A dangerous series of if-then statements; the code of ethics for physicists and philosophers
Ethics are components of a system by which one may distinguish between two or more equally desirable and undesirable options.
At least, that’s how ethics are differentiated from morals, the latter being the system by which one distinguishes between good and bad. Unlike morals, ethics do not make any assertions about right and wrong, nor do they claim to know how to define right and wrong. Ethics assess with indifference the desirability of outcomes.
A code of ethics, or a series of adopted ethical assertions, is necessary for the professional to assimilate with others of the profession. It is a utilitarian social code by which one abides to foster a constructive professional environment for oneself and one’s colleagues. A code of ethics does not always result in success for the individual exercising the code, but it preserves the integrity of the profession and ensures the most even distribution of benefit and detriment.
Unlike morals, ethics do not make any assertions about right and wrong, nor do they claim to know how to define right and wrong. Ethics assess with indifference the desirability of outcomes.
What is particularly dangerous about a code of ethics is that it naturally assumes a conditional form; it’s a series of if-then statements. If I were to find myself in a position where I had to make an ethical call, then I would make specifically this decision. As a metaphor, take the property of fragility. What do we truly posit when we say a porcelain vase is fragile? It’s not a tangible, visible property like color or texture. We seldom interact with it physically, much less describe it on a physical level. We are saying that if one were to drop this vase, then it would break. The property of fragility, and by analogy ethics, is a dispositional property—dependent on one’s disposition.
Philosophically, the conditional is not ideal. Ethics are not tangible properties humans can annex; they’re not things with which we interact. A human cannot have ethics, much less superior or inferior ethics. In mathematical logic, an if-then statement can only be true if the if part of the statement is true. The only way one can assume an ethical stance on anything is to first find oneself in the exact position where one would have to make an ethical call. In essence, my code of ethics does not exist until I am faced with an ethical decision.
This all sounds very quantum, what with varieties of outcomes collapsing onto realities only when decisions are made. If a code of ethics cannot “exist,” so-to-speak, why bother making one? But that, perhaps, is not at all the conclusion at which you wanted me to arrive. So, to turn the argument on its head, I’ll make a conditional out of this essay: if I were to develop a code of ethics, then this is what it would be:
The only way one can assume an ethical stance on anything is to first find oneself in the exact position where one would have to make an ethical call.
Physics as a profession demands a dedication to truth and the transparent dissemination of that truth. Thus, my personal code of ethics is structured around these two concepts.
Transparency: As a physicist, I could take advantage of my expertise and the general populace’s lack of knowledge in physics to fabricate data or theories and by consequence advance my professional status without harming others (at least, until I get caught). Doing so would betray the principle objective of physics: the pursuit of truth. For this reason, it is best to remain transparent in all undertakings and to approach the universe with an indifference that will lead to unbiased discovery. The past six years of my life have established an unwavering obsession with adequate means of communication, not only of truth but of truthful intent. In this way, I prioritize transparency over all traits. To avoid question of my honesty, I must expose without hesitation the inclinations of my mind, good or bad.
I prioritize transparency over all traits.
Work-Ethic: A dedication to truth bears a hefty workload; there is so much left to discover. But discovery has no deadlines. The only physicist holding you accountable to this discovery is you. So, when confronted with the equally desirable and undesirable decision to sleep an extra two hours or debug that program that solves the equations that govern the universe, the path is clear. In my mind, the significance of work-ethic is accentuated, for in my 22 years of experience never once has it harvested failure.
Knowledge: the pursuit of truth, the definition of truth and by consequence the discovery and definition of untruths. The acquisition of knowledge is an ethical quandary; it is desirable to have the knowledge, but it takes work to obtain it. Sometimes, certain pieces of knowledge will lead to other ethical quandaries. A physicist who discovers a flaw in the Standard Model will have to determine the ethicality of releasing this information given it could destroy her credibility. An arsenal of knowledge provides access to other useful social tools, as well, such as empathy or leadership.