Many of us rely on a system of ethics when deciding the right thing to do in particular circumstances. In general, we tend to assume that whatever notion of ethics we have will apply across the board. However, a more thorough understanding of ethics requires that we recognize the relevant subcategories of our ethical beliefs. Personal, professional, and social ethics all take a slightly different form, and it is helpful to know which set of principles applies before we attempt to make the right decision.
Personal ethics relate to individual conduct, and generally cover issues that are deemed the concern of individuals. Helping others, for example, is properly located in the category of personal ethics. Though as a society we appreciate and praise those who help others, this is not related to any particular employment field, nor do social institutions regulate it. Thus, it properly belongs in the realm of personal ethics.
Professional ethics are connected to a particular job category and the proper conduct associated with working in that field. A clear example of this type of ethics is the strict adherence to patient confidentiality rules that psychologists typically honor. The professional ethics of psychologists requires that they respect patient confidentiality, regardless of the personal views of particular psychologists.
Social ethics is a particularly interesting arena, as it often refers to aspects of either professional or personal ethics that have been taken on by society, due to failures in mandating appropriate conduct. Child abuse became a matter of social ethics when criminal courts began charging parents for inappropriate behaviors. Prior to that first case of child abuse (which was actually prosecuted under animal cruelty laws!), how one treated one’s children was a matter of personal ethics. Due to a significant failure to regulate parental actions appropriately, this issue moved into the realm of social regulation.
This is only a first glance at the important distinctions between personal, professional, and social ethics. Much more could be said about why these categories are distinct, and more importantly, why it is important that they remain so. “Everyday ethics” tends to be about personal ethics, but it doesn’t have to be. Many of us are members of a particular profession, and we are all members of society. Thus, in determining the appropriate choice in a given situation, we should be mindful of what ethical category an ethical issue falls under, so that we can refer to the appropriate principles when making our choices. Sometimes difficult personal decisions are made for us, because the issue in question properly belongs to a different ethical category.
About the Author
Elijah Weber is a graduate student at Bowling Green State University. He holds a Master's degree in philosophy from Colorado State University, and Bachelor’s degrees in sociology and philosophy from Chapman University. He currently lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan with his wife Laura, his son Brandon, and two cats.