Does being an ethical professional investigator mean simply following the law?
According to ethics researcher Kevin Macnish, It’s complicated.
“Would you describe your business as ethical?”
“Absolutely. You can’t get more ethical than us. We follow every law there is.”
This is an extract from a typical conversation I have with a number of professionals, and it wouldn’t be out of place in many articles that I read on PI ethics. For many readers, there may appear nothing wrong with this. Doesn’t being ethical mean following the law? Isn’t that why we have laws?
When it comes to ethics, following the law is a good place to start. Murder is wrong, for instance, and so we have laws against it and a punishment associated with it. However, behaving ethically isn’t as simple as keeping it legal. As the classic Venn diagram illustrates, ethics and the law often intersect, but they can also diverge.
Doesn’t being ethical mean following the law? …Ethics and the law often intersect, but they can also diverge.
There are some obvious cases in which laws are unethical. Consider the apartheid laws in South Africa pre-1991 or the anti-Semitic laws of 1930s Nazi Germany — extreme cases, to be sure. Less extreme, but also closer to home, are the debates around “Obamacare” in the US and the “Bedroom Tax” in the UK. Both concern what many feel the law should be, based on ethical considerations.
Likewise, there are some ethical principles which aren’t enshrined in law. Lying is typically seen as unethical, and yet we only legislate against it in certain contexts, such as in court, or in contracts. Adultery similarly is something which may legitimately end a marriage, but is not in itself illegal.
So, merely following the law isn’t always enough to be ethical. In some cases (back to apartheid South Africa), following the law could even be unethical. In many more cases, though, it’s likely that there is simply no legislation against unethical behavior, because no one has thought or tried to legislate in that area. However, if that behavior were discovered, it would lead to an outcry. A recent example of this is the MPs’ expenses scandal in the UK: Many British MPs were keeping to their internal rules; but in so doing, the public felt, they were still acting unethically.
One test here, sometimes called the “Times Test,” is to ask how you would feel seeing your behavior reported on the front page of tomorrow’s national newspapers. If the answer is “not great,” then the ethics underlying your behavior are probably questionable.
So, why be ethical? If something isn’t illegal, what’s the problem with doing it?
There are a number of answers to this:
1. You might be publicly shamed.
Even if you’re not breaking the law, what if you’re caught behaving unethically? The Times Test plays on this, and the sense of shame and/or guilt that might result. You may not be punished by the law, but society will punish you nonetheless.
2. You might harm your business.
Sometimes, unethical behavior can affect the bottom line. If you are unethical and clients find this out, they may not want to be associated with you and, so, cease to use your services. No one wants reputational damage.
3. Behaving ethically sets you apart.
Let’s face it: Being ethical is the mark of a professional. Professional bodies, such as lawyers’ and physicians’ associations, are generally trusted by the public to “do the right thing.” Of course, we are all aware of rogue cases, but the fact that these cases tend to grab the headlines demonstrates that we take the ethical behavior of these professions very seriously.
With all respect, the revelation that a used car salesman had been economical with the truth would not make headlines. By contrast, a doctor who lied to her patients would.
These are all solid, pragmatic reasons to be ethical. If PIs want to be seen as professionals, if they want to have successful businesses, and if they want to avoid the fear of getting caught, then the ethical route seems the best way to go.
There is also a fourth reason:
4. It’s the right thing to do.
Ethics define what society values, and they’re a mark of how we seek to treat one another. We have a duty as humans to be ethical to one another. When we fail to treat one another ethically, we become a little less human. Even if we never get caught, and so never get into tomorrow’s newspaper, each of us still has to look himself in the mirror each morning.
Wouldn’t you prefer that reflected face to be an ethical one?
Kevin Macnish, PhD is a teaching fellow and consultant in ethics at the IDEA Centre, University of Leeds. He has written numerous articles on the ethics of surveillance. You can follow him at @KMacnish.