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What are Professional Ethics?

The origins of this talk lie in a presentation entitled The Future of Conway Hall Ethical Society – Direction or Drift? to the Ethical Society on 15 March 2015 (subsequently printed in the April 2015 edition of the Ethical Record), in which two principal questions were raised:-

  1. What is meant by ‘Ethical’
  2. What should an Ethical Society properly do?

In answer to the second question, Conway Hall Ethical Society (CHES) – as a nationally unique organisation – everything it has done to date is fine and should be wholly supported. Is our scale of activity sufficient for a modern ongoing ethical society? I suggest the answer is “No”.

As part of the future activities of CHES, I suggested an Ethical Committee be formed by CHES Members, with a principal responsibility to examine periodically the ethical standards of other UK organisations with a view to making submissions for improvements to those organisations’ ethical standards in the best traditions of Conway Hall and its own ethical principles. I believe strongly in such a role for Conway Hall Ethical Society, as it enables our principles and values to be communicated to a much wider audience of influential groups and individuals in future.

I concluded by suggesting this topic be included in one of the Sunday morning discussion and talk activities of Conway Hall Ethical Society in the near future. I was contacted by Professor Evan Parker to make a suitable Sunday morning presentation on the topic of Professional Ethics and how the Ethical Society could fulfil a role in acting as a custodian of ethical values and also act as an overseer of the ethical codes and standards of professional organisations.

At a time when senior British politicians (Rifkind, Straw et. al.) have had to step down after exposure by undercover journalists, and former teachers and school administrators in Atlanta, Georgia have been jailed for up to seven years in a test cheating scandal, I suggested this is a timely moment to ask the question “What are Professional Ethics?”

What do we mean by ethics and what are professional ethics? To answer these questions, I will consider case studies of the General Pharmaceutical Council and a similar body. What do we learn from these case studies and should there be a quasi-professional ethical watchdog in Britain? To consider what is meant by ethics, the following web site entry is useful:-


Values are rules by which we make decisions about right and wrong, should and shouldn’t, good and bad. They tell us which are more or less important, which is useful when we have to trade off meeting one value over another. defines values as: beliefs of a person or social group in which they have an emotional investment (either for or against something); “s/he has very conservative values”


Morals have a greater social element than values and tend to have a very broad acceptance. Morals are far more about good and bad than other values. We judge others more strongly on morals than values. A person can be described as immoral, yet there is no word for them not having values. defines morals as motivation based on ideas of right and wrong.


You can have professional ethics, but seldom hear about professional morals. Ethics tend to be codified into a formal system or set of rules which are explicitly adopted by a group of people. Thus you have medical ethics. Ethics are thus internally defined and adopted, whilst morals tend to be externally imposed on other people. further defines ethics as: A theory or a system of moral values: “An ethic of service is at war with a craving for gain”; The rules or standards governing the conduct of a person or the members of a profession. (Emphasis added) [1]

Different aspects of ethics (e.g. ethics, meta-ethics and applied ethics) were not the principal purpose of the talk. That approach requires talks by professional philosophers. I suggested that lecturers from the London School of Philosophy at Conway Hall should be invited to provide talks on Ethics, Meta-Ethics and Applied Ethics to CHES members on a regular basis.

Let us now turn to the question ‘What are professional ethics?’ The following definition is by Professor Ruth Chadwick from a section on Professional Ethics, published in the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy (1998) edited by E. Craig:-

“Professional ethics concerns the moral issues that arise because of the specialist knowledge that professionals attain, and how the use of this knowledge should be governed when providing a service to the public.”

Some Case Studies

The General Pharmaceutical Council is the regulator for pharmacists, pharmacy technicians and registered pharmacy premises in England, Scotland and Wales. In September 2010, they issued a “Guidance on the provision of pharmacy services affected by religious and moral beliefs” document, in which they stated ‘This document provides guidance on standard 3.4 of the standards of conduct, ethics and performance. You must make sure that if your religious or moral beliefs prevent you from providing a service, you tell the relevant people or authorities and refer patients and the public to other providers.’ (Emphasis added) [2]

They also issued supplementary guidance on Emergency Hormonal Contraception and Routine Hormonal Contraception laying out conditions under which pharmacists could not dispense contraceptive or other medications, whether against prescription or over the counter.

In Canada, medical doctors refusing to prescribe birth control or other medical services because of personal values could face possible disciplinary actions. Moral or religious convictions of a doctor cannot impede a patient’s access to care, the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario voted 21-3, supporting an updated Professional and Human Rights policy. The Canada Supreme Court has legalized doctor-hastened dying from February 2016. [3]

As seen in the examples above – UK General Pharmaceutical Council and College of Physicians & Surgeons of Ontario – they have contradictory ethical codes of conduct. I believe we – as an ethical society – should be lobbying organisations like the General Pharmaceutical Council to update their ethical policies too.

Considering just two sets of professional codes of ethics and conduct raises the question “Is there a role for the Ethical Society in Professional Ethics?” My answer is “Yes”.

We should over-view and review the established practices and outcomes of professional, public sector and commercial organisations to assess whether or not they and their members are truly adhering to their own ethical standards and codes of conduct. This could lead to the creation of a new societal role of Ethical Auditor, similar to the role of financial auditing carried out by chartered accountants for major companies and corporations in the UK and world-wide.

