The Study of Ethics
The goals of studying ethics include providing awareness for professionals to differentiate between appearance and reality, fostering critical thinking to encourage open discussion, preventing future issues, nurturing personal responsibility (the ability for individuals to determine how their actions support broader goals and fit in the big picture), and providing familiarity with the professional system in regard to checks and balances and cultural norms. In striving for these goals, the manner in which one learns ethics should be considered. The concept of learning ethics should be general in nature, conducted in a safe environment that allows for honest discussion, incorporates the use of questioning, shapes individuals’ thoughts about proper conduct, helps avoid future issues, involves open communication, and allows for varied perspectives from which individuals may challenge their commonly held beliefs and/or approaches to situations. Giving care and attention to how ethical concepts are presented to people will allow a greater success rate for achieving the various goals of studying ethics.
Some important steps should be taken when studying ethics. The first step encourages awareness and receptiveness to moral and ethical issues. The second step supports the development of critical thinking and analytical skills. During the second step, one learns to better distinguish the concepts and to prevent bad solutions. A bad solution may cause more problems if the right questions are not asked from the beginning. An example of a bad solution might be, “Isabelle forgot to sign the evidence log. I know she was the last examiner to have the evidence, so I will sign her name since she probably forgot.” This example shows a bad solution that began with good intentions. The solution, although good for the present time, could create additional problems in the future. In this example, additional problems will occur when the original examiner is questioned regarding the evidence log in court. The critical thinking step provides the necessary skills for people to learn how to convey information to colleagues or supervisors to assure that the proper procedures are taken to correct mistakes. The third step in studying ethics occurs when people become more personally responsible. Using the first two steps and increasing the ability to respond to situations will help people achieve personal responsibility. Gaining a sense of personal responsibility will create a sense of empowerment for people and will lead to more productive searches for truth.
The final step is to recognize how professional cultures operate. In this case, forensic science as a profession seeks to use scientific evidence to provide information related to crimes. In striving to meet the goal of the profession, the trust given to forensic scientists may create the potential for corruption and abuse of power. As Doug Lucas (2007) states, “We are holders of a public trust because a portion of the vital affairs of other people has been placed into our hands by virtue of the role of our laboratories in the criminal justice system.” To assure ethical behavior, the professionals in the field must undergo a system of checks and balances. Cumulatively, the steps taken when studying ethics are applied in a certain context.
To understand ethics, it is important to have an awareness of the varying contexts in which ethics is studied (Resnik, 1998). The first, personal context, is the objective testing and questioning of personal values and ethics. It is a person’s individual sense of ethics and justice. There are five elements to personal ethics: (1) discretion, or the ability to make choices in situations that have no clear rules; (2) duty, or deciding between competing obligations; (3) honesty; (4) loyalty; and (5) respect for others (Braswell et al., 2008). People may also study ethics in a social context. The social context involves how people relate to others based on the given circumstances. In this context, understanding a person’s history and environment before judging his or her actions is essential. Criminal justice, or field specific, is a process-specific context used to study ethics as it relates to law and enforcement procedures, or in this case, forensic science. This field-specific context combines the aspects of social and personal perspectives. The criminal justice system must balance peace and order, liberty and security, and fulfillment and happiness to adequately merge social and personal contexts. If something is illegal, does it mean that it is ethical? The law is what people must do, whereas ethics are what people should do (Johannesen et al., 2008), and morals are the underlying values that guide actions and the process of determining ethics and laws. Some examples of laws that are unethical include slavery, prohibition, religious rules concerning customary dress, and minority citizens’ right to vote. Another example is protestors of the Vietnam War; though illegal, people felt that their actions were justified ethically. Forensic ethics is studied by understanding personal, social, and criminal justice contexts. Once contexts of ethics are better understood, approaches to ethical theories may be explored.