Wherefore Art Thou, Professional Ethics?

Mathew Ingram had a nice piece over at GigaOm discussing some of this year’s winners of the Pulitzer Prize focused primarily on the fact that prizes are now going to writers who publish online. There is no real difference, he suggests, between bloggers and journalists. Given the success of many software developers at writing and selling software on their own, the same argument could easily be made about the distinction between hobbyist and professional programmer.

Which leaves us in a bit of a situation, professional ethics wise.

Traditionally, professions that involve the public trust have developed codes of ethics as ways to instruct members of the profession in good behavior and take punitive action against those who behave badly. If society is going to function, we need doctors, lawyers, accountants, and journalists. Moreover, people need to be able to presume competence and trustworthiness when entering into a relationship with them. Due diligence is necessary, of course. But society can’t function if our default position is this doctor, lawyer, accountant, or journalist is lying. Codes of ethics—and enforcement of them—are a key foundation of this trust.

So, what do we do when most of the members of an industry no longer are part of the profession or any professional society? The Society of Professional Journalists has a Code of Ethics. The Association of Computing Machinery has one for the association and one for software engineers. Medical and accounting professionals have big ones.

The concern here is not about individual actors. Some will always act well and others poorly. It is about the critical role that professions and codes of ethics have in the stable functioning of society.

With many programmers and journalists now working from outside the official profession, what will happen to codes of ethics? Will we see more violations of media ethics? If all programmers were part of the ACM, would we have fewer viruses? What mechanisms do we have, or might we put in place, to enable people to know when they are being lied to about things that they could not conceivably know another way?

More importantly, if there is no way to do this, how will society shift when we can no longer trust people we previously had implicit trust in?

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  1. So, Ethics Isn’t The Only Thing Lacking « Rewiring Virtue

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