Courage as an Obligation for Professional Ethical Codes

Courage is implied in some codes of professional bodies in that they recommend a duty to whistleblowing and/or to support whistle blowers. However, I have not as yet seen any codes that explicitly put forward an obligation to act courageously. Nevertheless, I believe that acting courageousAndy Friedman, CEO of PARNly is a part of the expectations of many professionals. For example, the expectation that medical and health professionals must carry out their work in the face of patient abuse; teachers must continue to act calmly in the face of bullying and abusive children and parents. In the context of business, a critical issue for courage would be to commit to policies for long term sustainability and stakeholder value in the face of pressures for short term profit maximisation.

One reason why courage does not appear as an explicit obligation in professional ethical codes is that it is considered to be a moral rather than an ethical matter. The distinction often  drawn between ethics and morality is that ethics refer to rules provided by a social source specifying right and wrong contact, such as in professional ethical codes, while morals refer to an individual’s personal principles regarding right and wrong.

Courage is a moral principle first, but can be an ethical one. Courage is mainly regarded as part of personal character and so specific to the individual. However, norms of courageous behaviour can be formulated in terms of social expectations and so are more widely applicable, such as with whistle blowing.

Of course there are possible problems connected to courage. It can take courage to pull off a crime. Too much courage can lead to recklessness and this has been a common criticism of the financial sector from 2008.

However, these concerns should not rule out courage as a core obligation in professional codes. Rather, they suggest that it should not stand alone. It should be included within the context of other ethical principles such as integrity, reliability and/or diligence. Courage may be expected to act like a catalyst to impel good social outcomes and trustworthiness in difficult times when combined with other ethical obligations. So, the core ethical principles of a new code should not be thought of as comprising a set of stand-alone propositions, each independently valid. Rather, the set of principles need to be read together. This highlights the crucial role for a good preamble to the code to provide guidance on how the code should be read.

In fact, eliding the moral and ethical may be considered a positive feature in the current circumstances with the rise of populism and where the attacks on many professions, particularly those in the finance sector, are due in some large measure to a perceived lack of morality.

In my presentation at the PARN conference on Supporting the Sector of 6 June 2017, I suggested that the challenge of populism to the professions could be met, in some measure, by introducing more emotional and personal terms to support professionalism. One way of supporting this idea would be for professional bodies to consider including courage as an obligation in their ethical codes.

Consider the following:

  1. Do you think courage would be appropriate for inclusion in your ethical code?
  2. If not, why not?
  3. Has your professional body ever considered this as an obligation?
  4. Are there other obligations in your code which like whistle blowing, imply an expectation of courage?
  5. Would you attend a workshop to discuss this further?

Professor Andy Friedman

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