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Code of Ethics Test

The code of ethics test asks that the agent benchmark the proposed course of action with the recommendations of a professional code of ethics. Engineers, for example, should look at the impact of their decisions on public health, safety, and welfare; almost all engineering codes identify this as the area of paramount responsibility.

Steps in Applying the Code of Ethics Test

  1. Identify the provisions in the code that are relevant to the case at hand.
  2. Answer the following question: Does your proposed course of action violate any of these provisions?
  3. Check for any inconsistencies, i.e., instances where an alternative satisfies some code provision but not others. If there are inconsistencies, look for priority rules. (Example: many codes hold public health, safety, and welfare paramount.)

Hint: most codes can be divided into sections organized around relations between professionals and stakeholders of that profession. Four key groups are public, client, peers, and profession. Be sure to check code requirements from the point of view of these stakeholder groups.


Problems with the Code of Ethics Test

Problem: The code says nothing specific about the particular set of actions you are considering.

Solution: This is more a characteristic of codes of ethics than a problem in their application. Codes are not about the answers to specific situations, but more about principles that are valued by the profession. Students will require some moral imagination to connect the principles to specific situations, and even ethicists with lots of moral imagination may not find much in a code that applies specifically. Encourage students to take the stakeholder approach listed in the hint above as a way of opening up their imagination. Encourage students to do the harm/beneficence and reversibility tests before tackling this one. Those tests may produce results that make this one more clear.

Codes of ethics are hard to apply before the students are familiar with the intermediate terms (like intellectual property and privacy). So, if students have trouble with this test early in a class, come back to it towards the end of the term so they can see they have grown in their ability to apply the code.