What are professional ethics?
All problems, even ones that aren’t ethical problems, demand ethical solutions. We don’t have to care about ethical problems to care about ethical solutions.
Personal ethics are the standards of right behavior you hold yourself to in your everyday life. Professional ethics are the standards of right behavior required in your professional life.
The first purpose of professional ethics is to protect clients, because there’s a knowledge gap and power imbalance — we ask clients to trust us because we know more and have better skills than they do in this particular field of animal behavior. This means that we have to always bear in mind the potential for clients to be harmed; codes of ethics are designed to avoid that.
The second purpose of professional ethics is to protect members of the organization from harm, and the profession at large from individual bad actors.
The third purpose of professional ethics is to protect the organization and the profession as a whole. Organizations need integrity and to have a good reputation, so they can continue to do the things they were created to do. Especially in animal training and behavior, which is still almost totally unregulated in most countries, organizations that provide education and certification are the only entities that can protect you and your clients.
What are codes of ethics and what do they do?
Codes of Ethics are a kind of self-regulation. They are adopted by professional organizations to inform their members about the kinds of behavior that are appropriate for a member of that organization. They are based on the core beliefs and mission of the organization.
Codes of ethics help members make decisions about how to act in their professional lives.
They also help potential clients feel secure that they are getting into a professional relationship with someone who subscribes to clear ethical standards, and also who can be held accountable if those standards are violated.
Codes of ethics are not intended to solve ethical problems by themselves. They’re a set of guidelines that are based on core principles but related to the real-world work, in our case of animal behavior consulting. They can help you identify the areas of your work that might pose ethical challenges and offer basic guidelines on how to avoid those challenges, but they are not a recipe book or a choose your own adventure. You’ll need to use a code of ethics, your own values and problem solving skills, and other people’s expertise to address issues in real life.
Can we ever depart from a code of ethics?
Ideally, the code of ethics for an organization is justified by core ethical principles—we should do what the code of ethics states, ultimately, because it’s the right thing to do in these circumstances (or at least, it’s not the wrong thing to do). One of the functions of a code of ethics is to lay out the moral mission of a professional, and ideally these shouldn’t conflict with an individual’s own moral beliefs.
There are other motivations to follow a Code of Ethics, for example, self-interest—”do what the code says or risk personal sanctions,” or “do what the code says or risk undermining the integrity and authority of an organization you rely on to provide personal benefits.”