personal ethics to mean one’s conscience and the term professional ethics to mean adherence to a professional code.  Sometimes those two roles can conflict.  For instance, we have cases of doctors who have refused to prescribe the morning after pill, because they believe it will terminate a human life.  In this case the doctor has decided that his personal ethics will guide him or her.  Alternatively, a police officer may enforce a law that they personally believe is unjust.  In this case the police officer has decided to put aside personal concerns and allow professional obligations to guide his or her behavior.  Likewise a judge may follow the law and impose the death penalty even though he or she may be personally opposed to it.

Typically people have resolved this by drawing a line between their role as a professional and their role as an individual.  They often decide to follow a professional code of ethics when they are acting as a professional even though they may personally disagree.  However, if your professional obligations put you in such a state of conflict that you feel you can’t uphold your personal ethics, then you have the option of resigning.

This dilemma is not limited to professional vs personal.  All of us are confronted with the reality of rules or laws that we personally believe are unjust or immoral.  We have to determine how to resolve this tension.  Being a pragmatic ethicist, I do not believe that we should always take a principled and extreme stance for every issue.  For instance, I am against the death penalty, but I don’t feel like moving out of New York State just because this state allows the death penalty.  At the same time, I believe that we must take a principled stance at certain times even if it requires us to pay a high cost.  Martin Luther King, Jr., is a good example of someone who was willing to go to jail in order to fight unjust laws that eventually were overturned in part because of his ethical leadership.

Answer B: Professor Palanski:

Ethics, which is the practice of becoming excellent at being human according to Socrates, is always conducted with respect to something. At first glance, we might think that personal (which is to say private, or pertaining to one’s life outside of work) and professional (which is to say public, or pertaining to one’s work life) are two separate categories, but I would suggest that this distinction is false.  Rather, they are two aspects of the same realm: namely, part of being human and functioning in the world.  Thus, personal ethics is probably more general, and is simply “practicing becoming an excellent human being” with respect to people and situations in everyday life (our family, our friends, our community).  Professional ethics is probably more specific, and is “practicing becoming an excellent human being” with respect people and situations in work life (co-workers, customers, suppliers, the company).

The basic underlying ethical values and commitments remain the same, but how they are enacted may differ.  For example, honesty is a virtue which is vital in both personal and professional settings.  However, the amount and type of information which I disclose to my spouse is much different than the amount and type of information which I disclose to my boss, my customer, or my competitor.  Further, the way in which I do so differs.  For example, accurate financial disclosure is a type of honesty. Financial disclosure within my household might mean that budgeting software is up to date and used regularly, but financial disclosure within my company might mean I need to comply with accounting principles and laws.  I can use whatever accounting system I like in my household, as long as the bills get paid.  I cannot, however, make up my own accounting system for use in a company, because there are specific traditions and laws to be followed in order to demonstrate that I am truly being honest.

Answer C: Professor Rothenberg:  I think Professors Barbato and Palanski have covered many important points. I would like to add that I often see students who think that they should completely separate personal and professional ethics – i.e. you have one set of standards for work and one for the rest of your life.  In doing this, however, you risk being “amoral” and use the excuse that you were just following your professional code of ethics. One option is to have an idea of the principles and ideals you think are important, and then think carefully about situations where you think its OK to not act according to your ideals. What is at risk if you speak out? Who can be harmed?, etc..

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10 comments

  1. Jake Mooney says:

    After taking a class with both Professor Palanski and Rothenberg, I find it interesting to see how their definitions both complement and differ from each other. I feel that with RIT’s and more specifically the SCB’s focus on ethics, I have have run the full gambit in reference to the various differences in codes of and definitions of ethics. After forming my own ideas about all of these definitions, I find that Professor Palanski’s definition most closely matches my ideas about professional vs. personal. I find that being “moral” in a business and personal setting is more or less the same. The main difference being those cultural norms between the two cultures that require different standards or codes in complying with ethical dimensions. I heartily agree with Professor Rothernberg in that separating those two and having completely different standards can lead to poor ethical decisions. Again, we are looking at essentially the same thing by applying different cultural standards to each.

  2. Rob Greene says:

    I think that Professor’s all have excellent points. I feel that it is impossible to separate the personal from the professional ethics. The Personal ethics will always be with you as a basis for all ethical decisions that you make, whether they are personal or professional. I feel personal are habitual reactions to situations and the professional are in line with the personal. One of the things we all should do when attempting to secure employment is to research the company. this should include their code of ethics. If you don’t like the code or it doesn’t fit with your personal ethics, It won’t be a fun place to work. If you can’t enjoy working at a company it is time to move on to another one.

