Science in Christian Perspective

Letter to the Editor


On Pearson's Lament: Codes, Morals, and Ethics


David F. Siemens, Jr., ASA Fellow

2703 E. Kenwood St., Mesa, AZ

From: PSCF 50 (September 1998): 234.

I recall a colleague's plaint, "They've scheduled a lawyer to teach Real Estate Ethics. Only a philosopher can teach ethics." Pearson, Assistant Professor of History and Philosophy, reacts similarly when he observes that the codes of ethics are incomplete (PSCF [June 1998]: 85 f.). Both philosophers want the codes to represent, as a minimum, morality, if not ethics. But that is not their intent.

Teaching ethics, I probed the basis for moral behavior. Could it be Kant's Categorical Imperative or Mill's hedonistic utilitarianism? I asked about the behavior justified differently by the various systems. As a Christian, I can also ask how comprehensive a system is found in Scripture.

In contrast, the primary questions of a professional code of ethics are: What must I refrain from doing in order to keep my license, to avoid censure, or to retain my right to apply for a grant? What must I do to maintain good standing? While the general hope is that all codes will reflect moral principles, this is not fundamental. For example, truth and justice are basic to morality. But a lawyer whose client has confessed to him cannot tell the court, "My client pleads `not guilty,' but he's confessed his guilt to me and should be punished for the crime." Instead, he has to do everything within the rules (more or less) to secure an acquittal. If he is successful, neither truth nor justice is upheld. But he would be disbarred for telling the whole truth.

Codes have more recently acquired another function. I recall a situation in which the message was: "We can't discipline him for that. It's not in the Student Code." Tacit assumptions were no longer an adequate defense against a lawsuit. The omission had to be corrected in the next code.

Codes have marked limitations. First, they provide lower limits, whereas morality deals with ideals. Second, their application involves a restricted group. The "ethics" of placebos in drug trials has no parallel among realtors. Third, however expanded, they are incomplete, for clever rascals keep finding ways to circumvent them.

How comprehensive should a code be? I don't know, beyond the need to meet perceived problems. Perhaps only in breakthrough areas with unknown perils should codes be more stringent, with relaxation possible as empirical data allows reevaluation. This last has moral underpinnings. But other provisions in codes and related documents may spring from such immoral sources as deliberate obfuscation, pride or greed. So evaluation is more important than expansion.