A professional body can’t force its members to be ethical.
What it can do is provide a code of ethics and a strong incentive to follow that code.
Codes of ethics are strange beasts. Every organization seems to have one, but does anyone ever look at them? And if you do look at them, it quickly becomes clear that the principles outlined tend to be common sense.
But then, if the principles weren’t obvious, we would never agree on them.
This suggests that codes are either obvious to everyone and so a waste of time, or they are obvious to no one and so, equally, a waste of time. Either way, they’re a waste of time. Probably, if we’re feeling particularly cynical, we see them as just a public relations exercise. After all, it’s not as if a code of ethics will stop anyone from acting unethically.
Clearly, from the title of this piece, I don’t agree with the above paragraph. I am sympathetic to this view and have felt this way in the past about codes of ethics. However, I want to suggest here at least four ways in which codes are genuinely helpful to PIs, or indeed, to any professional.
There is a catch though, as we shall see.
1. Common sense is not always common.
One frequent challenge I get from professionals and students alike is that “ethics is relative,” so there can’t be any absolute truth in ethics. While I don’t want to get into that discussion here, the complaint does recognize that there are different ethical principles, and that different people may have different approaches to ethics.
Or, perhaps more likely, we have the same principles (e.g. “do not steal”) but have different thresholds for what meets those principles (e.g. “taking stationery from the office isn’t stealing, is it?”). Because of this, a code can provide a useful standard that we can refer to, to say that whatever the individual may personally believe, in the professional environment, this is how he or she is expected to act.
2. Codes get specific with standards and expectations.
That leads neatly onto the second way in which codes are helpful: They list standards which a professional is reasonably expected to meet. This can be helpful for both the professional and the client. For the professional, as in the case of helping himself to office stationery, he now knows that while this may be tolerated in some businesses, it is not tolerated in his profession. That behavior is seen as “unprofessional” and disapproved of by his peers.
For the client, it is helpful in setting expectations: This is what it is reasonable to expect of the professional in whom you are placing your trust (and probably quite a bit of money).
3. Standards must be upheld.
Of course, standards are only good for as long as they are upheld. If standards are ignored, and no disciplinary action is taken, then more people will ignore them.
A genuinely unfair situation may arise in which people “get away with” lower standards which enable them to take on cases a more ethical PI would never accept. This may act as an incentive for otherwise decent PIs to act unethically in order to stay in business, eventually bringing the whole profession into disrepute.
To counter this, standards have to be upheld, and this means both educating professionals in what those standards are and disciplining professionals who fail to meet those standards. If a physician failed to live up to the standards expected of the medical profession, then she should be banned from acting as a physician.
As the code is used universally throughout the industry, it becomes a genuine industrial standard, raising practices and expectations across the industry.
The same is true of private investigators. Unethical PIs should be disciplined so that they are not allowed to “get away with it.” What that discipline looks like will largely depend on the range of sanctions available.
These benefits of codes (providing and upholding universal standards), though, can all feel like being beaten by a stick. Why should I adhere to a code that will reduce my flexibility to act within my own ethical framework and may even lead to my being disciplined by a professional body?
So far in this discussion, codes don’t feel very friendly.
4. Codes offer backup to professionals who are under pressure to behave unethically.
This leads to the fourth, and to my mind greatest, benefit of codes of ethics: They provide an external authority to which the professional can turn when facing pressure to do something unethical.
Imagine that a client asks a PI to carry out surveillance on an ex-lover of the client, purely for the client’s self-satisfaction. Maybe there’s even a stalkerish quality to his fascination with his ex. In this case, the client should not take offense if the PI responds that while he might personally be happy to take on the case, as a professional, he is unable to, because his code forbids him from such surveillances.
In a sense, then, codes operate in a similar way to the law. Just as the law helps PIs avoid doing anything illegal (“I can’t do that as it is against the law!”), codes help PIs avoid acting unethically.
There is a further benefit in this approach to codes. If all PIs have the same code, then the PI can continue with his client: “What is more, if you go to any other PI, he or she will say the same thing, because we all follow the same code.” This level of solidarity within the professional community can be extremely strong, and can help to maintain a level of ethical behavior which exceeds the minimum requirements set by the law.
There is, of course, a caveat.
And now for that catch. As I mentioned in the title, codes are your friends, but it is a reciprocal friendship. The more often people apply a code, the stronger that code becomes.
As the code is used universally throughout the industry, it becomes a genuine industrial standard, raising practices and expectations across the industry. Equally, the more a code is ignored, the less relevant it becomes. If a code is widely disregarded across the industry, then a client, confronted with an ethical PI who refuses to take on a shady operation, can simply respond, “Fine, then I’ll take the job to your competitor down the road. I know that he’ll take it.”
Codes are your friends, but it is a reciprocal friendship. The more often people apply a code, the stronger that code becomes.
What is to my mind one of the strongest benefits of codes of ethics therefore relies on the solidarity of the profession. As more and more professionals uphold the code regularly, the code will offer those professionals greater support when they need it.
Finally, what of the problem that codes don’t stop people from acting unethically? Well, you can’t expect too much from a code. After all, laws do not prevent people from acting illegally, and that is with the threat of imprisonment hanging over them.
We cannot force people to be ethical, and it might make us a little less civilized if we tried to. We can, however, offer incentives and disincentives to help people act in the way that they (often, at heart) know they should.
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.