professional ethics in philosophy

I was invited to speak on a panel of people talking about professional ethics to a colleague’s class last week, but unfortunately I was sick the day of the class. So I offered to provide my thoughts on the questions we were asked to talk about, in writing. I figured why not post them here, in case anyone else finds them useful, or the students themselves want to see them later, after discussed in class next week.

I’m organizing the post according to the questions I was asked to talk about.

 

What does the term ‘professional ethics’ mean to you?

For me, “ethics” has to do with the rightness or wrongness of how we act, where those are determined by rules or guidelines or virtues that aren’t only tied to laws or institutional rules. We philosophers often talk about ethics as how we should act even if there are not rules or laws to that effect. For example, there may not be any laws or institutional rules saying that those with quite a bit of money to spare should donate to those in need, but the ethical question is whether it would be morally right for them to refuse to hep anyone else.

Still, what is morally right or wrong may coincide with laws or institutional rules: e.g., lying under oath in a courtroom is against the law, and also could be morally wrong even if there were no law against it. So ethics can be about what is right or wrong to do morally, whether it coincides with laws or not.

When I consider the term “professional ethics,” I think it’s about the way we should act, morally, as members of a particular profession. There might be specific ways one should/should not act as a result of the professional role one plays in a society.

 

What does the term ‘professional ethics’ mean to your profession?

This is a little difficult for me because “philosopher” doesn’t really have a clear job description! Most professional philosophers work as professors in universities, though, so much of what I’ll say here connects with being a professor at post-secondary institution.

The American Philosophical Association (APA) recently (2016) adopted a Code of Conduct. It includes legal requirements (based on United States laws, which is where the APA is mostly housed…many of us in Canada belong to the APA too, though): these include respecting laws about nondiscrimination and avoiding sexual harassment. But it also goes beyond what laws require, to talk about how we should act towards students, colleagues and others as professors in classes and as people dedicated to hearing many sides of arguments and making the best decision after weighing all views carefully. For example, the APA Code of Conduct says that in classes, philosophy teachers should:

  • Treat students with dignity, never intentionally embarrassing or belittling them, and always communicating with them in clear, respectful, and culturally sensitive ways.

  • Nurture intellectual autonomy by maintaining a classroom environment in which students might raise hyperbolic doubts and float views that do not reflect prevailing beliefs and values, while at the same time maintaining a classroom environment in which all students—particularly students from disenfranchised groups—feel welcome and supported.

The first point above is what any professor should do, but the second, I think, speaks to the specific profession of philosophy in that one of the things we do as philosophers is listen to all legitimate arguments for or against a claim, treat them as possible candidates for truth, and make a decision based on which view has the best argument supporting it.

However, this does not mean encouraging or making everyone listen to statements that promote stereotypes or suggest that some people are worth less than others based on their group status (e.g., gender, ethnicity, ability, religion, etc.). The Code of Conduct goes on to talk about bullying and harassment this way:

Bullying and (non-sexual) harassment includes any degrading, hostile, or offensive conduct or comment by a person towards another that the person knew or reasonably ought to have known would cause the target to be humiliated, intimidated, or otherwise gratuitously harmed.

This is somewhat similar to the UBC policy on discrimination and harassment:

Harassment, a form of discrimination, is a comment, conduct or behaviour that humiliates, intimidates, excludes and isolates an individual or group based on the BC Human Rights Code’s thirteen grounds of prohibited discrimination.

Finally, the APA Code of Conduct includes a section on “electronic communication,” including online works such as blogs or websites, and social media. Among other things, it says:

  • In a professional setting, it’s best to avoid ad hominem arguments and personal attacks, especially if they amount to slander, libel, and/or sexual harassment.

  • Language used in professional electronic communications should use the same kind of inclusive language and reflect the same kind of mutual respect as is expected in the classroom or other face-to-face interactions.

These both go beyond institutional or legal rules, except if what one says amounts to “slander, libel, and/or sexual harassment.” And they were prompted, in part (I think) by some online exchanges that have happened in recent years.

 

What importance, if any, do professional ethics play in your job?

To me, professional ethics are crucial to who I am as a philosopher, a colleague, a leader, and a professor. Treating people with respect and dignity, treating students and colleagues fairly and equitably, being transparent in what decisions I’m making (regarding my classes or work I do with colleagues) and why, are of utmost importance to me. I couldn’t call myself a philosopher or a professor if I didn’t hold these values to be crucial. And if I ever fail at fulfilling them I want people to tell me (in a respectful manner!) so I can correct what I’m doing.

Beyond that, of course, if one doesn’t fulfill institutional or legal rules of professional ethics as a professor, one can lose one’s job (e.g., for bullying, harassment, discrimination).

 

Describe real-world example(s) of where professional ethics went missing or were called into question.  This can be a personal example or one that you have heard of.

There have sadly been several instances of alleged sexual harassment by philosophy professors, with students or colleagues. Daily Nous, a site with news about the philosophy profession, has quite a few stories about these and related issues, here. This is not an issue that plagues philosophy professors alone, as there are too many other stories of professors (and students) allegedly engaging in sexual harassment.

There has also been, in the past few years, a very significant situation in which one philosopher acted online in ways that many people, including myself, found problematic. The philosopher in question was at the time a leader on a website that ranked philosophy graduate programs, and quite a few philosophers signed a statement in 2014 saying we would not participate in those rankings until the philosopher stepped down from his leadership position with that ranking system. He did eventually step down. The saga continues, though, as some of the original people who criticized that philosopher have been sent feces through the mail by an anonymous source in 2016. This was also covered by the New York Times. There have been threats of lawsuits as well (here is a story in the UBC student newspaper, The Ubyssey, about a possible lawsuit). 

 

Any advice for handling ethically challenging situations? 

One of the best things I can think of is to talk the issue over with someone you trust, and who isn’t directly or indirectly involved but can offer good advice.

And think not just about the impacts on yourself for making one decision or another, but on general practices in your profession: if one person does something, is it an action that you think would be okay if many people did? If not, why should that person be able to do it?

Consider also: would more people be harmed if one doesn’t do anything to resist what’s wrong? Think about the precedent set for the future for people who will be in the profession, and those who are affected by the profession, if a certain pattern of behaviour becomes accepted because people didn’t speak out.

Still, I don’t think it’s morally required for people to sacrifice their own careers for what is right. Seek help and advice to find ways to address problems that could have less ramifications on your own job, or find people who can do something because their position is more stable or they have more power than you do. I feel much more comfortable speaking out these days than I did before I had a stable job, and I will sometimes offer to be the person who does so when others want to say something but their own position is more fragile.

 

Any more general advice for young professionals entering into the workforce?

Often, following rules of professional ethics is not just something one does because one is supposed to; it’s often also a matter of ensuring that the kind of work you’re doing, which should be of benefit to yourself and others, is actually done correctly. Professional ethics for a philosophy teacher and researcher means actually doing philosophy teaching and researching as opposed to just appearing like one is doing them from the outside!

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