Skip to main content

Any professor using a popular professional ethics textbook in their class is likely secularizing the moral thinking of their students. To help you understand why that is the case, I want to outline briefly the history and reemergence of professional ethics and then sketch the nature of most common professional ethics texts.

A Brief History of Professional Ethics

Professional ethics first originated with the creation of the professions and professional ethics codes between 1890 and 1920.1 It largely disappeared in the mid-twentieth century, however, due to the rise of logical positivism, modernism, and the social scientific emphasis upon facts versus values.2 Nonetheless, by the 1970s, modern scientists eventually realized they needed professional ethicists due to the difficult issues they faced from new technology such organ transplant decisions, in-vitro fertilization and more.3 Furthermore, various legal and business crises also produced a demand for greater attention to ethics.4 Consequently, professional ethics made a major comeback.

The first modern medical professional ethics text was published in 1976.5 Soon, professional ethics courses began to blossom once again in law, business, and other professions. By 1979, the Hasting Center found that half the institutions they found with ethics courses had courses in applied ethics (e.g., “bioethics, business ethics, the morality of war or ethics and human experimentation”).6 They concluded, “There has been a resurgence of teaching ethics at the college level.”7

This new ethics boom almost always approached ethics from a philosophical vantage point that tended to focus upon a few broad principles or virtues. For instance, medical ethics students were encouraged to examine moral dilemmas in light of the supposedly commonly agreed upon and defined virtues of beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice that could be both understood and embraced apart from any metaphysical or theological narrative.8 Students were then encouraged to focus upon rationally resolving particular moral dilemmas in light of these broad principles.

If different moral traditions were addressed, they were usually the two popular philosophical approaches—utilitarianism and Kantian ethics. Religion was largely ignored. In fact, professional ethics in many ways took the place of religion in the curriculum. By 1990, Bruce Wilshire claimed in The Moral Collapse of the University that professionalism emerged “as a quasi-religion, our only way, apparently, of holding ourselves together after the disintegration of religious myths and pre-industrial traditions.”10

This siloed approach is understandable but also problematic, especially if there is no one having inter-identity moral conversations with students. Neither the rest of the human person nor the rest of moral reality is significantly accounted for within these professional ethics texts. One learns to think purely as a professional and not also as a citizen, friend, religious believer, family member, steward of the culture, caretaker of the environment, and more.

As a result, other identities and their associated ends, principles, or virtues—or perhaps, a meta-identity with its meta-ends, virtues, and principles—do not come into extensive play in these texts (what does it mean to be a good family member and a good professional?). The texts also fail to deal extensively with the conflicts between purposes, principles, or virtues associated with professional identities and any other identities or how a professional ethic might be limited. Moreover, students are not asked to deal with identity prioritization that involves ordering their professional identity alongside other identities.

In light of these limits, it is no surprise that the ends, principles, and/or virtues evaluated are considered internal goods of the professional practice (versus a wide range of human virtues such as those identified in Christian ethics or positive psychology). In other words, medical ethics still primarily addresses the virtues or principles of autonomy, non-maleficence, beneficence, utility, and justice while avoiding other virtues such as gentleness, kindness, mercy, forgiveness, etc.11 Sometimes the list expands. For example, counseling does add fidelity and veracity, but the list is still limited to professional principles/virtues.12

The same is true with other professions. A journalist’s focus is to: 1) Seek truth and report it; 2) Minimize harm; 3) Act independently; and 4) Be accountable and transparent.13 Accountants discuss the nature of true disclosure.14 Criminal justice, obviously, deals with justice.15And the list goes on.

