Codes of Ethics

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A code of ethics may appear in disciplines such as engineering, science, and technology under several other names: professional principles, rules of conduct, ethical guidelines, and so on. However denominated, a code of ethics can be placed in one of three categories: (1) professional, such as the Chemist's Code of Conduct of the American Chemical Society, applying to all the members of a certain profession (chemists) and only to them;
(2) organizational, such as the Code of Ethics of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers, applying to members of the technical or scientific society that has enacted it and only to them or, in the case of the code of ethics of a university or industrial laboratory, only to a certain class of the enacting organization's employees; (3) institutional, such as the Computer Ethics Institute's Ten Commandments of Computer Ethics, applying to anyone involved in a certain activity (in this case, using a computer).

Codes of ethics may include ordinary moral rules ("Do not steal" or "Treat others fairly"). Codes of ethics may be enacted into law. For example, some codes (such as the engineer's code of ethics in Chile) have the status of domestic administrative law. Other codes, such as the "Nuremberg Code" on human experimentation, have become part of both international law and the general domestic law of many countries. Nonetheless, a code of ethics is never simply a matter of law or ordinary morality. To call a document a code of ethics is to make a claim for it one does not make when one claims that the document in question is a statute or statement of ordinary morality.

The Meaning of Codes

The word code comes from Latin. Originally it referred to any wooden board, then to boards covered with wax that were used to write on, and then to any book (codex). That was the sense it had when first applied to the book-length systemization of Roman statutes that the Emperor Justinian enacted in 529 c.e. Justinian's Code differed from an ordinary compilation of law in one important respect: He had the legal authority to make his compilation law, replacing all that preceded it.

Since that time, any document similar to Justinian's Code could be called a code. Sometimes the analogy with Justinian's Code is quite close (as it is, for example, for the Code Napoleon). Sometimes it is not. For example, computer code is code in a rather distant sense: Although the rules are presented systematically, computer code is written for machines, not for humans.

An important feature of Justinian's compilation is that it was written. Could a code be unwritten? Certainly there are unwritten laws. However, because the point of codification is to give law (and by analogy any similar system of guidance) an explicit and authoritative formulation, an unwritten code would seem not to be a code at all. There are nonetheless at least two ways in which codes can be unwritten. First, a code that is not in writing may have an authoritative oral formulation. Second, an unformulated code may be so obvious to those familiar with the practice that the code need only be formulated to be accepted. Although some parts of engineering or science may have a few rules unwritten in one or both of these senses, no large discipline or organization seems to have enough of those rules to constitute an unwritten code. In a world in which so much changes so quickly, how can individuals separated by education, experience, and distance reach agreement on much without putting that agreement in writing?

The Meaning of Ethics

The term ethics has at least four senses. In one, it is a synonym for ordinary morality, the universal standards of conduct that apply to moral agents simply because they are moral agents. Etymology justifies this sense. The root of the word ethics ( ethos) is the Greek word for "habit" (or "character"), just as the root of the word morality (mores) is the Latin word for that concept. Etymologically, ethics and morality are twins (as are ethic and morale). In this sense of the term, codes of ethics are systematic statements of ordinary morality; there is no point in speaking of ethics rather than morality.

In at least three other senses, however, ethics differs from morality. In one, ethics consists of the standards of conduct that moral agents should follow (critical morality); morality, in contrast, consists of the standards that moral agents generally do follow (positive morality). Ethics in this sense is very close to its root mores; it can refer to unethical acts in the first sense of ethics. What some believe is morally right (slavery, forced female circumcision, and the like) can be morally wrong. Morality in this sense has a plural: There can be as many moralities as there are moral agents. Nonetheless, ethics in this sense can be a standard that is common to everyone. This second sense of ethics is, then, as irrelevant to the purposes here as is the first. Codes of ethics generally contain some rules ordinary morality does not.

Sometimes ethics is contrasted with morality in another way: Morality consists of the standards that every moral agent should follow. Morality is a universal minimum, the standard of moral right and wrong. Ethics, in contrast, is concerned with moral good, with whatever is beyond the moral minimum. This is another sense that seems not to fit codes of ethics. First, this ethics of the good is still universal, applying outside professions, technical societies, and institutions as well as within them. Second, codes of ethics in fact consist largely of requirements, the right way to conduct oneself rather than just a good way. Any sense of ethics that excludes requirements cannot be the sense relevant to codes of ethics.

