Personal Ethics vs Professional Ethics


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What is the difference between personal ethics and professional ethics?


Ethics is a word that can be used loosely, so it’s important to understand the meaning of this question by first discussing what is meant by personal ethics or professional ethics.

I assume the question is using the term personal ethics to mean one’s conscience and the term professional ethics to mean adherence to a professional code. Sometimes those two roles can conflict. For instance, we have cases of doctors who have refused to prescribe the morning after pill, because they believe it will terminate a human life. In this case the doctor has decided that his personal ethics will guide him or her. Alternatively, a police officer may enforce a law that they personally believe is unjust. In this case the police officer has decided to put aside personal concerns and allow professional obligations to guide his or her behavior. Likewise a judge may follow the law and impose the death penalty even though he or she may be personally opposed to it.

Typically people have resolved this by drawing a line between their role as a professional and their role as an individual. They often decide to follow a professional code of ethics when they are acting as a professional even though they may personally disagree. However, if your professional obligations put you in such a state of conflict that you feel you can’t uphold your personal ethics, then you have the option of resigning.

This dilemma is not limited to professional vs personal. All of us are confronted with the reality of rules or laws that we personally believe are unjust or immoral. We have to determine how to resolve this tension. Being a pragmatic ethicist, I do not believe that we should always take a principled and extreme stance for every issue. For instance, I am against the death penalty, but I don’t feel like moving out of New York State just because this state allows the death penalty.

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At the same time, I believe that we must take a principled stance at certain times even if it requires us to pay a high cost. Martin Luther King, Jr., is a good example of someone who was willing to go to jail in order to fight unjust laws that eventually were overturned in part because of his ethical leadership.


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