A code of ethics is a set of principles and rules used by individuals and organizations to govern their decision making process, as well as to distinguish right from wrong. These codes are often more complex and contextual than simple morality, acknowledging specific situations and providing guidance. Many codes of ethics also specify penalties for violations.
Professional and personal codes of ethics ensure that adherents are behaving in a socially acceptable manner. Organizations with an established code of ethics usually have review processes and appeal procedures in place to guard against malicious or self-serving use of the code.
Several professions have a code of ethics that exists independent of any particular employment. For instance, a doctor or lawyer is always bound by the code of ethics for their profession, regardless of whether they work for a large organization or are in private practice. These codes constitute the basic expectations of these jobs.
An excellent example of a code of ethics relating to a profession is the American Bar Association Model Rules of Professional Conduct. The first rule addresses attorney competence. Called Rule 1.1, it reads:
"A lawyer shall provide competent representation to a client. Competent representation requires the legal knowledge, skill, thoroughness and preparation reasonably necessary for the representation."
This code of ethics provides guidance for lawyers on matters ranging from client confidentiality to treatment of witnesses inside and outside the courtroom. Proven violations of the ABA Rules of Professional Conduct can result in penalties ranging from verbal and written censure up to loss of the ability to practice law.
Paralegals, like lawyers, are held to a code of ethics. Unlike lawyers, these codes of ethics are imposed as a result of voluntary membership in professional organizations and not by a licensing board like the ABA. Still, the ethical rules set forth within the codes are very important.
Consider the first three Canons of the Code of Ethics published by the National Association of Legal Assistants:
A paralegal must not perform any of the duties that attorneys only may perform nor take any actions that attorneys may not take.
A paralegal may perform any task which is properly delegated and supervised by an attorney, as long as the attorney is ultimately responsible to the client, maintains a direct relationship with the client, and assumes professional responsibility for the work product.
This code specifies the all-important legal distinction between a paralegal and a lawyer, preserving the paralegal's own legal and ethical status, that of their employer, and that of any clients they work with.
The American Medical Association imposes a code of ethics on physicians. It addresses everything from interpersonal relationships with other staff members to information on patient care. For instance:
A physician shall respect the law and also recognize a responsibility to seek changes in those requirements which are contrary to the best interests of the patient.
Corporations and nonprofits have codes of ethics to help workers decide if certain behaviors are appropriate and acceptable when dealing with clients and outside agencies.
Examples of governed behaviors include:
Many organizations require employees to attend yearly training on ethics and, in some cases, to sign statements promising to adhere to all ethical guidelines laid out by the company.
Different types of organizations also have to address different issues depending on their purpose. For instance, the sexual health care nonprofit Planned Parenthood has a code of ethics for their peer educators.
One excerpt from the Peer Educator Code of Ethics provides some guidelines that Peer Educators must accept and follow as long as they are involved in the program:
This is a classic example of a professional code of ethics, establishing responsibilities to coworkers, clients and superiors.
The Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation also provides a code of ethics for affiliates of the organization. According to their Code of Ethics:
"Every board member, officer, employee, staff member, grant reviewer, Race director, committee chair, and committee member (individually and collectively "Individual") of an affiliate of the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation (the "Affiliate") shall avoid any conflict between his/her personal, professional or business interests and the interests of the Affiliate in all actions taken by or on behalf of the Affiliate."
This code prioritizes the relationship between the larger organization and the individual, which is common among codes of conduct at large organizations with multiple affiliates.
Individual codes of ethics can originate from religion, from secular philosophy, or simply from rules of behavior derived from upbringing and experience.
Society at large assumes that certain ethical behaviors can be expected regardless of religion, geographic location or nationality. The classic example is the Golden Rule -- "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" -- which was formulated in dozens of different ways across the ancient world and independently incorporated into Christianity, Judaism, Confucianism, Taoism and Zoroastrianism, along with many other religions and codes of secular behavior.
Other examples of societal ethical behavior include:
Respect for another's property
Refraining from violence against another
Treating others with civility
Certain codes of ethics apply only to members of select groups and are not necessarily in step with society as a whole. The most obvious examples are religious codes of ethics. Teaching adherents to behave ethically is a fundamental purpose of religion, but obviously the principles do not necessarily apply to nonbelievers.
Examples of religious codes of ethics include:
The Ten Commandments of Judaism
The Beatitudes of Christianity
The Five Pillars of Islam
The Noble Eightfold Path of Buddhism
As a major role of religion in believers' lives is to provide them with ethical codes of conduct, religious ethics often go far beyond the simple core beliefs listed above. That said, foundational beliefs like the above are a fundamental part of most religions.
Personal codes of ethics do not require religion, however. Immanuel Kant's categorical imperative and the Utilitarian rule of the greatest good for the greatest number are both ethical codes that do not require any religious basis.
Codes of ethics are present at all levels of society, as well as in business and individual behavior. Many are codified in writing and enforced with penalties, while others are more malleable and dependent on the individual's perception of right and wrong.
For further study of ethics and their place in the world, have a look at these Examples of Rights Based Ethics.