Ethical Codes: Moving beyond autonomy

Ethical theories can be divided in a number of ways, but one easy way is to separate the rule-based theories from theories that are not rule based. If you happen to be writing a code of ethics for your organization, you are going to drift toward rule-based theories because, in fact, you are writing a set of rules. These rules are important to ensure and protect the professionalism of your organization or profession. Ethical codes, made up of rules, establish a system of accountability for your members. Ethical codes are useful and often essential for professional organizations and vocational fields.

The rules in professional codes tend, whether stated or not, to focus on autonomy as begging devildefined by Immanuel Kant. His advice is generally interpreted somewhat loosely to say that we should only do to others what they have chosen to have done to them and use them only in ways that help them achieve their own ends. We should not use others only as a way to achieve our personal goals.

Based on this thinking, we would only provide people with treatment after receiving their fully informed consent, we would use people in our research only if they wanted to participate, and we would always be honest with clients and work in their best interest. Some would be a little shocked by the full implications of Kant’s views. For example, to have sex without the intent to procreate is to use both yourself and your partner as a mere means to pleasure. Lying to a murderer in order to save a child’s life would lead to you being charged with a crime in the event of the child’s death.

When it comes to integrating ethics into your professional practice, however, you may find rule-based systems too limiting and seek a theory that feels more inclusive of your entire professional life. It may help to look at two other groups of ethical theories: 1. Theories that focus on what kind of person to be. 2. Theories that focus on how to relate to others. This isn’t a neat division as these two types of theories overlap in significant ways, but it can be a useful starting point.

Virtue Ethics

Friedrich Nietzsche rejected rule-based systems of morality, which he referred to as forms of “slave-morality,” for morality aimed at character, which he called “master-morality.” He said, “It is obvious that moral value distinctions everywhere are first attributed to people and only later to actions.” For Nietzsche, it is the powerful who will see moral behavior as a by-product of being a great person while the weak will seek moral rules to protect their interests from others. Nietzsche suggests we should all strive to become great people rather than subjecting ourselves to the rules and will of others.

In a similar vein, Aristotle saw morality as a process of becoming a good person rather than following a set of rules, though he did say that things like theft, adultery and murder are always wrong, allowing for the existence of some moral rules. In general, though, a person becomes good, not by following rules, but by developing a virtuous disposition. This approach does emphasize activities, as it is through our actions that we develop our character. By choosing the actions a good person would choose, we become a good person, and by being a good person we tend to choose actions that are also good.

Relational Ethics

If you work with people on a regular basis, you may find a theory based on relationships conducive to moving beyond rule-based systems and ethical codes.

In the past, I didn’t really think of existentialism as a good foundation for a relational ethics as many existentialists focus on subjective experience, but Simone de Beauvoir’s “Ethics of Ambiguity” changed my mind. Beauvoir specifically tackles the problem of making ethical choices in an ambiguous world. Contrary to Immanuel Kant, she says it is not possible to arrive at certain rules to guide our behavior, but this does not mean we can shirk our obligation to act with concern for others.

Beauvoir says we experience life through our own experience by exercising our own freedom, but we do not experience it in isolation. If we do experience it in isolation, she says, “The saving of time and the conquest of leisure have no meaning if we are not moved by the laugh of a child at play. If we do not love life on our own account and through others, it is futile to seek to justify it in any way.” Our authentic self is expressed through free acts, but “[The individual] exists only by transcending himself, and his freedom can be achieved only through the freedom of others. He justifies his existence by a movement which, like freedom, springs from his heart but which leads outside of him.” Though our actions can’t be pinned down by a set of rules, we find meaning in life by seeking, willing, and nurturing the freedom of others in the world. In a sense, our affirmation of freedom is an exclamation of love.

