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Ethics and morals

Anyone whose profession involves advising others needs to be concerned about ethics. In a more general sense, of course, all humans should be worried about this―but when you work as a coach, the matter becomes somewhat more immediate and sometimes stickier.

No brief article can hope to take on all the nuances of ethics for coaches or anyone else. This piece merely seeks to distinguish ethics from morals.

We often hear ethics mentioned in the same breath as morals―but they are not synonyms for each other. They are also not the same as values. Changingminds.org offers some definitions of the three that are both concise and particularly useful in a professional context:

Values are the rules by which we make decisions about right and wrong, should and shouldn’t, good and bad. They also tell us which regulations are more-or-less relevant, which is useful when we have to trade off meeting one value over another.

Morals have a more significant social element than values and tend to have extensive acceptance among large groups―entire societies, for example. Morals have far more to do with notions of “good” and “bad” than do values. We thus tend to judge others more strongly on morals than on values. A person can be described as immoral, yet there is no word to describe precisely people who do not follow our values.

Ethics tend to be codified into a formal system or set of rules that are explicitly adopted by a defined and specific group of people. Thus we have things like medical ethics. Ethics are therefore mainly internally established and utilized, while morals tend to be externally imposed on people. If you accuse someone of being unethical, it is equivalent to calling him or her unprofessional, and may well be taken as a significant insult and even perceived more personally than if you had called that person immoral (which of course he or she may also not like).

Changingminds.org reminds us to “beware of transgressing the other person’s morals, as this is particularly how they will judge you.” On the other hand, “talking about professional ethics puts you on a high moral platform and encourages the other person to either join you or look up to you.”

The St James Ethics Centre contextualises morals and ethics in this way: “If one imagines that the field of ethics is a conversation that has arisen to answer the question, ‘What ought one to do?’, Then moralities . . . are voices in that conversation. Each voice belongs to a tradition or theory that offers a framework within which the question might be contemplated and answered. So there is a Christian voice, a Jewish voice, an Islamic voice, a Buddhist voice, a Hindu voice, a Confucian voice and so on. Each voice has something distinctive to say―although they may all share certain things in common.”

If you are a professional coach, you should not merely consult your profession’s code of ethics at the beginning of your career and then leave it aside. You should look to it regularly―perhaps once a year―and ask yourself just how it intersects with the work you do. If you are lucky, you may go your entire career without encountering a professional situation in which you really have to think hard about the ethical implications of your actions; but this is never predictable, and you should prepare yourself to act ethically in stressful situations by spending some time thinking about ethics, as well as morals and values.