At some point, most professional ethics texts provide students a diagram or table that illustrates the process of making an ethical decision in their profession.16 Yet, such frameworks limit identity considerations to those related to the profession. For instance, a journalist asks, “What is my journalistic purpose?” Within the ethical decision-making process presented by most texts, this question can be adequately answered without any consideration of one’s larger human purpose—or other meta-purposes—associated with higher priority identities.17

Larger ethical theories could be employed to undertake this kind of non-siloed evaluation, but this does not happen for two reasons. First, students are only exposed to philosophical and not theological approaches to ethics (e.g. Kantinism, feminist, utilitarianism, Aristotelian virtue ethics, etc. versus Christian, Jewish, Muslim ethics). Consequently, almost every professional ethics text begins by describing around three philosophical approaches to ethics, each prioritizing a different element (e.g., utilitarianism, virtue ethics, and deontological approaches to ethics).18 A few, perhaps, give one or two pages to the role of “ethical decision making and religion.”19 The vast majority do not.

In this regard, professional ethics secularizes ethical thinking in a way that Warren Nord describes as typical within education: “We systematically and uncritically teach students to make sense of the world in exclusively secular categories. Consequently, the great majority of students earn…their undergraduate degrees without ever contending with a live religious idea.”20 If students are only exposed to secular philosophical ways of thinking they are being indoctrinated.

In fact, Nord concludes, “Students are indoctrinated when they are systematically and uncritically taught to accept one basic framework for interpreting reality over other major live alternatives”21 Professional ethics, in most current forms, serves as a kind of secular indoctrination into a secular way of thinking about the professions by ignoring religious approaches to professional ethics that are still viable options. Christians should check out specifically Christian professional ethics texts.22 If none exists in your discipline, it may be time to write one.

Portions of this blog post are taken from a forthcoming book: Perry L. Glanzer, Identity Excellence: A Theory of Moral Expertise for Higher Education (Rowman & Littlefield).

Footnotes

  1. Douglas Sloan, “The Teaching of Ethics in the American Undergraduate Curriculum, 1876-1976,” in Ethics Teaching in Higher Education, eds. Daniel Callahan and Sissela Bok (New York: Plenum Press, 1980); Julie Reuben, The Making of the Modern University: Intellectual Transformation and the Marginalization of Morality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996).
  2. See Chapter 6 in Perry L. Glanzer, The Dismantling of Moral Education: How Higher Education Reduced the Human Identity (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2022–forthcoming).
  3. Derek Bok, Beyond the Ivory Tower: Social Responsibilities of the Modern University (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982).
  4. Bok, Beyond the Ivory Tower. Michael Davis, Profession, Code and Ethics (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2002).
  5. Davis, Profession, Code and Ethics
  6. Daniel Callahan and Sissela Bok, eds., Ethics Teaching in Higher Education, ed. Daniel Callahan and Sissela Bok (New York: The Hastings Center, 1980), 13.
  7. Callahan and Sissela Bok, eds., Ethics Teaching in Higher Education, 159.
  8. Bruce Wilshire, The Moral Collapse of the University: Professionalism, Purity and Alienation (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990), 277.
  9. Yet, unlike most religions, the ethical guidance upon which professional ethics was disconnected from any broader humanity identity or story.

