April 2017

Reflections on professional ethics

  • By David M Abbott Jr FAusIMM(CP), Member, AusIMM Ethics Committee and Chairman, AIPG Ethics Committee

It is vital to understand your obligations as a professional, both informally as personal moral codes and as part of formalised codes of ethics

Professional ethics has been an interest of mine throughout my career, beginning with my first job as a geologist with the US Securities and Exchange Commission where the investigation of mining and oil and gas frauds was one of my duties. The American Institute of Professional Geologists (AIPG) focuses on professional issues, including ethics, more than geoscience research, which is an area filled by many professional societies and their publications. The AIPG focus is on competence, integrity, and ethics. Since late 1995 I’ve been compiling the ‘Professional Ethics & Practices’ column for AIPG’s magazine, The Professional Geologist. Currently, 161 of these columns are in print. When each new column is published, I update a topical index to the columns and related papers that can be found at http://aipg.org/codeofethics. These columns address a variety of ethical issues and case histories along with closely related professional practice issues.

Ethics fundamentals

What is the difference between morals and ethics? Dictionary definitions tend to define ‘morals’ in terms of ethics and to define ‘ethics’ in terms of morals. These circular definitions are no help. I define morals as generally recognised but informal principles. Ethics refers to written statements of principles. Therefore, the AusIMM Code of Ethics is a formal statement that applies to members of the AusIMM. Because the AusIMM Code of Ethics is similar to the codes adopted by other mining professional societies, a general understanding of mining industry professional ethics emerges.

Most of us never took a formal course in ethics. We learned our ethical concepts from our families and the activities we participated in growing up and as adults. Unfortunately, too many ethics courses study Plato, Socrates, Mill, Kant, etc whose ethical systems seem constructed for the Vulcans of Star Trek fame. Fortunately, Bernard Gert has written a little book, Common Morality: Deciding What to Do (2004) that describes the common morals of human beings.

Gert identifies ten common moral rules that are recognised by all human societies we know about. Moral rules are precepts that everyone is expected to obey at all times with respect to all people. Gert’s ten moral rules are:

1. do not kill

2. do not cause pain or injury

3. do not disable

4. do not deprive of freedom

5. do not deprive of pleasure/the pursuit of happiness

6. do not deceive

7. keep your promises

8. do not cheat or violate rules of conduct

9. obey the law – includes theft

10. do your duty.

Some people object to the negative, ‘do not…,’ phrasing of the rules. But it is far simpler to state what not to do rather than list all the things people are permitted to do.

I’ve emphasised the ‘do not deceive’ rule because it is the most basic rule of mining and related professional ethics codes (Abbott, 2000 and 2004). Professionals are expected to tell the truth and avoid deception whether by lying, by omitting to state important facts, or by making misleading statements.

In addition, Gert notes that there are moral aspirations that we may or may not participate in; activities like working for the cure of some disease, helping the poor, supporting the local library, participating in one or more organisations, etc. In the professional context, professional groups that have a code of ethics or conduct typically encourage their members to engage in continuing professional development (CPD), eg statement eight in the AusIMM Code of Ethics. When CPD is encouraged, this is an example of a moral aspiration. However, when an organisation requires at least some class of its membership to complete a minimum amount of CPD, the requirement is a professional ethics rule.

Gert makes a very important point by noting that ethical analysis cannot provide unique answers to all ethical questions. This outcome results when moral principles conflict. For example, conflicts can occur between the concept of protecting the public’s health, safety, and welfare and the concept of encouraging personal freedom or an obligation of confidentiality. Statement one in the AusIMM Code of Ethics states, ‘The safety, health and welfare of the community shall be the prime responsibility of members of The AusIMM in the conduct of their professional activities.’ This statement can conflict with the obligation to maintain the confidentiality of an employer’s or client’s data, plans, etc. The ‘Interaction with clients and employers’ section of the General Guidance for Members part of the AusIMM Code of Ethics specifically addresses such conflicts, how to deal with them and what to do when the release of confidential information would protect the community from serious adverse consequences of an action or proposed action by a client or employer. However, there are many situations where such specific guidance on how to resolve a professional ethical conflict does not exist. In such cases, those on each side must recognise that those on both sides of the debate have a legitimate moral argument for the adopted position and agree to disagree.

Gert also describes the analytical steps to be taken to determine whether a morally valid reason exists for breaking a moral rule. For example, the moral rule ‘do not injure’ prohibits me from pulling out my jack knife and cutting someone open. However, surgeons are allowed to perform invasive abdominal and other forms of surgery because they have specialised training and experience, the operation is performed to prevent a greater injury or incapacity, and the fact that such surgery is publicly acknowledged. Gert’s analytical steps for identifying a morally justified violation of a moral rule are:

  • What moral rule(s) is involved?
  • Who is harmed?
  • What harm is avoided by the violation?
  • Can everyone with similar qualifications violate the rule in the same way?
  • Is some sort of emergency involved?
  • Was the violation intentional?
  • Was coercion involved?
  • Are you willing to publicly acknowledge and accept the consequences of the violation? (Integrity)

I urge everyone to read Gert’s Common Morality: Deciding What to Do to obtain a good grounding in general moral analysis, which is equally applicable to the analysis of professional ethical situations.

