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Creativity and Conformity in Professional Ethics

Gideon Calder, University of Wales, Newport

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This paper explores relationships between academic theory, professional imperatives and individual practice in the teaching of programmes in Professional Ethics. In recent years these have mushroomed: more and more, vocational degrees programme involve an ethical component at the centre of the curriculum, rather than at its periphery. Even so, in this paper I argue that while most theoretical discussion of professional codes of ethics has tended to concentrate on the coherence and practicability of the principles involved, they have tended to overlook a certain paradox at the heart of the very idea of such a code of ethics. That paradox is roughly this: that if codes of ethics are adhered to strictly, this is likely to turn the process of ethical decision-making into a mechanical, uncritical, uncreative and so not particularly ethical exercise. The more directive a code, the less room for manoeuvre for the individual in displaying the virtues of a critically reflective practitioner. And yet the cultivation of the latter is typically at the heart of the stated aims of the profession in question. Mere obedience or conformity does not, as it were, an ethical decision-maker make.
Drawing on the work of Michael Loughlin in the healthcare setting, I argue that the concentration on codes of ethics runs the risk of distracting from the cultivation of such virtues at an individual level. This is not to denigrate the significance of such codes, or to deny the possibility of universal principles, but rather to argue that to avoid these principles becoming reduced to depthless slogans, or examples of mere institutional ‘box-ticking’, the role of practice needs to be included in their construction, rather than being something to which ‘all-purpose’ principles are applied, as if an instruction manual. Interpreted in this latter sense, the code of ethics becomes an instrument for managerialism, rather than the genuine facilitator of ‘bottom-up’ ethical exploration and reflection which it otherwise has the potential to be. And it is as an ‘under-labourer’ towards this end, rather than as a simple dispenser of wisdom, that ethical theory has most to offer.

Author Bio(s)

Gideon Calder teaches ethics and social theory at University of Wales, Newport. He has written two books on the work of Richard Rorty, along with journal articles on ethical issues connected with (amongst other things) evil, sporting boycotts, sexual consent and ownership of the human body and its organs. He is editor of Res Publica: A Journal of Legal and Social Philosophy (Springer).