We should work with organisations, such as the American Ethical Union ( International Humanist and Ethical Union ( and – possibly – the British Society for Ethical Theory ( to promote the establishment and maintenance of professional ethics in professional and public life in Britain today.

In a recent survey of public attitudes towards conduct in public life 2014 (published in March 2015), their overall findings were that on the whole, respondents had fairly negative views about the standards of conduct of people in public life:

  • few respondents thought the standards of conduct of those in public life were high;
  • more respondents thought standards had got worse in recent years;
  • most were not confident the authorities are committed to upholding standards in public life;
  • most believed wrongdoing would not be uncovered or punished by the authorities.

Opinions about these topics were more negative than those found in any of the Committee’s biennial surveys of public attitudes (2004-2014) towards conduct in public life. [4]

Public Scandals

There has never been a more relevant time for a British organisation which is concerned about professional ethics and maintenance of high ethical standards in British professional public life. Recently, Members of Parliament from both Houses were enmeshed in scandal over claiming of expenses. Peers’ attendance allowances were called into question when disgraced peer Lord Hanningfield claimed £300 for 20 minutes attendance. [5]

We have witnessed a series of public scandals, involving sexual abuse of children in all areas of our country, including Wales, Northern Ireland and Jersey. This led the Home Secretary to set up the Goddard Inquiry, which – I believe – we should follow very closely as an ethical society. We have also recently witnessed scandal after scandal involving show business ‘celebrities’.

On the corporate level, revelations about banking operations involving tax evasion schemes, LIBOR fixing and foreign currency fixing rates have rightly raised questions over the extent to which voluntary corporate compliance policies and HMRC taxation policies are effective.

Within the last few weeks, we have witnessed senior FIFA officials being arrested to face charges of corruption, fraud, racketeering and money laundering in the ‘beautiful’ game. Former Olympic champions have been forced to return their medals after being positively tested for performance enhancing drugs, as has former Tour de France champion Laurence Armstrong. It is totally vital to our societal cohesion that we insist on professional and other groups across our society adhering to properly established codes of ethical standards and conduct.

World Happiness

Statements published for the World Happiness Report 2015 included the following:-

‘Countries seem to differ markedly and persistently in the average prevalence of pro-social behavior. Such persistent differences are observed both in the replies of individuals in surveys and in the observed practices of voluntarism, tax evasion, public-sector corruption, and other contexts of social dilemmas. These persistent differences matter enormously, since countries with high social capital – meaning the observed tendencies towards pro-sociality – tend to have greater happiness and development performance through channels we have already described.’ (p. 156)

‘…professions should establish codes of ethics that emphasize pro-sociality. [The] modern banking sector currently lacks such a code of conduct. This was made vivid by the claim by Goldman Sachs after the 2008 financial crisis that it was justified in selling toxic securities to clients because those clients were “sophisticated” and therefore should have protected themselves against bad investment decisions. In other words, said Goldman, its counterparties are on their own, without any obligation by Goldman to disclose the truth about the securities it marketed. The assumption is pure egoism in the pursuit of profits. Ironically, the credit markets are named after the Latin root “credere,” to trust.’ (Page162)

‘We are at an early stage of testing effective approaches to building social trust and prosocial behavior, especially in societies riven by distrust, corruption, and anti-social behavior. As this challenge is of paramount importance for achieving sustainable development and a high level of well-being, we intend to pursue this challenge of building social capital in future editions of the World Happiness Report.’ (Page 163)

It should be noted that the UK holds only 21st place (out of 158) in the Ranking of Happiness 2012-2014 (Part 1) table and that the UK holds only 70th place in the Changes in Happiness from 2005-2007 to 2012-2014 (Part 1) table. [6] These facts suggest that the UK is not performing too well with regard to positive social capital formation due to an underlying flaw in the ethical standards being applied and operated here.

If we want to live in freedom in a country under the rule of law, then we have a duty to ensure that everyone – including those in positions of power and prestige in the power elite structures of our country – are held to account under a clearly established set of ethical codes of conduct. As a descendant of the South Place Ethical Society, this organisation participated successfully in past campaigns for reforms. It joined a coalition for Repeal of the Blasphemy Laws in 1912 and also worked for secular education, with an additional emphasis on the development of Moral Education. Ethical members joined the Peace Society set up by freethinkers before the Great War, calling for no conscription and opposition to military training in schools. More women were involved in the Ethical Union than in the Secular movement and there was support for the suffragettes.

The Ethical Societies’ movement promoted penal reform and neighbourhood community work, along with assisting the women’s movement and drawing attention to racial, colonial and international problems by initiating and supporting effective action. Is it right that we fail to follow-up on this truly splendid historical tradition of ethicism?

 A New Role for our Ethical Society?

I propose we consider establishing a role for our Ethical Society at Conway Hall to act as a guardian of professional ethical values, initially in Britain. Our Ethical Society could chart a course for ethics and ethicism in Britain, and contribute substantially towards the achievement of a more ethical way of life in our country to the benefit of many future generations to come.


There are already discussions taking place as to how the Ethical Society could promote the study, research and promotion of Ethics and Public Policy values. While this approach seems to resonate more with younger persons with an interest in ethics, it is to be hoped that older members too will be supportive of this new role for our future activities as an ethical society.



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