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Ethics and Professionalism

Ethics and Professionalism

The term "moral behavior" is applied in evaluating the personal conduct of a citizen and is judged in comparison to society's norms. The term "ethical behavior" is applied to that citizen's conduct in professional matters and is judged in comparison to the standards of the profession, which are formally expressed in statements called codes of ethics .

Distinguishing between moral and ethical behavior is necessary because people have a wider array of value obligations when functioning as professionals than when resolving value dilemmas in their personal lives. A professional has specialized knowledge that must be applied to serve four entities: the employer, the client of the employer, the profession, and, most importantly, society. A professional also has legitimate moral obligations. In addition to the application of technical knowledge and the proper consideration of economic factors, the professional must properly balance the value obligations to each of the four entities. For example, the employee should be loyal to the employer, honest with the client, respectful of the profession, and sensitive to the health and safety of the public. Values such as loyalty, honesty, respect, and sensitivity to public safety are emphasized in professional codes of ethics.

The Challenge of Ethical Decision-Making

Rational ethical judgment by professional water managers is important because of the significant implications of their decisions to society. They make decisions that affect the environment , allocate water resources, influence public health and safety, distribute public monies, and affect the lives of future generations.

Ethical conduct, or professional decision-making, is a necessary requisite to being called a professional. A professional must be able to properly balance competing values in making decisions that affect both society and the client, especially where personal, societal, and cultural values conflict. The value issues must be properly balanced within the framework of economic, political, and sociological constraints. Mature ethical decision-making is not easy, and the professional often is criticized by those who feel adversely affected by the decisions.

The Example of Sustainable Development.

Sustainable development, which is development that meets current needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs, involves numerous value conflicts: namely, the freedom of the current generation to use resources that a future generation may need for survival, and the need for the current generation to practice self-discipline so that the environment will remain healthy for future generations. Freedom, survival, self-discipline, and health are all values. Similarly, clean and safe waterbodies are one concern of water professionals in meeting their ethical responsibilities to sustainable development. Here, the words "clean" and "safe" require value judgements. A water manager who does not respect competing values and does not have the ethical maturity to properly weight them in decision-making cannot be considered a professional.

The Example of Wetland Preservation.

The preservation of wetland systems is often in value conflict with economic development of the land. Worthwhile values are legitimately associated with both sides of the issue. The difficulty in quantifying the worth of public amenities provided by wet-lands often complicates decision-making. The water professional who supports wetland development may appear unethical. It is difficult to quantify the value of a wetland to fish and waterfowl in terms that can be compared to the economic value of transforming the wetland into a shopping mall that will be used daily by thousands of people. Would a code of ethics lead a water professional to preserve the wetland for reasons of public welfare, or to develop the land and thus serve the client and the public with fidelity?

Codes of Ethics

Codes of ethics are the value guidelines that a professional must follow in order to remain registered as a member of the profession. Codes are not a list of do's and don'ts. Therefore, to a young professional, they may appear to be vague statements. For example, a code might state that the professional should hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public, or that they should act as faithful agents in professional matters for each employer or client. The emphasis on values is evident through the terms "public safety" and "faithful."

When one is confronted by decisions related to water resources issues, such as sustainable development and wetland systems, interpretation of these guidelines is not always clear-cut. Differences of opinion can lead a professional to blow the whistle. Misinterpreting the codes or ignoring them can result in a person's losing his or her job, or even being expelled from the profession. Thus, understanding value issues and being able to make mature value decisions are just as important to the water resources practitioner as is technical knowledge.

Richard H. McCuen

Bibliography

Guy, Mary E. Ethical Decision-Making in Everyday Work Situations. New York: Quorum Books, 1990.

Martin, Mike W., and Roland Schinzinger. Ethics in Engineering. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1983.

McCuen, Richard H. Applied Ethics in Professional Practice. Verona, NJ: The Institute of Professional Practice, 1999.

WHISTLE-BLOWING

Whistle-blowing is the reporting of purported misconduct that occurs within an organization to those outside the organization. This action usually is undertaken after internal appeals to resolve the issue are unsuccessful.

Generally, the whistleblower is viewed as an outcast by those within the company, but may be seen as a "savior" by those affected outside the company. For example, should the company's water quality inspector report to the state an accidental dumping of unsafe wastewater into a local stream, even though the company orders him or her to not report it?

In some cases, whistle-blowing may be the ethical decision, but in other cases, the ethical action would be to "swallow the whistle." Making value-laden decisions can be stressful to the professional.

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