The history of professional ethics extends back to the 5th century BCE with the Hippocratic oath to be taken by physicians (below is a 12th century copy of the oath)
Moreover, oaths in the ancient world were just as prevalent as they are today in the military. Today, in an area often called ‘applied ethics,’ there is a considerable literature identifying different codes of conduct as they pertain to different professions. One worry the proliferation of such codes caused in the 1980s was that having multiple codes might lead to the view that ethics is not unified. Might there be certain things that are right for a lawyer to do, but wrong for a physician or firefighter? For example, imagine that you are a defense attorney whose client is accused of some dreadful crime. You know that if you urge your client to take the stand, he will do so, and it is likely that under cross-examination your client will break down and confess his wrong-doing. While you are not certain of your client’s guilt, you have some reason to believe that he did commit the crime and is in possession of evidence that, once exhibited, will prompt a unanimous jury to issue him the maximum punishment. Should you urge him to take the stand? This might be a case in which your moral duty (to expose wrong-doers) comes into conflict with your professional duty.
Here is Dr. Jack Churchill’s description of professional ethics:
‘The professions’ are groups within society whose members are taught by accredited institutions and become licensed to perform a highly skilled, very knowledgeable, technically competent service to others.
This service is so highly specialized and beyond the scope of the general populace to fully comprehend that its minute details would be impossible to understand without professional training.
Such knowledge and skill places its holders in a powerful position – services highly valued but provided only by those adequately trained and licensed as said professionals.
Society trusts these people and affords them certain privileges. In return, the professional makes a commitment to society that its members will adhere to high ethical standards of conduct. These are obligations arising from an implied contract between the profession and society, usually expressed in a written code of ethics and professional conduct. Members agree to abide by this code in exchange for membership in their association. They recognize that continued public trust in them is based on their commitment to these high ethical standards.
One of the privileges and obligations as a member of the professional class is self-governance. This is partially accomplished through this written code. Professionals are required to adhere to those character traits that foster adherence to these ethical principles – honesty, compassion, kindness, integrity, fairness, and charity. These define the true professional.
The true ethical professional is not only skilled, knowledgeable, and competent, but does what is right and good. Society deserves that of them.
We all of course, must do what is right and good, but when one is offered the privileges that are bestowed upon a profession the weight to do so is all the greater.
To read some of Dr. Churchill’s articles on professional ethics, featured in Northwest Dentistry, the journal of the Minnesota Dental Association, click the titles below: