Ethics Inside and Out

Letitia Meynell argues that professional schools must both integrate ethics across their curricula and include ethics education taught by people external to the profession and the school.

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The case of the Dalhousie Dentistry School Class of 2015 Gentleman brought to the fore both the importance of ethics and our failures to adequately teach ethics at the university. While ethics is important across the academy, it is distinctively important and particularly challenging in professional training contexts. For better or worse, professionals generally are accorded positions of authority and respect in our society. They are frequently in positions of trust whether with regard to individual patients and clients (as with health care professionals and accountants) or with the public at large (as with engineers and architects). Thus it is reasonable to think that substantial effort should be put into equipping students in professional programs with a wide ranging and nuanced understanding of ethical issues and challenges, ranging from those particular to their line of work to quite general concerns about the public good.

While some maintain that professional schools should integrate ethics into their curricula—an approach that has recently been taken by Dalhousie’s Faculty of Management—I think there are important limitations to this approach. After all, ethical responsibilities must be understood not only from the perspective of those within the profession, but they must also be responsive to the interests of others not in the profession.

In house only ethics education risks insulating professional ethics from general ethical norms and practices that should inform the members of any just and functional society. It suggests that professionals need only look to each other, their superiors, and mentors within the profession to provide ethical checks and guidance. It reinforces an elitism that suggests that those outside the profession cannot really understand professional practice and will not be effective judges of the morality of those practices.Henry Hicks Building, Dalhousie University

Indeed, the very idea of “the professional” connotes a certain elitism. It implies that a person belongs to a special group that has expert knowledge of their area in both its practice and the ethics of its practice. Consequently, professionals may assume that whatever they do within the purview of their expertise must be morally acceptable. At the extreme end, professionals may assume that because their actions are informed by special insight and performed by special people their actions must be ethical, even if they flout the explicit rules.

Elitism can thus lead to a professional version of a more general problem that is recognized in applied ethics – the normalization of deviance. First named by Diane Vaughn to explain the cultural pathologies at NASA that led to the Challenger disaster, the normalization of deviance picks out those situations where institutions produce serious ethical problems through a process of socialization, which normalizes the practice, and rationalization, which appears to justify it. As Blake Ashford and Vikas Anand argue: “three mutually reinforcing processes underlie normalization: (1) institutionalization, where an initial corrupt decision or act becomes embedded in structures and processes and thereby routinized; (2) rationalization, where self-serving ideologies develop to justify and perhaps even valorize corruption; and (3) socialization, where naïve newcomers are induced to view corruption as permissible if not desirable” (2003, 1).

Professions and professional schools are acutely susceptible to the normalization of deviance and this susceptibility is amplified when professional ethics education is only in house. Professional schools are intense and often all-consuming institutional settings with the explicit job of socializing students according to the rules—both explicit and implicit—of the profession. Behaviours exhibited by professors and senior students become extremely influential as they literally embody the professionals that the students are attempting to become.

The answer is not to do away with in house ethics training for professionals but to recognize that not all ethics training should be done in house. Drawing on expertise from outside the professional schools for such training would not only enhance the currency and depth of ethics training in the professional schools, but may help to diffuse the attitudes that fuel the normalization of deviance. Such interventions may help students see themselves as progressive, ethical leaders who can transform their professions, rather than members who should simply conform. There are few moments more disorienting and ethically powerful than recognizing that a practice that has been accepted by your community as entirely benign is seen by others a suspect if not clearly wrong. Truly effective ethics training should teach students to recognize these moments and foster a commitment to treat them as opportunities for serious ethical reflection and the creation of more ethical practice.

Ethics is the complex project of figuring out how we can all live together well. Professionals are in peculiar positions of power and trust within this project. As such, our professional schools must help them to become more thoughtful, cautious, responsive, and ethical in the face of the power they have to affect people’s lives.

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Letitia Meynell is an Associate Professor in the Department of Philosophy at Dalhousie University.

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