How does one get to become an ethics professional?
February 21, 2014 11:45 AM   Subscribe

I'm wondering how people get into the field of ethics? Are they lawyers? Are they chosen (in much the same way that judges are) for their moral standards and good reputations?

I'm thinking of a job that Marilyn Garbanza (played by Melissa George) has on the TV show "The Good Wife." More specifically, her title seems to be Director of the Ethics Commission.

Does anyone know of an ethics degree out there?
posted by flyingfork to Law & Government (13 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Are you sure there really is anything like that IRL?

The only ethics commissions I have ever heard of are in hospitals, which have to consider things like euthanasia, and the people on them are doctors with no formal ethical training.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 11:50 AM on February 21, 2014

Are you sure there really is anything like that IRL?

Here's the MA Ethics Commission, for example.

Consistent with the profiles of the commissioners on that site, my experience is that they're lawyers or judges.

Are they chosen (in much the same way that judges are) for their moral standards and good reputations?

I'd say yes, they are chosen the same way that judges are, full stop. Cough.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 11:54 AM on February 21, 2014 [5 favorites]

There is a profession of bioethics. You advise hospitals, on committees with doctors, clergy, administrators, lawyers.
posted by thelonius at 11:54 AM on February 21, 2014

The ethics committee at my hospital is made up of physicians, RNs, a few management types, and a few chaplains. I don't believe they have any special training.
posted by vytae at 11:57 AM on February 21, 2014

Background on state ethics commissions is here.

"Almost all states provide external oversight of their ethics laws through an ethics commission established in statute or in the constitution. .... Nearly all committees are composed of legislators only..."

Here's a detailed description of the 42 state ethics commissions.

As these are legal organizations, I'd guess that staff are mostly lawyers.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 11:59 AM on February 21, 2014

other than that, there's being a philosophy professor in the academic study of moral philosophy, or, I guess, a business school prof who specializes in ethics
posted by thelonius at 12:01 PM on February 21, 2014

Hi! The answer is YES.

You can go to Union Graduate College, enroll in their MS in BioEthics program and become an ethicist.

Their program is excellent, run and taught by major ethicists in the field and will allow you to work in Research, Policy or Clinical Ethics.

Yay Union!
posted by Sophie1 at 12:13 PM on February 21, 2014

I know someone (a mefite actually) who received his phd in bioethics. To be fair, he's a "perpetual student" and I think he just didn't want to leave, so after getting a law degree, a masters in bio and a masters in neuroscience, his phd was sortof a natural extension of that.
posted by radioamy at 12:18 PM on February 21, 2014

Government ethics commissions are mostly lawyers and accountants, mostly with fairly substantial experience of state government and/or campaigning; they're chosen not so much for their moral rectitude (although that's necessary) as for their familiarity with state ethics compliance. Here's the real version of the Illinois Executive Ethics Commission that Marilyn Garbanza would be heading up; the "commissioners" are semi-ceremonial positions and you see that they're about half lawyers, half other areas. The director and assistant director, the actual full-time employes, are lawyers. The Ethics Officers mentioned several times are the individuals at each state entity responsible for ethics compliance; they are mostly all lawyers (my husband is one of them; he is a lawyer).

Working knowledge of state ethics rules typically comes from working in a state government role where you have some responsibility for ethical compliance -- perhaps in HR, or in a role where you're responsible for any kind of contracts, or as a FOIA officer. Management roles in state government go through a shakeup every time a new governor is elected -- "policy" roles are political positions and subject to change with elections, "bureaucratic" roles are not, but in practice (especially in a state like Illinois, where the state capital city is small and 4 hours from the vast body of professionals in Illinois), the "policy" and "bureaucratic" jobs have a lot in common in most state agencies, and when the governorship changes hands, there's a mass scramble as former political appointments get kicked out off office and madly headhunted for bureaucratic jobs by agencies losing their bureaucrats to political appointments, and former bureaucrats get poached for political appointments. Anyway, typically you'd start out in a low-level bureaucrat position where you were not a political hire, as a lawyer or accountant or in HR or procurement, for some state agency. Your job would have some component of ethics compliance, and you'd periodically have to talk to the ethics commission and the Ethics Officers at your own office and other offices. Springfield's a small town and they all get to know each other, and other state government ethics functionaries would say to each other, "Hey, you know that flyingfork over at Forestry? He's pretty on the ball with these tree cutting allotment contracts, give him a call with your question about how we allot these on a golf course that's county-run but on state property, he'll probably know."* The next time a constitutional official got elected (governor, sec'y state, treasurer, etc. -- they bring political appointees with them), during the generalized government shakeup, someone might say, "Hey, there's something open at Natural Resources with a lot of ethics and compliance stuff, flyingfork, you interested in applying for that?"

I'm trying to think of how some of the other Springfield guys I know with a lot of ethics authority got there -- some of them, of course, come up from legislative staffs and the statehouse's people; some of them come over from the world of political campaigns where they have a lot of experience complying with campaign finance rules and trying to catch out other politicians who violated ethics rules during their jobs; a few of them come from private practice law firms where they did attorney malpractice or government ethics; and I know I think one who worked as an attorney ethicist for the Illinois State Bar Association before moving to state government. But the vast bulk of them that I can think of come up through management roles at state agencies where they do the actual ethical compliance work and get familiar with it that way.

If you have Illinois-specific questions I can ask some of the folks I know for more specifics. (I adore The Good Wife because they do such a great job with Illinois politics and I KNOW A LOT OF THOSE GUYS.)

*Forestry is not a real agency in Illinois and state tree cutting allotment contracts are not a real thing, on golf courses or otherwise.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 12:42 PM on February 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

There are several professional associations for corporate ethics officers that might provide some info:

Ethics & Compliance Officer Association
Society of Corporate Compliance and Ethics
Ethics Resource Center
posted by Sweetie Darling at 1:01 PM on February 21, 2014

Does anyone know of an ethics degree out there?

That would be a philosophy degree. Within the department it would more likely be referred to as value theory, which also encompasses aesthetics.
posted by bricoleur at 1:14 PM on February 21, 2014

I'm an "ethics professional" and although I'll be a lawyer very soon, I've done this job for 6 years. I will continue to do a big part of my job once I move to the in house legal team, but currently I work out of the lobby shop. It's a multinational corporation that does business in many states. Basically, if it's not regulatory in nature, but involves the federal or state or local government, I'm involved. I file lots of required disclosures, approve event invitee lists and language, approve menus and swag. I do a lot of training of senior execs for meetings w gov officials, and keep a tight leash on our lobbyists. I make sure PAC solicitations are legit and focused on the solicitable class. I call ethics commissions a lot and read lots of state ethics, lobbying and gift statutes. I'm becoming a lawyer in order to continue to advance, but it's not required for this part. We have outside ethics counsel as a backstop as none of our in house guys is too familiar w this area of law. I have a political science BA. I admit that it's kind of fun to be the one in the room to tell the brainstormers that their plan is illegal. I'm a professional wet blanket. You can memail me if you have more questions, but I kind of did fall into this.
posted by atomicstone at 2:19 PM on February 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

My 100k+ employee company has rotating ethics officers per division? So its not a full time job unless you are in the c level ethics office(which I'm not sure exists, but probably does?, we are tiny).

You may also want to investigate irb's, institutional review boards. Universities and commercial entities provide these to review human and other experiments for ethics and other approvals. These I know have full time people to review experiments.
posted by TheAdamist at 6:58 PM on February 21, 2014

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