Love may not seem an appropriate emotion to mention in a discussion of ethical relations with clients, but we don’t have to think of it in romantic or sexual terms. Love may be a matter of valuing others. Philosopher Martha Nussbaum argues that love is an essential feature of a liberal democracy. Some might quibble over how she defines love, but certainly it is a concern for others that drives both the ethics and political struggles of some of us. For example, she notes that we all live in a state of dependency at one time or another (childhood, old age if we are lucky to live long enough, and periods of impairment). Some of us live in states of dependency for our entire lives. Protecting the dignity of all requires us to recognize the value in others, and love for others is sufficient motivation to remove the shame and stigma of dependency. Our concern for others motivates our most basic moral impulses.

In this sense, both Beauvoir’s and Nussbaum’s views can be seen as forms of an ethics of care. If you are familiar with care ethics, though, you probably heard of it through the work of feminists such as Carol Gilligan and Nel Noddings. Care ethics was introduced as an alternative to theories seen to value men’s experiences over women’s. Feminists pointed out that women’s experiences have largely centered on care. Some will say caring is natural to women and others will say women have been forced into caring roles.

Over time, care ethics has become somewhat less gendered, meaning both men and women may recognize the value of care in their ethical lives. Noddings says our moral obligations arise between the “one-caring” and the “cared-for.” The response of the “cared-for” drive our actions. The most debilitating kind of existence, she says, is to care for someone who is unable or unwilling to respond to care. Controversially, she says, “We are not obliged to act as one-caring if there is no possibility of completion in the other.” This means are have no obligations to “the needy in the far regions of the earth.” Philosopher James Rachels objects, saying, “A more sensible approach might be to say that the ethical life includes both caring personal relationships and a benevolent concern for people generally.”

Some philosophers see narrative ethics as a logical extension of an ethics of care. Narrative ethics emphasizes the role of stories in our moral lives. Most of us grew up hearing “didactic stories” about foxes and wolves and so forth that left us to learn “the moral of the story.” This is an important feature of narrative ethics but stories need not be didactic to aid our moral reasoning or impulses. We may also learn from both fiction and true personal narratives.

Fiction can help us broaden our imagination of what life is like for others. It helps us to understand feelings and motivations outside our own experience. It gives us a way of testing different points of view and outlooks. Similarly, listening to or reading the accounts people give of their own lives gives us greater insight into their emotional lives and helps us to develop an empathetic response. Our moral obligations and intuitions look quite different when we are better able to “read” the minds and motivations of others. Those who work intimately with clients on a regular basis are immersed in their stories. In this sense, ethics is integral to the practice. I personally think it is helpful to think of ethics as being embedded in our work rather than a separate function that requires attention outside of our “real job.”

Again, autonomy plays an essential role in developing ethical codes of behavior. If we fail to respect the autonomy of others, we violate them in ways that are always wrong and often illegal. Still, other ethical approaches can expand the role of ethics in our practice and help us pursue ethics that really is beyond mere compliance.

Calling out privilege and ignoring hidden identities

It is predictable. A woman or a gay person or a person of color tries to describe their own experience, and along comes a straight, white male to explain why their experience is all wrong and how the world really works. This egregious “mansplaining,” as it has come to be known is decried, and the perpetrator is publicly pilloried. Or something like that.

In one sense, I’m all for public shaming of people who are shameless. I like for people who are smug and self-satisfied to be provoked and put under the lens of public scrutiny. I agree that “mansplainers” need to learn to listen for change instead of lecturing constantly. HideHowever, I think a little caution is needed. No, I think we should all just stop and try to have respectful conversations. I think this for one simple reason: It is impossible to tell what a person’s experiences are without engaging them in conversation. Yes, being male gives a person some privileges. Yes, being white gives a person certain privileges. Yes, being heterosexual gives a person some privileges. The problem is that it is impossible to look at someone and even tell whether they are white, male, or heterosexual or whatever.

Yes, I suppose it is a privilege to be able to “pass” as someone with privilege, but many people find their own privilege limited or restricted by factors that may be invisible to you. Such as:

Race: You may also think of race as a biological fact, though there is no biological determinant for race, it is not always possible to tell someone’s race by looking as evidenced by an exchange between Jay Smooth and Nancy Giles of CBS Sunday Morning. Giles accused Jay Smooth of “talking black” to attract a black audience. Smooth let her know that he is “actually” black.

