Monday, July 18, 2011

How the American Anthropological Association got Ethics wrong

For more than 40 years (1970 - 2010), the American Anthropological Association has struggled with the question of professional ethics. In the early 1990s, the Executive Board of the AAA established a Commission to look into the question of professional ethics. "The AAA Executive Board charged the Commission to Review theAAA Statements on Ethics to examine the purposes, content and procedures of the Association Statements on Ethics." 

 To its credit the Commission outlined the problems that it found while the trying to address the problem. The Commission, in its report, lays out a set of "General Principles Applying to Codes of Ethics." These principles were, and are, however, critically flawed. And because they are, the Commission perpetuated the major flaw in the profession's thinking about ethics and especially professional ethics.

 To date anthropologists have failed to distinguish between what are “professional” ethics and what is "religious orthodoxy" or "disciplinary dogma." By “professional ethics” I mean, "What are the moral rules that apply to the unique role of being a professional anthropologist; that is, one who earns their living practicing the discipline of anthropology." By “religious orthodoxy,” I mean those claims to some divine, universal revelation of  what any anthropologically  trained individual is expected to do in all aspects of their personal and public life.

 Anthropologists have failed to apply their own disciplinary rules and principles to study this very cultural of phenomena; nor have they applied the results of such study to the problem's solution. It is by examining these General Principles and evaluating them in terms of anthropological and sociological principles that we can find the fatal flaw in the profession's reasoning as expressed by the Commission report.

In the analysis below the Commission's key principles are numbered and are presented in italics along with my comments in non-italic form on each major principle.

.III. General Principles Applying to Codes of Ethics
In reviewing the purpose and content of a Code of Ethics, the Commission profited from discussions with Bernard Gert, Professor for the Study of Ethics and Human Values, Dartmouth College. Professor Gert provided some general guidelines for developing a disciplinary and professional code of ethics. By way of background, the Commission lists some of those guidelines, some of which were drawn from "Morality, Moral Theory, and Applied and Professional Ethics," (Gert, Professional Ethics, Vol. 1, Nos. 1 & 2, 1992.) 

             1. The  primary  purpose(s) of a professional code of ethics is to help educate and socialize new entrants to the field as well as current members of the discipline; therefore, a code must be of some practical use.
 The primary purpose is not to educate new entrants, rather it is set the moral and ethical context/constraints that govern professional behavior of those who claim or are certified as professionals in the discipline. A code of ethics is a social contract and therefore is a statement of the collective beliefs of the membership and the standard by which members evaluate one another’s behavior and enforce a collective standard. Certainly neophyte require training and indoctrination -- but only if it is to be meaningful upon completion of  their initiation.

The primary purpose of a professional Code of Ethics is to present to the society, of which the profession is but a part, a clear statement of the purpose and mission of the profession as it applies to its relation to the community at large. 

        2.  A professional code deals with how a person ought to act, and with behaviors required by one's societal role/job. A code of ethics does not define a person's job or professional title (that is, a code of ethics does not define terms such as "scientist," "humanist," or "anthropologist ").
 This is a contradictory statement to say the least, and very poor social anthropology at its worst. If the code deals with “how a person ought to act” then it is describing an ideal “role.” That means, it is MUST, by definition, define a person’s professional role -- regardless of the job or professional status. “Ethics” is about behavior, not a structural position in a social network.
“Professional” is about status in the social network. It is a status, which comprises the membership of the practitioners trained in the body of skills and knowledge that make up the discipline. Thus, unless the Code does define what that  discipline is and who is included and who is excluded, it fails the test of being professional.

             3.  The development of a code of ethics assumes that the majority of persons affected by the code agree that there are shared ethical principles; that is,  "for the overwhelming majority of cases, any equally informed, impartial, rational person would come to the same conclusion " in determining a particular course of action 
 How does one determine what a majority is when there is no boundary established for inclusion and exclusion? Based on this definition, the population of the world is the universe. It would seem that the minority, anthropologists, do not constitute a majority to impose their standards on the world. Neither does it seem desirable that that be the case -- since the purpose of a professional code of ethics is to distinguish between what is “professionally” permissible behavior verses what is generally accepted  as permissible behavior. 

