A social contract theory critique of professional codes of ethics

Pages235-243
Publication Date30 Nov 2004
DOIhttps://doi.org/10.1108/14779960480000256
AuthorDavid K. McGraw
SubjectInformation & knowledge management
A Social Contract Theory Critique of Professional
Codes of Ethics
I NT R O D U C T I O N
In contemporary society, many occupation-
a l ly - b a sed organization s have !codes of
ethics." While the professions of law and
medicine have had codes of ethics for cen-
turies, in recent years there has been a pro-
liferation of codes of ethics in many other
professional organizations to guide the
behavior of their members. The social con-
tract tradition in ethics is the best frame-
work for the analysis of these codes of
ethics, because a professional code is essen-
tially an agreement made by members of a
social group, who agree to obey the rules of
the contract because of a perceived mutual
benefit. Thus, conceptually a professional
code of ethics is essentially equivalent to a
political system. In other words, in much
the same way as a geographically-defined
social group forms a government and estab-
lishes a system of laws to enforce compli-
ance with certain rules of behavior, a pro-
fessional code of ethics is the product of a
professionally-defined social group#s efforts
to enforce certain rules of behavior among
its members.
This paper will consider whether profes-
sional codes of ethics are enforceable, legit-
imate, and just. In analyzing the codes of
ethics in terms of such dimensions, one
must nece s s a r i l y consid er whether the
codes exist primarily to benefit the mem-
bers of the profession, or society as a whole.
Info, Comm & Ethics in Society (2004) 2: 235–243
© 2004 Troubador Publishing Ltd.
KEYWORDS
Professional
code of ethics
Social contract
theory
Thomas
Hobbes
John Rawls
David K. McGraw
Department of Integrated Science and Te c h n ol o g y, James Mad ison Un i v e r s i t y, Harr i s o n b u rg, VA, USA
Email: mcgraw dk@jum.edu
COVERAGE
This paper considers whether professional codes of ethics are enforceable, legitimate, and just. In analyz -
ing codes of ethics in this way, one must consider whether they exist to benefit members of the profession,
or society as a whole.The analysis shifts dramatically based on this question, as codes of ethics are typi -
cally created by members of the profession, not by representatives of the larger population, and where they
are enforced, they are only enforced among members of the profession. However, professional codes of
ethics have an impact on those outside the profession, or the larger society outside the smaller community
that created them.
A B ST R AC T

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