Atypical gender: You may have the idea that gender is a biological fact, and you may think you know what transgender men and women look like, but there is really no way to tell what someone’s biology is, much less what someone’s identity is. The person you are seeing may be a transgender man, a transgender woman, or a person who simply does not fit gender binaries. Some people say that people who grew us “as boys” were socialized to accept male privilege. If you believe that transgender girls, forced to live as boys, accept and benefit from male privilege, you should read accounts of what life is like for these children.

Sexual minorities: You may think your “gaydar” is excellent, but it isn’t really possible to identify sexual minorities by looking at them. Many victims of anti-gay attacks and bullying are not gay, and many people you assume to be straight may not be. Some married people are bisexual, and some people consider their sexuality to be fluid.

Religious minorities: We know that many Americans hate and fear anyone they suspect may be Muslim, regardless of what religion the person may actually practice, but all religious minorities are subject to scorn and harassment. More Americans say they would vote for a gay candidate than an atheist, and 40 percent of self-identified atheists and agnostics say they have experienced some from of prejudice or discrimination. As a result, many members of religious minorities live with secrets and not as their authentic selves. This doesn’t rob them of the privileges they have, but it does give them an understanding of oppression.

Sexual assault survivors: I once had a conversation with a therapist who said that women needed to speak up about their experiences of sexual abuse because we need to hear from the actual victims, not men. I was astonished that she actually believed that almost no sexual abuse victims are men. This was a few years ago, and I think there is more awareness of male survivors now (thanks to articles like this, but the prejudice against them remains. While talking to a man, it is not safe to assume he is not a survivor of sexual abuse or assault. It is further not safe to assume that his abuser, if he had one, was male. When you blithely declare that men have the privilege of not worrying about being raped, you may be speaking to a rape victim, and you should keep that in mind.

Victims of domestic abuse and violence: Male victims of domestic abuse and violence are put in an almost impossible position.  If they speak up, people will say they are big enough to defend themselves against a woman (despite the fact that not all men are stronger or bigger than their partners). If they do defend themselves, they are perceived as the attacker, and when violence occurs, it is usually men who are arrested. They may seek allies among female victims, but they are rarely welcomed or offered services that are available to women. Further, much domestic abuse is in the form of economic abuse, emotional abuse, and verbal abuse. Given that such abuse of men is comedic fodder in television and movies, it is next to impossible for men to gain support. One of the most difficult challenges for male victims is the denial of victimhood that results from perceived privilege that is not there.

Disease/Disability: To become ill or disabled is to lose a degree of autonomy. Loss of autonomy makes anyone susceptible to oppression. Disease and disability may be visible but may also be invisible. It is impossible to tell by looking who is suffering from either, and it is equally impossible to tell who is being oppressed as a result. When we are injured or ill, we are at greater risk for manipulation, emotional abuse, financial abuse, sexual abuse, and assault.

Poverty: Poverty is the great equalizer. I understand that poor men may have a different experience from poor women and that certain races experience poverty somewhat differently from other races, but poverty is oppression, and those who have experienced oppression have a shared vernacular and an expanded empathy.

I realize that certain kinds of privilege carry over into all aspects of life. For example, a white male victim of domestic abuse may have advantages over a non-white victim. I do not want to deny privilege in any setting or argue that it doesn’t exist. What I know, however, is that those who experience oppression have a common experience that can lead to better understanding. Rather than shutting someone down when he speaks, it may pay to assume that many men have experienced oppression and do, indeed, know something of its harmful effects. It also pays to remember that people you assume to be men may not be men (either by biology or identity) and that people you assume to be white may not consider themselves white.

One final note: Sometimes people say that people with hidden identities should disclose them upfront. People have a right to decide for themselves when, where, and how often they want to disclose personal information. You have no right to make assumptions about them or to demand disclosure. No one is required to speak as “a person with cancer” or “a transgender woman” or “victim of domestic abuse.” These facts about a person need not be that persons complete identity or defining feature. We are part of the same human community. Can we just acknowledge that?