Last week in class we discussed our readings on ethics, as well as going over the form and planning of a one-shot workshop in preparation for our workshops tomorrow. For the moment, I want to stay with this discussion of ethics.
In my last blog post, I brought up reasons for and “against” professional codes of ethics, such as the ALA Code of Ethics. I want to give another important reason for each.
First, the positive: in my discussions of this topic, I keep using the phrase “professional codes of ethics” without even realizing how this is pointing to one of the most important reasons to have a code such as this: it brings us together as, and legitimizes our discussions as, a profession. What is the difference between a profession and a job? There are, of course, a number of ways we could approach this issue, but I think an important difference is that a profession is something that you feel engaged and invested in enough to feel the need to make ethical decisions on a daily basis. Having a “professional code of ethics” is one way to acknowledge this engagement, and to get other professions (and our patrons) to see us a “legitimate profession.”
I also want to discuss a reason we shouldn’t have statements like the ALA Code of Ethics. Again, let’s go back to Simone de Beauvoir and The Ethics of Ambiguity (1948). In the conclusion to the work, de Beauvoir is discussing whether or not an “existential” ethics could be considered “individualistic.” She says, “Yes, if one means by that that it accords to the individual alone an absolute value and recognizes in him alone the power of laying the foundations of his own existence.”(p. 156). In other words, an individualistic ethics need not simply be an ethics that accords the most importance to the individual, or lets the individual’s whims run free. An individualistic ethics can be any that have the individual as their basis.
While it may be important to have professional codes of ethics for all the reasons I’ve given in this post and last, isn’t it more important to make sure that we are getting new professionals ready through their professional education for the kinds of ethical decisions they will need to make in their future jobs? I know I argued last blog post for some more education in ethics for LIS students and others, but I want to seriously reiterate the point here. After a week of many discussion of ethics in classes, with colleagues, and on si.all.open (what serendipity!), I have come to the conclusion that the lip service we pay to ethical thought in some of our classes and in our lives is coming up short. I’ve seen future professionals with little to no ethical reasoning abilities, or the ability to only make ethical judgments using one sort of ethical framework (utilitarianism is popular). Yet, at the same time, there was apparently a great turnout for the MIX Forum on the topic “Is this app racist?” and there are significant email threads every time an ethical issues comes up on si.all.open. Clearly there is a hunger for the kind of ethical discussions that we are missing in some of our classes and jobs – it seems to me to be an ethical issue, how we are going to handle this. In jobs, it seems clear that is important to bring up questions of ethics in meetings, discussions, or on listservs (depending on the appropriateness of the question for the venue). In classes, it seems appropriate to ask a professor to include more ethical discussions in class, and, if this fails, attempt to bring up ethical issues whenever you can work them properly into the class discussion. Ethical issues pervade every sort of issue that can come in class or on the job, so it should not be too hard to make these moments as teachable as possible.