IV. DO SCIENTISTS NEED A PROFESSIONAL CODE OF ETHICS?


Definitions

What is Professional Ethics? The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) has offered the following definition:

"Professional Ethics refers to those principles that are intended to define the rights and responsibilities of scientists in their relationship with each other and with other parties including employers, research subjects, clients, students, etc.".(19)

Webster's defines ethics as:

"1 ...the discipline dealing with what is good and bad and with moral duty and obligation 2 a: a set of moral principles and values b: a theory or system of moral values c: the principles of conduct governing an individual or a group.".(20)

Incidentally, Moral is defined as:

"1 a: of or relating to principles of right and wrong in behavior : ETHICAL b: expressing or teaching a conception of right behavior c: conforming to a standard of right behavior ...2 pl. a: moral practices or teachings : modes of conduct b: ETHICS...".(20)

The AAAS Professional Ethics Project

In 1979, the AAAS initiated a professional ethics project. Early AAAS ad hoc committees recommended that each individual society should develop their own ethical principles and rules. William Carey provided the disclaimer that

"It is not within the province of AAAS to set a seal of approval or disapproval upon the approaches of its member societies toward the problems of professional ethics. But AAAS can observe and report progress as it occurs and provide information and opportunities for study and debate that can clarify our future directions.".(19)

The project was structured so that each of the affiliated scientific societies were surveyed in order to determine if they had adopted a professional code of ethics applicable to their members. Following the analysis of the survey data, a workshop was held which provided a forum for the discussion of the findings. The explicit goals of the AAAS project were:

(1). To identify the range of professional ethics activities conducted by the societies affiliated with AAAS;
(2). To describe ethical principles, rules of conduct, and ethics programs adopted by the affiliated societies
(3). To suggest important areas of ethical concern which were not addressed by the societies; and
(4). To recommend roles for the societies in the area of professional ethics.

Results of the AAAS Project

Two-hundred and forty-one science and engineering societies affiliated with the AAAS were surveyed. One-hundred and seventy-eight responses were tabulated for an overall response rate of 74%. The responses of one hundred and fifty societies were tabulated under the heading Adoption of Ethical Rules. The table follows:

Adoption of Ethical Rules

Yes                                  46              (30.7)
No                                   68              (45.3)
Subscribe to rules of
another society`                     17a             (11.3)
Members subscribe to rules
of their primary profession          19b             (12.7)
NR                                   0
Total                                150             (100)

a Includes one society responding that its members subscribe to the code of its parent society, but the latter society reported that it had no code. Includes three societies that have also adopted rules of their own.
b These are typically societies with a multidisciplinary membership.

This table tells us that slightly over one-half of the AAAS affiliated respondents were governed by some sort of ethical rules in 1979. It would be interesting to compare these results to those which would be obtained from a present day survey. Information was recently requested via mail from approximately twenty societies. At least six mailings were returned as undeliverable -- forwarding order expired. It is surprising that contemporary scientific societies are so highly mobile. Only three professional ethical codes were received prior to the completion of this document.

The consideration of an argument against the establishment of professional codes of ethics

At the AAAS workshop on professional ethics, a number of commentaries were offered with respect to the establishment of ethical codes. John Ladd of the Department of Philosophy at Brown University provided a seminar having the title: The Quest for a Code of Professional Ethics: An Intellectual and Moral Confusion. He provides a summary of 11 comments which support his argument that "... the whole notion of an organized professional ethics is an absurdity -- intellectual and moral.".(19) I would like to address a number of these comments and, in doing so, convince the reader that although his arguments are sound, they are not entirely convincing.

First, Ladd argues that "Ethics consists of issues to be examined, explored, discussed, deliberated, and argued. Ethical principles can be established only as a result of deliberation and argumentation. These principles are not the kind of thing that can be settled by fiat, by agreement or by authority.". These observations are agreeable. It should be noted, however, that they are posed in a very one-sided manner. An easy misinterpretation of these statements is that "Scholars in the practice of philosophy have examined, explored, discussed, deliberated, and argued about ethics for a very long time. Philosophers have never reached a consensus regarding ethics; therefore, we cannot expect mere people of science to have any success either. Besides, if ethics were a black/white, true/false, or right/wrong issue, then many philosophers would be out of work.". The best interpretation of Ladd's argument is that scientists have already gotten off to a poor start in their quest for a professional code. He suggests that professional code of ethics is a misnomer. What scientists really mean to say -- what they really want -- is a professional code of conduct. Agreed! It will never be possible for a group to completely agree upon an acceptable code of professional ethics. However, it is not unreasonable to assume that a group can reach a consensus regarding an acceptable code of professional conduct.

