Can ethics be learned? 

Last summer, when I was working at the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), we received a proposal to develop ethical guidelines for chemistry professionals in order to address issues related to the Chemical Weapons Convention (You can read more about it here).

As the role of the OPCW was to provide a platform for discussion, Jonathan Forman – the Science Policy Adviser of the Organisation- suggested we should conduct a thorough analysis of  existing codes, as the scientific and industrial community already have numerous codes of conduct and ethics.

Consequently, more than 160 existing codes in English were collected. The codes we collected belonged to different types of organisations (such as academia, science associations, industries, etc) from all around the world. You can search any country to see how many codes were collected from there in the map below.

Once all the codes were collected, I did a standard Natural Language Processing (NLP) analysis on the corpus to extract topics, possible relations between codes, and any other insights that were out of reach by just reading those documents – if even anyone had the patience to read couple of thousands of pages.  I presented the outcome in two preparatory workshops in The Hague Ethical Guidelines.

I used a commercial package developed by  Provalis  Research. I had to deal with some challenges with inflexibility that many commercial packages have. Luckily, this is not the case anymore since I started using R for text mining. During the winter break, I imported those documents and created a Shiny App to make world clouds.  Play around with ranges and variables. [Have to figure out how to embed a ShinyApp into my blog post]

An interesting and unexpected result was that regardless of by whom and where the code had been written, there is a strong co-relation among all codes that are intended for specific type of institutions.

clusters 2D (16)Codes clusters are more correlated to their type of institution rather than their country


In my opinion, a major gap that the Hague Guidelines has filled is that it moved from a set of specific prescriptions to more of a response to social context. Hence it is not completely “Prescriptivism”, but moving towards a “Normative” code.

However, following the publication of the Hague Guidelines, I had often wondered whether a written document can truly make someone any more or less ethical… Or even one step back: how is ethical behaviour to be defined, and can it be instilled  post-adolescence?

The debate concerning the instilling of ethical values has been going on since the time of Socrates. His position was clear: ethics consist of knowing what we ought to do, and such knowledge can be taught. Moreover, Harvard psychologist, Lawrence Kohlberg found that a person’s ability to deal with moral issues is not formed all at once. Just as there are stages of growth in physical development, the ability to think morally also develops in stages. However, having a set of principles presented in a code wouldn’t seem to be sufficient to properly instil ethics into an individual.

Edmund Pincoffs (1971) argues that ethics are primarily about applying principles and procedures to make decisions in response to problems.  Therefore, one should know the problem first in order to be able to apply the procedures. In our case, the problem was how to come up with a set of guidelines which can potentially prevent professionals using chemicals to harm people and the environment.

It is often taken for granted that ethics exist independently, and that ethical codes inform us about that objective world. It means that ethical values exist and remain the same regardless of what people think about them.  But how does this idea accommodate the fact that people follow different ethical codes?

A follow on question would be whether those documents function just as a means to deliver ethical truths that have an independent existence or, alternatively, are they platforms for us to create ethical truths? Whatever the answer, it is not clear how they can enable individuals to have ethical careers.

It is not easy to define what it means to have an ethical career. One can argue that a person has an ethical career when her response to peculiar circumstances throughout various stages of her career follows a series of ethical procedures. On the other hand, it can also be argued that an ethical career is constructed over time in response to social constrains as well as temporal and spatial context. In my opinion, codes of conduct and ethics traditionally prescribe limited instructions or recommendations for semi-defined circumstances.

The above two definitions are important to consider from a policy perspective as they each contain fundamentally distinct understandings of how an individual functions ethically, and whichever definition an organization aligns with will ultimately shape the ethical guidelines of the organization. The first definition narrowly focuses on an individual who makes isolated ethical decisions in particular circumstances. The latter leads to enabling an individual to recognize opportunities for moral action in conflicting social and professional contexts. That will remain a question to remember for any similar initiative like The Hague Ethical Guidelines.

Can ethics be learned? 

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