Executive editor Hal Humphreys reflects on the too-often moving target that is professional ethics in private investigations.
Over at PI Education, we’re working on a new ethics course. We investigators have to have at least some ethics training every cycle of our license. So, we’re working on it.
What is ethics? How do we define it?
“It’s what you do when no one else is looking,” says my colleague Bryan R.
“It’s having a moral compass,” says another colleague of mine, Timothy A.
Of course, the idea of a moral compass can get pretty complicated. As ethics professor Kevin Macnish says in a PursuitMag story from several years ago, some folks seem to think ethics is relative, or that “different thresholds exist” for what constitutes stealing, cheating, or other misconduct. Others believe ethics, or morals, emanate from religious belief, or vary between cultures. Faith and cultural values can certainly inform a personal moral code, but in a professional setting, is a personal code enough?
When it comes to ethics for investigators, I’m more interested in the broader angle. Do we define ethics as following the law? If so, what do we do when a law is against our personal moral or ethical sensibilities? Do we follow the law? Do we violate our conscience? Legal is not always ethical. Ethical is not always legal. And according to Kevin Macnish, “ethics and the law often intersect, but they can also diverge.”
In its simplest form, law offers us a minimum set of ethical standards, the absolute least we can do to maintain a functioning society. Many times, ethics goes beyond the law. As investigators, our stock in trade rests in a perpetual grey area. We’re often under pressure from clients to push the boundaries of what’s legal and what’s ethical. And the fact that plenty of investigators succumb to these pressures has led to a stubborn negative perception problem in our industry.
Other times, a dwindling bank balance presents temptations to behave unethically—say, to accept a case that isn’t really in the best interest of the client to investigate in the first place. As Keith Owens points out in his article from 2014, sometimes, the ethical thing to do is to turn a client away. “Our standard needs to be higher than, ‘How much money can I make doing this?'” he writes. “The standard needs to be ‘How can I best help this person?’ Some days, it is by convincing them they should not hire us at all.”
Of course, we have to stay within the bounds of the law, but do we need to hold ourselves to a higher standard? I think yes.
Here’s a thought problem for you:
It is legal to pull trash in your area, as along as the rubbish bin is situated on the street, in the alleyway, or in a public place where it is intended to be collected by a garbage truck. If it has, for the purpose of this exercise, been abandoned, it is fair game.
Let’s say the rubbish bin in our scenario is a mere six inches inside the gate. It’s ready to be collected, but it’s not in the alleyway. The garbage man always grabs it and dumps it from this spot, but this spot is not technically in a public area.
No one is there to see you. There are no cameras. The bin is right there for the taking, just on the other side of the fence line. There’s a very good chance your subject has tossed out valuable evidence that could help your client win a case. Do you take the trash?
I’ll post my thoughts in the comments section next week. Go ahead and share your answers.
Why a Code of Ethics Is a Private Investigator’s Best Friend, by Kevin Macnish
8 Fundamental Principles for Ethical Investigators, by Kevin Macnish
The Good Investigator: Ethics and the Law, by Kevin Macnish
Every Week, I Talk a Client Out of Hiring Me, by Keith Owens
Re-examining Private Investigator Ethics in a Divided Political Era, by Philip A. Becnel
Ethics for Investigators: Truth and Fiction, by Hal Humphreys