A greater understanding of a profession’s core values and ethics can enrich professional practice.
Leading community justice academic, Professor Rob Canton, has passionately put forward the case for professional ethics and values to consciously guide the practice, policy and institutions which deliver criminal justice.
Through having an understanding of ‘what’s right’ in doing justice, Professor Canton argued this gives meaning and purpose to social-minded professions such as probation, and intrinsically lends itself to new, positive and effective ways of working.
What then may probation professionals believe ‘doing justice’ includes? Professor Canton gave his own view of “giving people genuine chances to change, which involves fair access to resources that all others enjoy (social inclusion), and that professional relationships can contribute powerfully to guidance and motivation.”
Yet affirming a profession’s ethics and values should arguably be much more than simply listing a set of beliefs.
The values held by a profession will have an influence on the realisation of actions, consequences and expectations of how to practice. When framing such principles we therefore need to carefully consider how they would translate into practice and the sorts of behaviour that may follow.
This can be more complex than first seems. In particular circumstances, values which on paper look complementary, may turn out in practice to lead to the dilemma of competing courses of action. If one particular principle takes precedence above all others, this may risk leading in a one-way direction that becomes detached from a more practical and balanced path of action.
Important questions over how different values fit together, and whether some are more fundamental than others, will always need to consider the anticipated interaction with professional practice.
Professor Canton also debated where we obtain our values from, and the grounds for affirming particular principles for the profession. Whilst some values may seem reasonably self-evident, others are arguably much less so.
As society, circumstance and practice change in the future, there may also be cases for adding new values or challenging principles which now appear out dated. Keeping an understanding of the two-way interaction between principles and professional practice, and how they emerge from one another, is therefore critical.
Whilst there may be disagreement about what constitutes ‘right’ in justice, there is quite often more consensus on what a grievous injustice looks like.
Values can often be framed in opposition to other views, and Professor Canton suggested that a helpful question to consider is what does the value rule out? For instance, a probation practitioner may object to the view that ‘offenders are evil and can never change,’ which may affirm a ‘belief in the possibility of change’ as a core principle for the profession. In turn this principle would be realised in probation practice through rehabilitative work and not giving up on people.
A profession’s values and ethics should be articulated in a common language, be justifiable and defendable.