Ethics and Goodness in Professional Life

See also: Honesty and Truthfulness

Our page Ethical Leadership describes how principles and ethics are important for leaders. Our page on Goodness discusses the issue of learning to use your moral compass to guide you through life.

This page considers the role of ethics and the moral compass, or ‘goodness’, in professional life. It focuses on the law and medicine, as key professions. However, the principles behind the thinking are applicable to all areas of professional and wider working life, and wider lessons are also drawn.

The Place of ‘Goodness’ in Professional Life

To many outside, and perhaps even inside, professions such as law and medicine, it may seem that there is a clear regulatory framework that sets out how professionals should behave.

For doctors, for example, the guiding principles are set out in the Hippocratic Oath. They include foundation stones such as ‘do no harm’. There is a wider regulatory framework set out in the UK by the General Medical Council, which also polices medical practice, and ensures that doctors practice in line with their licence.

So is there a place for individual ethics?

And what if your individual framework of ethics clashes with your chosen profession’s guide?

This page unpicks some of those questions, drawing on work from the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues at the University of Birmingham. A three-year research project there focuses on three professions, law, medicine and teaching and how they fit with a modern framework of ‘virtues’.

Like Stephen Covey in his book, Principle-Centred Leadership, the Jubilee Centre starts from the premise that ethics are not just an optional extra, but a vital part of modern life, including business and professional life.

It also suggests that acting ethically or virtuously can even help businesses to operate better, a case which is looking more and more convincing since the banking crisis.

Goodness and the Law

There are many who would suggest that virtue and the law are mutually exclusive. Lawyers are often seen as ‘even worse than bankers’, with people commenting that litigation only makes lawyers rich. Let’s face it, the profession has a pretty poor reputation.

However, research from the Jubilee Centre shows that lawyers themselves place a high value on ethical behaviour, especially justice and fairness. This may not be unexpected in the legal profession, which after all exists to ensure that everyone can have a ‘fair trial’. Lawyers also value perseverance and perspective very highly. These are, perhaps, not ‘warm’ virtues, but nonetheless very important ones in those charged with administering justice.

There are, however, clearly some pressures on lawyers to act unethically, which may go some way to explaining the profession’s reputation. Research, again from the Jubilee Centre, shows that many lawyers feel ‘commercial pressure’ to, for example, round up billing hours.

The Jubilee Centre’s research suggests that the most important aspect to maintaining an ethical practice was finding good role models. Many said that they felt anxious about being put under pressure to act unethically, but would take guidance from senior colleagues.

Goodness and Medicine

Doctors perhaps have less of an ‘image problem’ than lawyers when it comes to ethics and moral practice, but there are still very challenging moral dilemmas in the practice of medicine.

A regulatory framework cannot answer all of the possible questions, and most doctors will sooner or later find themselves having to consult their internal moral compass for guidance.

The values that doctors felt were most important in their profession were:

Doctors generally rated their own fairness, honesty, kindness and teamwork highly, but were more inclined to doubt their abilities to lead or to exercise their judgement.

Experienced doctors found it easier to rely on their own judgement. Unsurprisingly, their ‘moral compass’ and professional judgement were more highly developed by their experience.

Positive Role Models

Like lawyers, doctors emphasised the importance of having positive role models in order to develop their professional judgement and moral sense within their professional environment.

Acting Ethically as a Professional

Although medicine and the law are on the face of it very different, the Jubilee Centre’s research points to some common aspects that can help you to develop and maintain a more moral or ethical approach both in yourself and more widely across the profession.

These are:

  • Find positive role models among your colleagues, whether within your immediate environment or more widely, and draw on their advice and experience if you find yourself in difficulty;
  • Take opportunities wherever possible for Reflective Practice to develop your professional judgement and moral compass.
  • Be prepared to act as a positive role model for younger or less experienced colleagues, including mentoring (see our pages on Mentoring for more) and helping to provide opportunities for Reflective Practice.

There are also other things that you can do to strengthen your ethical approach. These include:

  • Using your personal ‘moral compass’ to help guide you through any ethical dilemmas, ensuring that you do not allow yourself to be encouraged down a path which is inconsistent with your personal principles;
  • Think carefully about which virtues may be more important in your professional life. There is a reasonable chance that you have been drawn to a profession that suits your ethical stance (for example, lawyers tend to value fairness, as we have said). But do you need to do anything to strengthen your key virtues to make you even more suited to your chosen career?
  • What are the most likely ethical problems that you may encounter, and how are you likely to struggle with them? For example, those working in media may struggle with the temptation to exaggerate a story, or generalise from a single example. Consider in advance when you might encounter ethical difficulties, and what you plan to do about it. A little forward planning can ensure that you are able to handle difficult situations with more tact.

Ethics or Morals are not Inconsistent with Professional Life

Reading newspaper reports about doctors like Harold Shipman, or the closed culture of many professions, it may sometimes seem that professional life is inconsistent with living according to your principles. But ethical living is certainly not inconsistent with the rules-based regulatory framework of many professions, even if it goes further.

Is supporting a colleague viewed as more important than keeping patients safe? Emphatically not. But recent stories show that it is still very hard to raise concerns, or ‘blow the whistle’, on a professional colleague. Culture is slow to change.

But culture starts with individuals, and gathers weight as the number of individuals grows. Ethical working with a strong ‘moral compass’ is vital to professional life and, like ethical leadership, tends to be respected by all those who encounter it.