Question to “Ask the Profs”:
Q: 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..