  3. Sylvester Shonhiwa says:

    When a person is said to be unprofessional, what exactly is this person?

  4. Jason says:

    I have struggled with this question and have come back to another to answer it which is “Do all ethics come from the same source?” In a way, I believe this to be the case. The root of all ethics is individual. I will explain this by using the example of professional ethics relating to accounting. Where did these “professional accounting ethics” come from? Are they not simply the codification of many sets of congruent personal ethics? As the others have stated, the practical challenge often arises when “professional ethics” and “personal ethics” conflict. Personally, I have differing levels of confidence in my ethical conclusions depending upon the situation. In the event that the conflict is within tolerable doubt, and my decision will cause negligible harm, I tend to follow the professional ethics.

  5. business ehthics can be defined as unwritten codes of principles and values that govern decisions and actions within a company.
    eg>no smoking.where as personal ethics are those ethics which are personally adopted by a person.eg> respect yours elders or always speak true

  6. [...] is not to be confused with the difference between personal ethics and professional ethics? That is typically the root dilemma within ethics and why it needs to be discussed. Both of these [...]

  7. Torrey C. D. says:

    I like how both Professors presented their arguments I find the arguments very persuasive however I feel a greater connection with Professor Palanski’s argument I feel that it rings more true to me.

  8. Omer Williams says:

    The professors indicate that personal ethics and professional ethics are the same but may differ. The way I understood was drawing a line between their role as a professional and their role as an individual. Martin Luther King was willing to go to jail for unjust laws, that overturned because of his professional leadership. I agree on both professors and understand very well. Using examples and putting things in different ways was very helpful in understanding.

  9. Richard Keiser says:

    Professor Barbato and Professor Palanski offer two different viewpoints on personal and professional ethics. Mr. Barbato seems to make a distinction between the two. In what seems to be a deontological perspective, he describes personal ethics as “one’s own conscience” and professional ethics as a set of “codified rules.” Professor Barbato’s belief is that these systems, personal and professional, are separate unless a conflict in the two belief systems is exists. When this occurs people generally follow the professional code unless the disparity between the two is too great, in which case the individual has the option to resign. While Mr. Barbato makes some valid points, specifically about taking principled stands on issues that seem to have a higher degree of importance, I tend to agree with Mr. Palanski’s argument which does not separate personal ethics from professional ethics.

    Professor Palanski views professional ethics as a subset of personal ethics. In his view, professional ethics is just a microcosm of ethics in general therefore, they are one in the same but the degree in which they are expressed may vary. I agree with Mr. Palanski’s virtue ethics approach. In my opinion, acting in an ethical manner is a dynamic process that requires constant attention and discipline. First, to act ethically requires knowledge of one’s own personal beliefs and values. These core values are the virtues one strives to epitomize through their daily interactions regardless of the environment or the situation. Professor Palanski describes this as “being a better person with respect to people and situations in one’s professional life or personal life.” In other words, the goal, “to be the best one can be,” never changes as it applies to any given situation. These constants serve as an internal locus of control or a benchmark of sorts that we can measure our behavior against to determine if our actions were consistent with our ethical beliefs.

    In addition, Mr. Palanski acknowledges that the while the ethical values do not change, the level in which they are expressed varies based on the nature of the relationship. Professor Palanski uses honesty as an example, pointing out that the type of information as well as the depth of information he shares with his wife differs from that which he shares with his customers, boss, or colleagues. Another example would be loyalty as virtue. For example, when faced with a decision about accepting a new position that would require relocating the family, I would first discuss the options with my family before I make a decision. While I am loyal to both my family and the organization I work for, the degree of loyalty I owe to my family is far deeper than the loyalty to the business I work for. Furthermore, without the consistency in ethical values across different facets of life, more opportunity for unethical behavior exists. As Professor Rothenberg stated, “separating professional behavior from personal behavior could allow someone to act in such a way that is ‘amoral,’ justifying actions that a person would not normally do in their personal life.

  10. Lindsey Sansoni says:

    I feel that morality in a business setting when compared to in a personal setting is pretty similar. If a person uses virtue ethics and the idea of being excellent (achievement of arête) in their personal decision making processes, they should also be excellent in the work setting as well. Being a virtuous moral agent is null, in my opinion, if you are breaking moral code in either your work or social life.

    Yes, there are cultural differences between your personal life and your life at work. But handling those specific situations individually should require your personal ethical beliefs to be present. Dr. Rothernberg discusses the idea that ethics can be used too loosely, which I definitely agree with. The workplace should just be an example of how and where you can put your personal moral beliefs to practice.

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