Honor Among Thieves: Some Reflections on Professional Codes of Ethics

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As complicated an affair as it may be to give a fully acceptable general characterization of professional codes of ethics that will capture every nuance, one theme that has attracted widespread attention portrays them as contrivances whose primary function is to secure certain obligations of professionals to clients, or to the external community. In contrast to such an "externalist" characterization of professional codes, it has occasionally been contended that, first and foremost, they should be understood as internal conventions, adopted among professionals as a device for securing the "interests" of the professionals themselves. In what follows, I will argue that both of these lines are incomplete. As important as service to the community and the interests of professionals may be in the full understanding of the multiple role that "codes of ethics" play in many professions, it is equally important to see them as expressive of the romance of a profession. Professional codes should be understood not only in terms of their utility to the community, or in terms of their utility to practitioners, but as expressions of callings. Analyses of professional codes of ethics that do not take into consideration their role in evoking the romance of a professional calling are thus not entirely adequate. Professional standards and codes can be fully understood only if one appreciates that they are designed to contribute to and evoke feelings of dignity, self-worth-and, for better or for worse, even the superiority--of the professionals themselves; the code may seem to them to express essential features of what the profession really is.
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Archival date: 2015-11-21
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