Ladd's next argument is that "... ethics must, by its very nature, be self-directed rather than other-directed.". Certainly! In very few instances is it proper for someone to try to impose their values (ethics) upon a researcher; however, it would indeed be acceptable for someone to impose a code of conduct. This makes all the difference. At this point, one must then choose to either play by the conventionally accepted rules or not participate at all. Scientists, as well as philosophers, should be offended at the thought that there are others would have the temerity to try to impose their personal ethical values.

Ladd advises that ethical rules are automatically converted to legal rules, or some other type of authoritative rules of conduct, when disciplinary procedures are attached to them. That is exactly the point of this discussion. What we really mean to call a code of conduct, we have erroneously presented as a code of ethics. A code of conduct should explicitly discuss disciplinary procedures. All participants should know what the potential punishments are before they agree to abide by the accepted code. Thus, in reply to the title of this paper, the answer is simple. Science does not need a professional code of ethics. Instead, it actually needs a professional code of conduct.

A valid point made by Ladd is that "Professionals are not, simply because they are professionals, exempt from the common obligations, duties and responsibilities that are binding on ordinary people.". General moral norms specify that scientists must play by the same fundamental rules that apply to society-at-large. Ladd follows with a discussion of macro- and micro-ethics. Regarding micro-ethical issues, he argues that it shouldn't be necessary to remind professionals that they ought to refrain from cheating and lying, mistreatment of their clients, and so on. Not true! Professionals typically have a certain power-advantage over others that must be moderated and restrained. People of such authority should be frequently reminded of their professional code(s) of conduct.

Ladd eventually issues the statement that "Any association, including a professional association, can, of course, adopt a code of conduct for its members and lay down disciplinary procedures and sanctions to enforce conformity with its rules.". He reminds us that such "codes are often directed at other addressees than members [of the profession]. The real addressees might be any of the following: (a) members of the profession, (b) clients or buyers of the professional services, (c) other agents dealing with professionals, such as government or private institutions like universities or hospitals, or (d) the public at large.".

Ladd continues by addressing some possible primary objectives. He notes that "...for those to whom it [the code of conduct] is addressed and who need it the most will not adhere to it anyway, and the rest of the good people in the profession will not need it because they already know what they ought to do.". At least those who violate the code of conduct, by which they have knowingly agreed to abide, will have no difficulty in realizing the exact point at which they have dishonored both themselves and their profession. He argues that "code [of conduct] is hardly the best means for teaching morality.". The code should not be used as a teaching tool in the first place; it should merely be a friendly reminder of how professionals are expected to conduct themselves. Another argument given by Ladd is that "a code cannot offer advice in cases of moral perplexities about what to do.". Agreed. We can say, however, that a code can help to differentiate perplexing instances that necessitate concern, or even action, from those which a professional might otherwise shrug off as being business as usual.

Regarding an important secondary objective, Ladd notes that a code of conduct might be used to enhance the image of the profession in the public eye -- that the code would communicate to the general public the idea that the members of the profession are concerned about what is right or wrong. Is this not a good thing? Would the general public prefer that their professionals not strive to follow guidelines that help to distinguish proper conduct from improper conduct or right from wrong? Certainly not! The remainder of Ladd's commentary is couched in a similar manner, with the exception of this useful piece of advice at the very end of his presentation: "[associations] can fill a very educational function by encouraging their members to participate in extended discussions of issues of both micro-ethics and macro-ethics, e.g. questions about responsibility; for these issues obviously need to be examined and discussed much more extensively than they are at present -- especially by those who are in a position to do something about them.".(19)

Should Formal Ethics Training be Implemented?

A 1991 article in The Scientist is titled "Institutions Hustle to Meet NIH Ethics Training Mandate".(21) Rather than trying to impose ethics upon students, wouldn't it be more worthwhile to remind them occasionally of the professional code of conduct that they have agreed to abide by in order to participate in the discipline of science? Rather than requiring formalized coursework, shouldn't they simply be reminded of the codes that they have conventionally agreed upon as constituting proper conduct? Shouldn't they be advised that they should always strive to meet the ideals expressed in the scientific method and the Mertonian norms -- even though they are only ideals after all? Shouldn't they be reminded that it is acceptable for scientists, just like anyone else, to make mistakes, but that it is entirely unacceptable to be deliberately dishonest? Shouldn't they be reminded of the dishonor and debarment that eventually befalls malicious offenders? There are plenty of contemporary examples. Should they not be reminded that scientists should strive to be more careful in their work, and more skeptical of their findings, than those in many other professions?

