The Relevance of Applied and Professional Ethics in Education

ethics headEthics is a reflection on reality and on moral dilemmas in different social contexts, and is therefore concerned with crucial aspects of our lives and professional work in the many decisions that need to be analysed and adopted.

Collste (2012) discusses the historical perspective to ethics and the key contributors to our understanding of ethics today.  Traditionally, ethics was the domain of the authority or moral heteronomy; in many cases across the world, this was the church. As society became more secular, moral decisions became increasingly autonomous and so expertise in understanding ethics or applied ethics – the academic discipline of analysing moral problems in society – was required. New technologies also brought a need to address different and difficult moral challenges (Collste, 2012. P 26). Collste further outlines various methods and theories relating to ethics, and explains how the academic understanding of applied ethics leads to practice based professional ethics. Ethics embraces all elements of our lives and, as such, is interdisciplinary in nature.

Collste’s (2012) article focused considerably on the domains of applied ethics. Understanding this is key to then developing or engaging in professional ethics. Correspondingly, three seminal articles have led to our current understanding of applied ethics. Firstly, Rawls’ (1971) A Theory of Justice, which put forward a Kantian philosophy and highlighted justice as a key element in ethics and proposed a ‘reflective equilibrium’ method. Secondly, Singer’s (1977) Practical Ethics discussed topical moral issues from a utilitarian point of view, demonstrating the strong social impact of applied ethics. Finally, Beauchamp and Childress’ (1977) Principles of Biomedical Ethics constructed ethical principles for people of diverse traditions and philosophies, with Beauchamp a utilitarian philosopher and Childress a Kantian philosopher.

Collste (2012) states that “applied ethics needs theory and method” (p. 31). Among a range of ethical theories outlined, Collste focuses primarily on the theories of the reflective equilibrium and utilitarian theories. The former is widely applicable and is centered on aligning the ‘right’ action with the appropriate values, while the latter is concerned with identifying which actions will result in the minimisation of harm and maximisation of positive outcomes in the world. Two key conclusions that became apparent through this discussion are firstly that a multiplicity of methods is advisable, and secondly that the decision maker’s experience influences their decisions.

Ethical inquiry allows one to investigate the theories and methods as well as information on the dilemma in order to come to well-grounded conclusions. Philosophical theories themselves are not sufficient and methods from other disciplines, factual information, conceptual clarity and assessment of relevant arguments are necessary for a justified position to be reached (Collste, 2012 p.22).

Using ethical understanding to develop professional codes is the field of professional ethics. This involves moral decisions based on the practice of a profession and aims to develop professional moral character. The non-professional worker rarely confronts ethical decision making as they lack autonomy in their work. However, more and more careers are becoming professional and the resulting focus on rigorous education of workers increases their self-determination, and, correspondingly, their autonomy and decision-making capacity. Accordingly, most professions have a code of conduct with the aim to improve professional ethical standards. Their goals are in striving for excellence, an ideal that Collste (2012, p. 30) refers to as ‘virtue ethics.’ These are our reference to act in a morally correct manner and they guide us when we are facing moral decisions.

The moral duties common to most professions include dependent relationships such as teachers with their students, collegial relationships and employer relationships. Each of these carry moral norms. As a teacher, I have an obligation to show and facilitate honesty, care and safety. With my colleagues I show respect, loyalty and solidarity; and with my employer, I show loyalty and confidentiality. However, these are not always in harmony and an awareness of ethical process or problem solving can assist when there is a conflict between these loyalties or between them and common morality. Finally, in 21st century learning, we as educators are involved in designing-in-ethics (Collste, 2012, p. 26) where we debate and action the design of our classrooms, including relevant technological structure in order to maximise best learning and social practice.

Beauchamp, T. L., & Childress, J. E. (1977). Principles of Biomedical Ethics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Collste, G. (2012). Applied and Professional Ethics. Kemanusiaan, 19(1), 17-33.
Rawls, J. (1971). A Theory of Justice. Oxford: Oxford University press.
Singer, P. (1979). Practical Ethics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


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