 For example, an ordinary citizen will violate the law and morality by using deadly force against another person (Thou shall not kill). He or she is acting immorally/unethically to do so. However, a police officer, as a professional law enforcer, is ethically bound to use such force in self defense AND THE DEFENSE OF THE PUBLIC.

The reason for distinguishing between general/universal ethics and professional ethics is specifically to identify specialized domains of activity (disciplines) which society deems worthy of or which require special identification, and exemption from the general ethical responsibility and accountability that applies to general population. If this were not the case there would be no need for a separate and exclusive professional code.

 4.  A code of ethics is a   "public moral system "  in that (1) all persons to whom it applies, those whose behavior is to be guided and judged by that system, understand it, i.e., know what behavior the system prohibits, requires and encourages; and (2) it is not irrational for any of them to accept being guided or judged by."
 I have no problem here because this assumption, or principle, addresses ethics in general. A personal, or even a public code of ethic, should be a public moral system which dictates how one behaves in public and toward others. However the phrase here is “all persons to whom it applies.“  A professional code does not apply to everyone -- it applies ONLY to those who are sanctioned by (1) the discipline, and (2) by the group that society sanctions to represent the discipline. 

 A public code of ethics is inclusive while a professional code of ethics is exclusive. As a citizen of the United States or the world, I am NOT bound by the AMA, nor the ABA, Codes of Ethics. However, I expect and demand that my doctor and my lawyer live up to their professional codes of ethics.

 5. "A public moral system " includes rules, which must be followed (unless a violation can be justified), and ideals, which encourage how people ought to behave.

 A “public moral system” consists of NORMS, not RULES as described here. NORMS are expectations of predictable behavior but not mandatory. RULES, as stated here, are LAWS which are mandatory and enforced by the society upon those over whom the society claims jurisdiction whether formally members of the society or not. “RULES” imply a formal process of enforcement, while NORMS only require an informal process. Breaking RULES carries consequences, breaking NORMS may carry shame or praise.

 As applied by the American Anthropological Association and the Society for Applied Anthropology, the “public moral system,” which their Codes of Ethics claim to represent, is an “IDEAL” set of principles lacking any formal system or process of enforcement.

       6.  Moral rules are not absolute, but justified violations must be impartial (that is, every person may violate the rule in the same situation) and must be public (that is, everyone knows that the specific violation is permitted). It also is understood that there will be disagreement on what constitutes the "same situation."
 Moral rules are “culturally” absolute. Moral norms are not.  The allege violation is subject to question on two grounds. Was it a violation of a RULE or a NORM; and Did the circumstances of the alleged violation fall under the jurisdiction of the RULE?

 If the alleged violation was the violation of a norm, then it is a relative violation in the sense that there may be a general agreement that something inappropriate happened but under the circumstances “we”, the public, can accept and forgive that it happened. 

 Rules are by definition RULES which are absolute. The question of whether there is a violation is not whether the violation is justifiable, it is whether the RULE applies under the alleged circumstances under which the alleged violation took place. 
 These are two different tests of the application of the ethical code, public or professional. 

 General conclusion:  The rationale adopted by the Commission on Ethics reflects a decision made by a committee based on politics rather than a logical, "scientific" or "scholarly", assessment of the concept of ethics and its application to the discipline or profession. While the Commission raises a number of valid issues, the poor quality of their standards of reference lead it to produce a confused and loosely defined set of ethical and professional concepts. The final product fails to distinguish the differences between professional and public behavior. 

 As a result the Codes developed under these guidelines are over reaches their jurisdictional claims and otherwise hide the core ethical  issues facing the profession. It is not that the Commission ignored, or even avoided, the conflict that such poorly defined principles reveal. It is that they did not see that the principles applied were flawed. As result, where there were differences in interpretation, the decision seems to have been made to achieve consensus, rather than validity or clarity.
 Unfortunately, their recommendations appear to have been accepted by the AAA as guidelines for how and why the AAA is to construct its ethics code.  As they state it, "..., the Commission's recommendation that the AAA focus on an ethics education program and no longer seek to adjudicate claims of unethical behavior has been adopted by the AAA Executive Board."

Today, if this is the case, we wonder why the AAA continues to concern itself with developing a theoretical code of ethics that, while idealistic, is not applicable to the profession or professionals? And further, how helpful can this be to train students, especially the majority of who will be going to work in the real world, to respond to the ethical challenges they will face in that world?

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