Introduction to Professional Ethics

Study material for the master students

Requirements of ethical thinking

Ethical thinking in professional context has certain requirements. It should be universal, normative, interpersonal, rational, and sensitive to circumstances. All of these requirements are discussed in more detail below.


Normativity means that ethical reasoning should always lead to a claim how a professional should act in a certain situation. In a broader scope, we may enquire how the rules or conventions in a workplace should be designed to support ethical conduct. Therefore, active ethical thinking is always progressive: it seeks to improve current conditions and prevent problems by developing better policies and by applying pre-emptive measures.

An important dimension of normative ethics is justifying policies or actions. As a rule of thumb, ethical justification is usually based on prevention of harm or protection of rights of a person. For example, a change in the code of conduct of a hospital should always be justified by either of these principles. If the change is targeted at some other good, such as smoothing cooperation or rationalising resources, it should neither conflict with nor impair the realisation of these principles.


The object of ethical assessment is interpersonal activity: How are one’s actions affecting other persons? Actions that affect only the actor herself are not ethically relevant. Instead we can ask if for example self-harming is prudential (which means rational and considered). Non-prudential acts are not unethical: it is not ethically wrong to be unwise, stupid or reckless. Thus self-harming or other non-prudential acts cannot be used as justification for intervention unless there are other pressing ethical duties present (like the duties of a parent or a care-giver). The problem of justifying intervention in a case of self-harming is called the problem of justifying paternalism.


Ethical claims should always be logically consistent, compatible with the facts concerning the situation and well grounded in evidence. Common beliefs or gut-feelings are not enough to validate an ethical claim although emotions always should be taken serious, because they can serve as a guideĀ  to find underlying moral values and standards. Ideally, ethical thinking is critical and constantly assesses common beliefs and justifications for actions.

Universality and circumstances

Ethical rules and principles should be as universal as possible. There are no different ethics for different nations, religions or genders. Thus, ethical claims should be designed without any necessary dependence to disputable religious or ideological beliefs because not everyone shares them.

The relation between universal rules and applying them according to the circumstances is a complicated question. Basically, sensitivity to circumstances means that we should not be too harsh with condemning unethical conduct in a situation where the agent is for example a minor, mentally disabled or under pressing conditions (i.e. self-defence or a doctor making decisions in a lose-lose situation). Similarly, a person consenting to a boxing match cannot blame her opponent for unethical conduct when being hit – even if generally we may consider hitting a person an unethical thing to do. It is always necessary to take into account the context in which ethical decisions have to be made, that is, the reason why it is important to reflect on moral questions in everyday practice.