Professional ethics education

While professional organisations’ ethics committees are organised to determine whether violations of an organisation’s code of ethics have occurred, I believe they should have the equally important role of educating the organisation’s membership about professional ethical issues. The increasing number of professional organisations that are adopting CPD reporting systems that require a minimum amount of professional ethics activity reflects the mining industry’s increasing concern with professional ethics education. My ‘Professional Ethics & Practices’ column is among my contributions to mining industry professional ethics education, as is this paper. AusIMM’s CPD program does not currently require recording of professional ethics activities, although such activities can be reported in one’s CPD log and credit is given for them.

The most common ethical situations that arise in professional practice are conflicts of interest cases. Many of the case histories addressed in my ‘Professional Ethics & Practices’ columns deal with conflicts of interest. Disclosure of the conflicting situation is the first step in dealing with such cases. When the relevant parties are aware of the situation, they can then decide how to proceed.

Professional practice issues periodically overlap with professional ethics questions. For example, a number of the mineral resource and mineral reserve reporting codes want the authors of the report to affix their professional seals to the final copies of the report. In the days when reports were prepared and transmitted as paper copies, embossing copies of the report with the author(s’) professional seal was common. Today, reports are prepared and transmitted electronically. It is hard to emboss an electronic report, although I’ve found that photocopies of embossed seals can show the embossing. Electronic seals have been authorised by some organisations. But what prevents someone from inappropriately copying an electronic seal or signature? While some software programs provide mechanisms that prevent changing a file that is electronically signed (and I encourage their use), the ultimate protection comes from maintaining your own copy of each report. With this copy, it is usually easy to have the computer compare two copies and highlight any changes made. If your report is ever challenged for some reason, which can happen, you need a copy of the report as a record of what you did and how you wrote it up.

Enforcement of ethics codes

Those professional organisations having membership (or a class of members) recognised as competent or qualified persons, such as defined by internationally-recognised guidelines such as the JORC Code or Canadian National Instrument 43-101, must have an enforced code of ethics. Enforcing the AusIMM Code of Ethics is the responsibility of the Complaints Committee and the Ethics Committee which investigate and determine sanctions if it is determined that a violation of the AusIMM Code of Ethics has occurred. Execution of this disciplinary function is critical to uphold the value of a professional code of ethics.

Ethical misconduct by those generally recognised as mining industry professionals is not common but does occur. Abbott (2005), Abbott et al (2008) and Bonham et al (2016) review ethical enforcement proceedings that have been brought in Australia (AIG and AusIMM), Canada (Provincial Licensing boards), and the United States (primarily AIPG). The point of enforced codes of ethics is the protection of the public from professional malpractice, whether protecting the investing public from the misdeeds of a public company or the general public that would be affected by a pollution spill, dam failure, or similar event. The problem is that the enforcing organisations do not do an especially good job of letting the public know about their disciplinary actions, especially in informing a wide public audience (Abbott 2016 and Bonham et al, 2016). This is something the recognised professional organisations, those whose members are recognised as competent or qualified persons, should work towards. As Bonham et al (2016) point out, a global repository of disciplinary actions should be established and kept as up-to-date as possible. It should be accessible and searchable, by any interested party, at any time. It is suggested that the International Union of Geological Sciences’ Task Group on Global Geoscience Professionalism would be the appropriate agency to take on this task and serve as the repository’s permanent custodian.

Feature photo by Dean Hochman. Used under CC BY 2.0.


Abbott Jr D M, 2000. Honesty: the principal geoscience ethical principle (abs), Geological Society of America Abstracts with Programs, 32(7): A293.

Abbott Jr D M, 2004. Are scientific honesty and “best practices” in conflict? European Geologist, 18: 34-38; reprinted in The Professional Geologist, July-August 2005, 46-51.

Abbott Jr D M, 2005. A review of ethical enforcement proceedings against competent and qualified persons, The Professional Geologist, September/October 2005, 35-38; reprinted in The AusIMM Bulletin, January/February 2006, 32-35.

Abbott Jr D M, 2016. How do we inform the public about unethical practice (abs), Geological Society of America Abstracts with Programs, 48(7) [online]. Available from https://gsa.confex.com/gsa/ 2016AM/webprogram/Paper278060.html

Abbott Jr D M, Bonham O, Larkin D and Gustavson J B, 2008. Review of international disciplinary proceedings (abs), in Proceedings of the AIPG/AHS/3rd IPGC Symposium, Flagstaff, Arizona, 339.

Bonham O, Abbott D and Waltho A, 2016. An international review of disciplinary measures in professional geoscience—both procedures and actions (abs.), 35th International Geological Congress, Cape Town, South Africa.


Share This Article