The term ethics can be used in a fourth sense to refer to the morally permissible standards of conduct that govern the members of a group simply because they are members of that group. In this sense, research ethics is for people in research and no one else, engineering ethics is for engineers and no one else, and so on. Ethics in this sense is relative even though morality is not; like law and custom, it can vary from place to place, group to group, and time to time.

Though relative, ethics (in this sense) is not mere mores. It must (by definition) set a standard that is at least morally permissible. There can be no thieves' ethics or Nazi ethics, except with quotes around the word to signal an analogical or perverted use. Because ethics in this fourth sense must both be morally permissible and apply to members of a group simply because of their membership, it must demand more than law, market, and ordinary morality otherwise would. It must set a "higher" or "special" standard.

The Meaning of Codes of Ethics

A code of ethics, though not a mere restatement or application of ordinary morality, can be morally binding on those to whom it applies; that is, it can impose new moral obligations or requirements. How is this possible? Some codes of ethics are morally binding in part because they require an oath, a promise, or other "external sanction" (for example, one's signature on a contract that makes accepting an employer's code of ethics a condition of one's employment). In general, though, codes of ethics are binding in the way the rules of a morally permissible game are binding on those who voluntarily participate. The sanction is "internal" to the practice. When a person voluntarily claims the benefits of a code of ethics—for example, the special trust others place in those whom the code binds—by claiming to be a member of the relevant group ("I am an engineer"), that person has a moral obligation, an obligation of fairness, to do what the code says. Because law applies to its subjects whether they wish it to or not, law cannot bind in the way a code of ethics (a voluntary practice) can. Because a code of ethics applies only to voluntary participants in a special practice, not everyone, a code, if it is generally followed, can create trust beyond what ordinary moral conduct can. It can create a special moral environment. So, for example, if engineers generally "issue public statements only in an objective and truthful manner [including] all relevant and pertinent information" (as the Code of Ethics of the National Society of Professional Engineers requires), their public statements will generally (and justifiably) be trusted in a way those of politicians, lobbyists, and even ordinary private citizens would not be. Engineers will therefore have a moral obligation to do as required to preserve that trust. They will have a special moral obligation to provide all relevant and pertinent information even when others do not have such an obligation.

Attempts have been made to distinguish between short, general, or uncontroversial codes (code of ethics) and longer, more detailed, or more controversial ones (code of conduct, guidelines, and the like). Although this type of distinction may occasionally be useful in practice, it is hard to defend in theory. A typical code of conduct is as much a special standard as a typical code of ethics is, except when the code of ethics, being a mere restatement of morality, is just a moral code. Codes of conduct are also generally as morally binding as other codes of ethics. Sometimes, as in the Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct of the Association of Computing Machinery, the code does not even distinguish between the two.

Attempts have also been made to distinguish between (hard and fast) "rules" and mere "guidelines". Rules are then said to be typical of law, to allow only for submission or defiance, and therefore to interfere with moral autonomy. Guidelines, in contrast, are said to be typical of ethics, to require interpretation rather than "mindless submission", and therefore to preserve moral autonomy. In fact, all rules, including statutes, require interpretation (rather than mindless submission). In this respect, all rules are mere guidelines. There is, then, no reason why a code of ethics, understood as rules, should interfere with moral autonomy—or, at least, no reason why it should interfere any more than a promise or obligation of fairness does. On the other hand, "guidelines" such as those in ACM's Code often have the same mandatory form as other rules. They function as a commentary on the code rather than as a distinct document.

Uses and Design of Codes of Ethics

Codes of ethics have at least five uses: First and most important, a code of ethics can establish special standards of conduct in cases in which experience has shown that common sense is not adequate. Second, a code of ethics, being an authoritative formulation of the rules that govern a practice, can help those new to the practice learn how to act. Third, a code can remind those with considerable experience of what they might otherwise forget. Fourth, a code can provide a framework for settling disputes even among persons with considerable experience. Fifth, a code can help those outside the group ("the public") understand what they may justifiably expect of those in the group.

