Role Ethics Network

Lead Research Organisation: Open University
Department Name: Faculty of Arts and Social Sci (FASS)


What is the ethical significance of our social roles? The Roles Ethics Network will address this multifaceted question through workshops, e-study groups and a conference. The result will be an informed, communicating and engaged international network of academics and non-academic professionals, with a legacy of outputs to match.

Social roles (GRANDMOTHER, POSTAL WORKER, FRIEND, etc.) define how we as individuals relate to larger groups such as families, organizations or whole societies. They give occupants a sense of self-worth, and codify our ethical relationships both to others in the group and to the group itself. Entrance and exit conditions tell us when someone may occupy the role; role-specific privileges come attached to role obligations; and, ostensibly at least, social roles have a valuable function within the larger group. Thus understood, social roles have an enormous and complex impact on our practical decision making. There is no general obligation to risk one's life in order to put out fires, for example, but a fire-fighter is under an obligation to do exactly this. And while in normal circumstances no one feels pressured to provide for random strangers, children have special claims on parents, and friends on friends. In short, roles - whether professional, informal or familial - place their occupants under obligations that are quite distinct from what is required, legally or morally, of persons in general.

This all points to a fertile domain of ethical enquiry, yet contemporary work on the ethics of roles as a topic in its own right is extremely sparse. It figures, perfunctorily, within isolated studies of specific high-profile instances, e.g. COMBATANT in war ethics; PARENT in family ethics; WOMAN in feminist theory. Missing is any systematic, integrated and comprehensive general ethical theory of roles, one that explains how roles can generate obligations, for example; that tells us when we may or may not abandon a role, to become a whistleblower, say, or to give up a friendship; and that helps us fill in the gaps when roles are imprecisely specified (e.g. SIBLING). Nor are these questions adequately answered in the social and psychological sciences, despite excellent empirical work on e.g. the impact role-occupancy can have on self-conception and behaviour. These descriptive studies do not supply an ethics of roles, since ethics is about what ought to be, not simply what is. Roles per se have begun to receive some attention within ethical and political theory. The current project will foster this nascent development, bringing unity and momentum to the process of recognizing and establishing role ethics as a distinct field of research.

The field has practical import for anyone in a social role (so, everyone), but the impact element of the project scrutinizes professional roles in particular. In a knowledge-exchange day, non-academic professionals and the project membership will compare, contrast, seek to understand, and where appropriate criticize, codes of ethics governing behaviour in these professions. Why, for example, should police officers need a code of ethics to tell them to be 'respectful' and 'fair' (as if the rest of us needn't be)? Why are estate agents prohibited from 'misrepresentation' when artful deception is so central to their mission? The day, and follow-on work, will lead to a critical understanding of the ethical status of such codes, particularly among professionals in a position to influence their formulation.

The network involves members from outside the UK primarily because of the specific expertise each has to offer, but also with an eye on attaining maximum reach for the network's deliberations and findings. The project will lead to an edited volume on role ethics that opens up this field to the wider academic community, defining key notions, outlining alternative stances, summarizing their relative strengths and weaknesses, and explaining what hangs on choice of stance.

Planned Impact

To maximize the project's beneficial impact we are targeting a representative spread of professional roles and the codes of conduct that govern them. Among the professional roles we have settled on are four in particular: police officer, MP, social worker, and journalist. Occupants of such roles interact with one another in potentially revealing ways and we have complementary academic expertise among the project membership. That said, we are leaving open the possibility of extending this list to include estate agent and academic so as to give greater diversity to the range of professions we engage with.

WHO will benefit:

The direct beneficiaries will be the individuals attending as guests on Protocol Scrutiny Day, a knowledge-exchange event. They will have expertise on, or responsibility for formulating and implementing, the actual ethical codes and protocols governing some particular professional role.

We envisage others benefiting indirectly, most obviously the many thousands of professionals whose working lives are governed by codes of ethics, and the end-users of these professions (the policed, the electorate, etc.).

Finally, and again indirectly, key outputs of the project will be disseminated to those working on codes of conduct for the many professions not personally represented within the project.

HOW they will benefit:

Those benefiting directly will do so through a Protocol Scrutiny Day in September 2016, plus preparatory and follow-on work for that day. The representatives themselves are in the best position to know how they stand to gain from this event, and once participation is confirmed will have input into specifying a set of goals. The day will be structured around achieving these goals. In broad terms, however, we aim to give each representative an opportunity to compare and contrast different codes of ethics, and to pool both their own and the project membership's expertise with a view to understanding the status of any given code of ethics - and in particular their own. Participants will reflect on what such codes are for, how they relate to the law, who should draw them up, how they relate to ethics in general, how specific they should be, what they should leave out, how and why they differ, and so on. The codes, with some provisional analysis and a set of questions, will be included in a preparatory Day Pack.

Role occupants (police officers, MPs, etc.) and end-users will benefit indirectly through the work our guest representatives do towards assuring and enhancing the quality of key codes of conduct - work that lies outside the project itself but that the project has clear potential to shape.

After Protocol Scrutiny Day, the PI and CoI (and other project members as appropriate) will maintain a working relation with our non-academic guests for the duration of the project, in order to ascertain and then provide whatever will be most useful to them in their respective work. This could be advice on framing and phrasing the content of particular codes, for example. A first proposal, however, will be for the project investigators to produce a document, provisionally titled 'How to optimize a code of ethics'. This document will draw on the day's discussions, on comments from non-academic representatives, and on the theoretical understanding built up over the course of the broader project. It will be written in a jargon-free style, placed on the project website, and submitted to a suitable open-access publication (in appropriately formatted versions), and promoted through professional associations. This will stand parallel to the academic publication as a lasting legacy of the project, with practical benefits for anyone looking for a broad ethical framework from within which to set down or review the rules and norms governing particular professions or practices, not only those represented by guests at the original Protocol Scrutiny Day.


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Description That role-occupancy is an important but underappreciated and ill-understood factor in ethical decision making. (The grant period for this network award was extended to the end of January 2018 and it is too early to give a full assessment of the findings in this reporting round. The findings were manifest in the discussions at three academic workshops over 6 days, a three day academic conference, and a mixed academic/professional single-day workshop. In the coming year we will gather these together into an edited collection on the ethics of roles, primarily for an academic audience, and an online tool specifically on codes of ethics targeted primarily at a professional audience.)
Exploitation Route Academics: recognition of the importance of role-occupancy in ethical decision making, and further development in our understanding of the ramifications of this importance in ethical theory. Professionals: engagement with the ethical theory behind codes of ethics or codes of conduct, and appreciation of the practical implications of these theoretical considerations.
Sectors Communities and Social Services/Policy,Education,Environment,Financial Services, and Management Consultancy,Healthcare,Leisure Activities, including Sports, Recreation and Tourism,Government, Democracy and Justice,Other

Description Code of Ethics Day 2018 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Codes of ethics - along with codes of conduct, codes of practice, statements of values, etc. - are a ubiquitous feature of professional life. The aims of this workshop were to achieve a better understanding of what useful functions these codes can have, and to find ways to help them fulfill these functions in practice. This project was targeted at key individuals responsible for creating, implementing or reviewing a specific code of ethics in their particular profession. The day was, above all else, collaborative, and brought together representatives from engineering, social work, translation, a religious organization, sport, etc., as well as interested academics from the Role Ethics Network and beyond, and included the close analysis and comparison of the relevant codes in the light of the experiences and insights of these various individuals. 17 people took part in Senate House in London. We anticipate further such days, with personal collaboration between the events. A planned output is the production of an online guide to producing or refreshing and implement a code.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018