Guidance for Writing a Code of Ethics

by Chris MacDonald, Ph.D.

  These suggestions are in no particular order.
  1. What will be the purpose of your new code? Is it to regulate behaviour? To inspire?
  2. Different kinds of documents serve different purposes. Is your new document intended to guide people or to set out requirements? Is it really a Code of Ethics that you need? You might consider creating a Statement of Values, a Policy, a Mission Statement, a Code of Conduct...
  3. A code of ethics should be tailored to the needs and values of your organization.
  4. Many ethics codes have two components. First, an aspirational section, often in the preamble, that outlines what the organization aspires to, or the ideals it hopes to live up to. Second, an ethics code will typically list some rules or principles, which members of the organization will be expected to adhere to.
  5. Will your new ethics document include some sort of enforcement? If so, what kind?
  6. Often the principles or values listed in an ethics document will be listed in rough order of importance to the organization. The ordering need not be strict, but generally the value or principle listed first will have a natural prominence.
  7. Think carefully about the process by which you create your new code. Who will be involved? A small working group? Or all the people affected by the code? How will you distil the needs of your organization and the beliefs of your members into a document? The process may matter as much as the final product.
  8. How will your new code be implemented? How will it be publicized, both inside and outside of your organization? What steps, if any, will be taken to ensure that the values embodied in your code get implemented in organizational policies and practices?
  9. How / when will your code be reviewed / revised?


And remember that a code of ethics will not solve all ethical problems:

"But we must remember that good laws, if they are not obeyed, do not constitute good government. Hence there are two parts of good government; one is the actual obedience of citizens to the laws, the other part is the goodness of the laws which they obey..." (Aristotle, Politics 1294a3-6).


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