This chapter considers professional ethics in the second of the senses identified in Chapter 2, namely as the study of the moral norms of occupational groups. It explores the relationship between professional ethics and moral philosophy (as ethical theory). We will discuss the view that professional ethics can be regarded as ‘living a life of its own’, quite apart from moral philosophy, and should not be seen simply as comprising the application of ethical theories to professional life. Whilst this position makes some sense, it is also argued that the ethical theories and theoretical approaches of moral philosophy can offer useful insights for professional ethics. A brief overview of different theoretical approaches and how they might be of relevance to professional ethics is outlined, divided into two broad sections: impartial and detached approaches (covering ethical theories based on principles, rights, discourse and cases), and partial and situated approaches (covering ethical theories based on virtue, care, community and the relationship with the ‘other’). Some discussion of whether the idea of an ‘ethical theory’ makes sense in the light of postmodern critiques is offered, with the suggestion that in the context of professional ethics it is hard to sustain a ‘postmodern’ viewpoint on ethics.
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