A code of ethics can also be used to justify discipline, legal liability, or other forms of external accountability, but such uses threaten to turn the code into something like law. Even when a code of ethics has been enacted into law, obedience to it must rely in large part on conscience or there is no point in describing it as a code of ethics (rather than just another legal requirement).Therefore, to object to a code of ethics that it cannot be enforced in the way laws generally are is to confuse ethics with law.

Some writers have claimed that a code of ethics must have a certain content (something more specific than "a higher standard"), for example, that any "true professional code" must have a provision giving special prominence to the public interest. For some professions, such as engineering, the claim is plausible. Engineers have long agreed that the public health, safety, and welfare should be "paramount" in their professional work. But for other professions, such as mathematics, the claim is much less plausible. The Ethical Guidelines of the American Mathematical Society commit mathematicians to mathematical truth, whether in the public interest or not. Many other scientific professions have a similar commitment to truth rather than the public interest as such. There can be no moral objection to such a failure to emphasize the public interest so long as the code does not require or allow anything ordinary morality forbids.

Because codes of ethics have no necessary content, they have no necessary structure or design. So, for example, the Software Engineering Code of Ethics divides its requirements into eight major categories (Public, Client and Employer, Product, Judgment, Management, Profession, Colleagues, and Self); the Codes of Ethics of the Australian Computer Society divides its requirements into six (Priorities, Competence, Honesty, Social Implications, Professional Development, and Computing Profession); and other codes have adopted other divisions, some similar to these and some quite different. About all that can usefully be said about the structure of codes of ethics generally, is that the structure should help ordinary users understand the code as a whole and to find what in particular they need.


SEE ALSO Accountability in Research;Cicero's Creed;Engineering Ethics;Profession and Professionalism;Sociological Ethics.


Anderson, Ronald E. (1994). "The ACM Code of Ethics: History, Process, and Implications." In Social Issues in Computing: Putting Computing in Its Place, ed. Chuck Huff and Thomas Finhold. New York: McGraw-Hill. An excellent (and rare) description of the writing of a code of ethics in a major technological organization (with lots of details about the give-and-take involved).

Baker, Robert B.; Linda L. Manuel; Arthur L. Caplan; and Stephen R. Latham, eds. (1999). The American Medical Ethics Revolution: How the AMA's Code of Ethics Has Transformed Physicians' Relationship to Patients, Professionals, and Society. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. An excellent resource for understanding the writing of what is (arguably) the first code of ethics governing a technological profession.

Berleur, Jacques, and Marie d'Udekem-Gevers. (2001). "Codes of Ethics: Conduct for Computer Societies: The Experience of IFIP". In Technology and Ethics: A European Quest for Responsible Engineering, ed. Philippe Goujon and Bertrand Hériard Dubreuil. Leuven, Belgium: Peeters. Describes the failure of a major international organization to adopt a code of ethics, apparently because of worries about enforceability.

Coady, Margaret, and Sidney Block, eds. (1996). Codes of Ethics in the Professions. Carlton South, Victoria, Australia: Melbourne University Press. A good collection of essays providing a benchmark for current philosophical understanding of codes of ethics in professions.

Davis, Michael. (2002). Profession, Code, and Ethics. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate. A major challenge to the current philosophical (and sociological) understanding of professions, with engineering (along with law and police) as one of the three major professions studied.

Ladd, John. (1980). "The Quest for a Code of Professional Ethics: An Intellectual and Moral Confusion." In AAAS Professional Ethics Project: Professional Ethics Activities in the Scientific and Engineering Societies, ed. Rosemary Chalk, Mark S. Frankel, and Sallie B. Chafer. Washington, DC: American Association for the Advancement of Science. A classic challenge to the very idea of a code of ethics.

Luegenbiehl, Heinz. (1983). "Codes of Ethics and the Moral Education of Engineers." Business and Professional Ethics Journal 2: 41–61. An important work on the educational uses of codes of ethics, as well as the classic statement of the distinction between rules and guidelines.


Center for the Study of Ethics in the Professions, Illinois Institute of Technology. "Codes of Ethics Online." Available at An enormous collection of codes of ethics, by far the largest available online. All codes cited here can be found at this site.