It has been suggested that students of science were in the past made aware of the rights and responsibilities of their profession (or unwritten codes of conduct) while participating in their graduate training. Evidently, students received the proper ideas about what constitutes proper professional conduct during the rites of passage that eventually led them to the Ph.D. degree. Pundits are now concerned that graduate students are not being properly trained in these matters by their mentors, professors, and colleagues. We must also consider that undergraduate students will even have a much lesser chance of becoming initiated during their finite journeys to the B.S. degree. The university or college environment should be an optimum setting for occasional seminars and discussions regarding professional conduct. The corporate environment might be a more challenging arena, but most concerned corporations have already instituted professional codes of conduct for their employees anyway. Many corporations provide mandatory training and development courses that serve to remind their employees about company policies such as sexual harassment, employee tobacco use, grievance procedures, and so on. As an extension of these activities, it would merely be a matter of scheduling by their training and development departments in order to hold seminars and discussions concerning proper professional conduct from time to time.

Colwyn Trevarthen, of the Psychology Department at the University of Edinburgh, has provided a commentary for the foreword of the text Science and Moral Priority, by Roger Sperry, Trevarthen offers the following:

"Because he seeks a particular truth in objective experience, the scientist rarely makes a contribution to the philosophy of morals. He hoes the fields of knowledge without looking far into the landscape or deep within himself. Trying to keep his mind on the facts and task at hand, he resists involvement in loose speculation or passionate argument. The successful scientist must have disciplined thought and be dedicated to unbiased investigation agreeing always to conditions which can be identified and measured in terms that are universally acceptable. The nature of creative inquiry draws his mental focus into such a narrow channel that he may tend in time to know much less than his neighbors about human affairs, about beliefs and perspectives regarding life as a whole, and especially about the irrational sources of interpersonal life.".(22)

Although his statement is somewhat stereotypical, Trevarthen has listed a number of valid points. Professional codes of conduct will serve to reassure the public and the federal government that scientists aren't as narrow-minded as they might seem. It will show that all scientists are concerned with the issue of proper conduct; that they are concerned about human affairs, beliefs and perspectives just as their neighbors are. It will show that scientists know what constitutes misconduct within their profession and that they have a plan of action to follow when instances of misconduct arise.

The AAAS project has confirmed these observations by offering the following statement:

"The formulation of ethical principles or the adoption of rules of conduct by a professional society can be viewed as a significant indicator of the profession's willingness to accept some responsibility for defining proper professional conduct, sensitizing members to important ethical issues embodied in these standards, and governing member behavior. But the presence of a set of ethical principles or rules of conduct is only part, albeit an important one, of the machinery needed to effect self-regulation. The impact of a profession's ethical principles or rules on its members' behavior may be negligible, however, without appropriate support activities to encourage proper professional conduct, or the means to detect and investigate possible violations, and to impose sanctions on violators. Provisions for actively implementing and enforcing a profession's rules of conduct does not guarantee effective self-regulation; but their presence does make it possible.".(19)

Conclusion

In conclusion, scientists need well-defined and clearly written professional codes of conduct. Additionally, well-defined procedures for handling accusations of misconduct should be developed, agreed upon, and implemented. Those accused of misconduct should be afforded, at minimum, the same rights that are given to those who participate in the conventional legal system. At the beginning of their professional training, scientists should know the nature of their punishment should they fail to abide by their code of conduct. They should be frequently reminded of their professional obligations; whether by seminars, informal discussion groups, formal initiation into appropriate professional societies, or other means. Ladd has suggested that certificates might even be provided to professionals for prominent display in their laboratories, offices, and such.(19) Why not? I recall an engineer's toolbox years ago that boasted the statement "I will never provide any piece of work that I would not gladly sign my name to." -- a simple and elegant code of conduct. Is it not reassuring?

Bauer has stated that "Professions that do not keep themselves ethical and credible lose their autonomy.".(6) Science cannot afford to lose its autonomy and self-regulation. It's time for science professionals to prove that they are concerned. Professional codes of conduct cannot serve as a panacea, but they will provide scientists with a firm foundation upon which to build.


  • Return to Misconduct in Science