Ethical Realism

May 19, 2011

Professional Ethics

Filed under: ethics,philosophy — JW Gray @ 8:42 am
Tags: , , , , ,

What is often called “professional ethics” is a list of laws, rules, and regulations that professionals are supposed to live by, such as the Hippocratic Oath taken by doctors. These laws, rules, and regulations might be endorsed by many people, but that doesn’t prove that they are objective moral standards that professionals should accept. Nonetheless, I think there really are moral standards that many professionals have that are unique to their profession. These standards involve duties to customers or the public at large. I have already discussed how accounting auditors seem to have unique responsibilities beyond making profit. I will now suggest how farmers, doctors, teachers, and journalists seem to have unique responsibilities to the public as well.

Why should we agree that a profession can have unique responsibilities other than the making a profit? I have two suggestions:

First, people and other animals could have intrinsic value, it could be morally preferable to look out for their interests, and those in the best position to look out for their interests in various ways have the strongest obligation to do so. This seems to include a responsibility to conduct business without harming people, and each business has unique ways that it could harm people and should do what it can to avoid harming people. Additionally, we might also have responsibilities to help others. We need at least some people to grow food for us and it’s not possible for everyone to grow their own food. Those who own farmland might have an obligation to grow food to help feed people rather than waste their resources because they are in the best position to do so.

Second, even if we have no obligations based on intrinsic value, we could still have obligations to others based on our relationships and abilities. Our dependence on companies seems to give companies unique responsibilities beyond profit because we often need their products to survive and we often lack the expertise and resources required to assess the quality and safety of the products. Companies have the resources and expertise we depend on for our survival and we need them to look out for our interests because we can’t know if we are being cheated or not. I think this reasoning implies a sort of professional ethics—certain professions are of the utmost importance and have unique responsibilities towards the public beyond the profit motive. Professionals have the expertise that we depend on for our well being much like companies.


We need food and we can’t all have the expertise or resources needed to grow our own food, and we depend on the expertise and resources of farmers to live. For this reason farmers have strongest duty to use their resources for food rather than squander them as well as a duty to sell quality produce that passes strict safety standards. Farmers can cheat us by using dangerous levels of pesticide and we generally have no way of knowing when this happens.

Additionally, farmers often care for animals and they have a duty to look out for the interests of these animals. Although we already have laws against animal cruelty, that does very little to protect farm animals. Factory farming might be legal, but it makes animals miserable by keeping animals in incredibly cramped and unhealthy environments, and it seems clearly immoral. Factory farming not only harms animals, but it creates distrust between the public and farmers that often leads to ethical veganism. The public is now more likely to see farmers as immoral profiteers.

Farmers not only have a responsibility beyond the profit motive because we depend on farms to live, but also because the government gives farmers lots of free money in the form of subsidies. This means that farms are trusted by the public at large to use that money to look out for our interests. It is possible that farmers will lose subsidies in the future, but until then they have one more reason to look out for our interests.


We need doctors to live and stay healthy, so they are essential for our well being. We hire doctors for their services rather than products, and it’s extremely difficult to know when doctors cheat us out of our money. Doctors have a duty to give our needs appropriate attention and help us do what is necessary to improve our health. It’s always possible for a surgeon to do a procedure to make money rather than because we really need it, and it’s possible for a dentist to remove non-existent cavities for the wrong reason as well. We often lack the expertise and resources to know when doctors lie despite having a dire need to the services doctors provide, so doctors have a duty to look out for our interests rather than merely their own.


Many teachers are not motivated by profit because they work for the state. In that case teachers have an even stronger reason to look out for our interests because we are trusting them with non-optional tax dollars to help people.

We depend on teachers to attain an education, which is a vital part of our well being, but the quality of work varies greatly. Teachers have a duty to us because they have the expertise that many of us lack, and they are the best people around at helping us fulfill one of our needs. Additionally, teachers have a duty to maintain their expertise and provide a high quality service whether they find it personally rewarding or not because we don’t always have the expertise to know when we’re being cheated and it can be very difficult to prove that teachers are providing an inadequate service to get them fired.


Journalists are important educators who keep us informed about what’s going on in the world. This is vital information for both consumers and voters. Journalists not only have a duty to make profit, but also a duty to us because we don’t have the knowledge or expertise to know when journalists cheat us. For example, journalists might no longer engage in important research and instead just tell us what our celebrities are up to. We are cheated by journalists when they fail to investigate the most important issues and inform us about their findings.

The success of our democracy depends on people being informed by journalists. The success of our political system depends on informed and rational decision-making by voters and politicians based on ethical and non-ethical journalistic discoveries. We need to know what our politicians can do for us and what they ought to do based on understanding the impact of the possible decisions they can make. For example, journalistic reporting can help us find out how much money politicians are taking from corporate sponsors and figure out how much of an impact corporations have on politics. We can then decide if something should be done when things get out of hand.

The success of the free market also depends on consumers being informed by journalists. The success of our economic system depends on rational and informed decision-making by consumers. We need to know what companies engage in scams or have unsafe products, and we need to know when companies engage in other immoral activities. Without investigative reporting involving business practice, we would often have no reliable way of knowing which companies are best and deserve our business. When that happens companies have less incentive to compete by being ethical, or improving their products or services.


If professionals only want to make a profit, then we could often be cheated by them; but we often have little to know way of knowing when we are being cheated so we depend on their good intentions. Additionally, we have little to no choice but to do business with professionals, so we could be greatly harmed by them unless they have our best interests in mind. It seems reasonable to think that at least some professionals have a duty to look out for our interests and provide a quality service even when doing so doesn’t make them more money. Farmers, doctors, teachers, and journalists in particular seem to have responsibilities to their customers.

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