The Moral Imperative: Professional ethics and affective cultural work

Added on Friday, September 1st, 2017

stars In the first blog on her Instrumental Values study, the ICC’s Head of Research and AHRC Leadership Fellow Kerry Wilson discusses the concept of professional ethics, and how it is framing her research on museums working in health care settings.

In her essay prepared for the Centre for the Understanding of Sustainable Prosperity, Prof Melissa Lane of Princeton University argues for a transformation in the understanding of professional ethics, which represents a shift away from prioritising responsibilities to clients or employers, to a more expansive articulation of the role and moral responsibilities of the professions in initiating global change for the greater public good. Conventionally, there are three levels of ethical engagement with the ‘social whole’, ranging from an individual’s acts and practices within the existing constraints of their given role; ethical frameworks and codes of practice set by the profession itself; and then a ‘third order’ of public accountability. It is this third order that requires greater attention in the study and practice of professional ethics, to generate ‘the initiatives needed to achieve a sufficiently sustainable society’. As Lane argues, expertise does not equate to the ‘last word’ on a profession’s role in and responsibility to society. This should be continuously (re)negotiated with the public.

Lane’s essay has been an inspirational paper for me in developing the Instrumental Values project, which began in July this year with funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council. The project is a two-year study of ethical dimensions of collaborative practice between museum and library sectors and partner agencies working in two priority public policy areas, including public health and wellbeing and prison education reform. As a starting point, the research has been designed to explore the transitional efficacy of museum and library sectors’ ethical codes of practice when working in collaborative public policy contexts. The research will furthermore examine the extent to which shared values and ethical practices are serendipitously developed between collaborating professionals and organisations as cross-sector communities of practice mature.

The research complements and extends a range of earlier studies on the increasing multi-disciplinary and collaborative contexts in which cultural work is undertaken, which have focused on the instrumental outcomes of such work for those taking part. These include for example the Crossing Boundaries study, which assesses the multiple impacts of the museums-led dementia awareness programme, House of Memories, led by National Museums Liverpool. Before any true assessment of ‘success’ can be made regarding the cross-purpose value of any cultural intervention, it is important to give equal attention to the practice-based characteristics and complexities of affective cultural work, and how these in turn affect any interpretations of success. Through the lens of professional ethics, we can begin to question and explore the underpinning conditions, as far as they exist, of moral responsibility and public accountability.

Ethical parameters of cultural work

Lane describes the field of professional ethics as a relatively modern invention that has developed in tandem with the professionalization of a range of occupations and roles throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, which do not have the historical gravitas of law or medicine. According to Durkheim, ‘special groups’ differentiate professional ethics from other codes of civic morals through the legitimacy, autonomy and regulation of collective power. Professional ethics are subsequently ‘more developed, and the more advanced in their operation, the greater the stability and the better the organization of the professional groups themselves’. Banks and Gallagher describe professional ethics in practice as ‘the norms of right action, good qualities of character and values relating to the nature of the good life that are aspired to, espoused and enacted by professional practitioners in the context of their work’.

As an example of the legitimation and regulation of professional ethics in cultural professions, the Museums Association published a revised Code of Ethics for Museums in 2015, following a substantial public consultation with members. The code was described as the sector’s “social contract” with the public by the (then) Museums Association President, Dr David Fleming. The code is structured around three core themes including Public engagement and public benefit; Stewardship of collections; and Individual and institutional integrity. Each theme includes a set of defined principles that should be upheld by ‘museums and those who work in and with them’ throughout their work. Under ‘Public engagement and public benefit’ for example, these include treating everyone equally, with honesty and respect, and supporting freedom of speech and debate. Guidance on upholding such principles includes ensuring editorial integrity, resisting attempts to influence interpretation or content by particular interest groups, including donors and funders and resisting bias in research undertaken by the museum.

As collaborative work between museum and health sectors progresses and develops, to what extent does the Code of Ethics for Museums represent the ‘social whole’ in which affective cultural work is developed and practised? As researchers in health and social care, Banks and Gallagher comment on trends towards integrated services and inter-professional working, and the potential for ‘ethical tensions’ between collaborating services with particular sets of values, codes of ethics, organisational cultures and systems.

Virtue, Values and the Moral Imperative   

What is less discernible therefore in ‘regulated’ codes of ethics are the intrinsically held values and principles that motivate cultural professionals working in different contexts and environments, and how these may change and develop through the processes and practices of collaboration. Banks and Gallagher suggest a ‘virtues-based approach’ to understanding ethics in integrated professional environments, including a focus on shared moral qualities and key virtues amongst practitioners.

Virtue ethics, as described by Oakley and Cocking in the context of the medical profession, have six essential features. Actions are only right if they would be undertaken by agents with a virtuous character in the same circumstances; goodness is prior to rightness; virtues are irreducibly plural intrinsic goods; virtues are objectively good; intrinsic goods are agent-relative; and acting rightly does not require that we maximise the good. Virtue ethics are subsequently used as a framework for describing a ‘good’ professional role. Studies of virtue-based ethics in social work emphasise relationships between public life, morality and individual character, creating a closer alignment between the three levels of ethical engagement described by Lane.

In considering museum work in health care settings as a cross-sector community of practice, the Instrumental Values study will explore alternative forms of Durkheim’s stable professional groups and their collective power in legitimising codes of ethics. An appraisal of the shared virtues, values and moral imperatives of these collaborative professional groups could generate new insights on the ‘third order’ of professional ethics, as demanded by Melissa Lane’s seminal essay, with affective cultural work providing a model of understanding for other sectors.           

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