Nations, communities, professional organizations, and their leaders aspire to uphold values that are respected by the group as a whole. These values, at the core of group identity, set the tone for ethical conduct among group members. There is often concern about questions of “right” and “wrong,” with moral values, human rights, and duties pertaining to behavior as a member of the group. Norms of ethical conduct are sought for the group, anchored in its core values. In this way, professional organizations, like society at large, distinguish between acceptable and unacceptable conduct. Moral philosophy provides frameworks for dealing with beliefs and practices and provides the basis for ethical conduct.
Significant national public policy differences can be attributed to differences in national values. For instance, the United States was founded on libertarian values, while Canada was founded on egalitarian values. Many in the United States do not believe in taxation for the common good, whereas in Canada this value prevails. Hence Canada has a system of publicly funded universal access to health care, while the United States does not. Even so, there is substantial consistency among human communities regarding some aspects of conduct, for instance, almost universal taboos against murder and incest. But social or group values, behavior, and policies have differed widely over time and among civilized societies in such matters as infanticide, abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment, slavery, and child labor. Many people were relatively indifferent until recently to the integrity of life-supporting ecosystems and the environment on which all societies, indeed all humankind, are ultimately dependent for their health and well-being. As evidence mounts that human activities are endangering long-term sustainability, larger numbers of people are expressing concern, although rarely matching this with action to conserve the earth's nonrenewable resources.
In Judeo-Christian and Islamic nations, many aspects of acceptable conduct derive ultimately from ancient roots, such as the Ten Commandments, whence evolved laws that have been codified to protect society's members. These laws have established precedent for civilized social behavior. Translating science into laws that support policy has ethical dimensions. The range of ethical concern includes ensuring integrity in professional roles, the duty for community engagement in research, and communication practices among stakeholders and policy makers.
Educating students of public health in matters of ethics is now commonplace. This should help to produce more effective guardians of the public health, particularly as vested interests influence the roles of public health professionals and their ability to protect the public interest.
ETHICS, MORALITY, VALUES, AND LAW
Ethics addresses issues of conduct among members of any group in society. Morality relates more to society's notion of what is “right” and “wrong” on the broad social level of interaction. Ethics and morality focus on normative behaviors for the group and for society, respectively. Community standards of morality, or the moral values of society, are the basis for ...