    The Nature and Limits of Contemporary Professional Ethics

    Today, this same professional moral tradition continues to dominate higher education. Virtually every college major associated with a professional society has a professional code of ethics and texts addressing professional ethics. Perusing these texts and codes reveals that they are still primarily focused upon identity excellence within the profession (e.g., “Developing a professional identity as a counselor”).9 For evidence for this section, I drew upon the following popular professional ethics texts in these different fields. Accounting: Ronald F. Duska and Brenda Shay Duska, Accounting Ethics (Malden, MA; Blackwell Publishing, 2003); Bioethics: Lewis Vaughn, Bioethics: Principles, Issues, and Cases, 4th ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020); James F. Childress and Tom L. Beauchamp, Principles of biomedical ethics, 7th ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013); Business: O.C. Ferrell, John Fraedrich, and Linda Ferrell, Business Ethics: Ethical Decision Making and Cases, 12th ed. (Boston: Cengage, 2019); William H. Shaw, Business Ethics, 9th ed. (Boston: Cengage, 2017); Linda Klebe Treviño and Katherine A. Nelson Managing Business Ethics: Straight Talk about How to Do It Right, 6th ed. (San Francisco: Wiley, 2014); Counseling: Theodore P. Remley, Jr. and Barbara Herlihy, Ethical, Legal, and Professional Issues in Counseling 6th, ed. (Boston: Pearson, 2020); Criminal Justice: Jay S. Albanese, Professional Ethics in Criminal Justice: Being Ethical when No One Is Looking, 4th ed. (Boston: Pearson, 2016); Engineering: Charles E. Harris, Jr., Michael S. Pritchard, Ray W. James, Elaine E. Englehardt and Michael J. Rabins, Engineering Ethics: Concepts and Cases (Boston: Cengage, 2019); Martin Peterson, Ethics for Engineers (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020); General Professional Ethics: Alex H. Goldman, The Moral Foundations of Professional Ethics (Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Littlefield, 1980); Clancy Martin, Wayne Vaught, and Robert C. Solomon, Ethics across the Professions: A Reader for Professional Ethics (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010); Helping Professions: Gearld Corey, Cindy Corey, Marianne Schneider Corey, and Patrick Callanan, Issues and Ethics in the Helping Professions, 9th ed. (Boston: Cengage, 2015); Information Technology: George W. Reynolds, Ethics in Information Technology, 6th ed. (Boston: Cengage, 2019);Journalism: Gene Foreman, The Ethical Journalist: Making Responsible Decisions in the Digital Age, 2nd ed. (Malden, MA: Wiley Blackwell, 2016); Media Ethics: Lee Anne Peck and Guy S. Reel, Media Ethics at Work: True Stories from Young Professionals, 2nd ed. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2017); Social Work: Allan Edward Barsky, Ethics and Values in Social Work: An Integrated Approach for a Comprehensive Curriculum (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019).

  10. See Beauchamp and Childress, Principles of Biomedical Ethics; Vaughn, Bioethics.
  11. Remley and Herlihy, Ethical, Legal, and Professional Issues in Counseling
  12. Foreman, The Ethical Journalist, 89.
  13. Duska and Duska, Accounting Ethics.
  14. Albanese, Professional Ethics in Criminal Justice.
  15. Duska and Duska, Accounting Ethics, 35-41; Ferrell, Fraedrich, and Ferrell, Business Ethics, 116; Foreman, The Ethical Journalist, 118; Reynolds, Ethics in Information Technology, 24-27.
  16. Foreman, The Ethical Journalist, 118.
  17. Albanese, Professional Ethics in Criminal Justice; Peterson, Ethics for Engineers; for a refreshing change to this pattern see Treviño and Nelson Managing Business Ethics.
  18. See for example Peck and Reel, Media Ethics at Work, 20; Vaughn, Bioethics,
  19. Warren A. Nord, Does God Make a Difference? Taking Religion Seriously in Our Schools and Universities (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 5.
  20. Nord, Does God Make a Difference?, 92.
  21. See as examples: Michael E. Cafferky, Business Ethics in Biblical Perspective: A Comprehensive Introduction (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2015); C. Ben Mitchell and D. Joy Riley. Christian Bioethics: A Guide for Pastors, Health Care Professionals, and Families (Nashville, Tennessee: B & H Academic, 2014); Randolph K. Sanders Christian Counseling Ethics: A Handbook for Psychologists, Therapists and Pastors, 2nd ed. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2013); Terry A. Wolfer and Cheryl Brandsen. Virtues and Character in Social Work Practice (Botsford, CT: North American Association of Christians in Social Work, 2015); Kenman L. Wong & Scott B. Rae, Business for the Common Good: A Christian Vision for the Marketplace (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2011).

Perry L. Glanzer

Baylor University
Perry L. Glanzer, Ph.D., is Professor of Educational Foundations and a Resident Scholar with Baylor Institute for Studies of Religion.