In 1957, the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) adopted a document entitled Law Enforcement Code of Ethics. Except for the 1956 California code on which it was modeled, this IACP document seems to have been the first ”code of ethics” for police. Behind the IACP code lay a century-and-a-half of police ”rules and regulations,” ”oaths,” ”pledges,” ”guiding principles,” and other documents containing similar provisions (as well as an even longer line of ”codes” in other professions, the earliest in medicine). Among the more important of police codes today are the Interpol Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officers, the U.S. Military Police Code of Ethics, the United Nations Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officers, and the current IACP Code (adopted in 1989).

Names and Kinds

Attempts have been made to distinguish between short, general, or uncontroversial codes (”code of ethics”) and longer, more detailed, or more controversial ones (”code of conduct,” ”guidelines,” and so on). While some such distinction may sometimes be useful in practice (as in the Interpol code), it is hard to defend in theory. A ”code of conduct” is as much a special standard of conduct as a ”code of ethics”—except where the ”code of ethics,” being a mere restatement of morality, is just ”a moral code.” ”Codes of conduct” are also (generally) as morally binding as ”codes of ethics.”

Whatever it is called, a code of police ethics will belong to one of three categories: (1) professional code applying to all, and only, members of a certain profession, such as the IACP code for police; (2) employer’s code applying only to members of a particular police department (like the Police Code of Conduct and Ethics of New South Wales for the NSW Police Department); or (3) organizational code applying only to members of some professional, fraternal, or technical organization. Codes of ethics may include ordinary moral rules such as ”Don’t steal” or ”Don’t lie.” They may also be enacted into law. For example, in many police departments, the code of ethics has been adopted as a regulation. But a code of ethics is not simply law or morality. What then is it?


The word code comes from Latin. Originally, it referred to any wooden board, then to boards covered with wax that were written on, and then to any topic (codex). That was the sense it had when first applied to the topic-length systemization of Roman statutes that the Emperor Justinian enacted in 529 c.E. Justinian’s Code differed from an ordinary compilation of law in one important way: He had the legal authority to make his a law, replacing all that preceded it.

Since 529 c.E., any document much like Justinian’s Code could also be called ”a code.” Sometimes the analogy with Justinian’s Code is quite close, as it is, for example, in the Illinois Criminal Code. Sometimes it is not. For example, a spy’s ”code” is a system of rules for concealing (and then revealing) the meaning of a message. Unlike Justinian’s Code (and Illinois’), a spy’s code imposes no obligations.

One important feature of Justinian’s Code was that it was written. Could a code be unwritten? Since the point of codification (strictly speaking) is to give law (and, by analogy, any similar system of guidance) an authoritative formulation, an unwritten code might seem to be no code at all. Nonetheless, there are at least two interesting ways in which codes can be unwritten. First, a code might have an authoritative oral formulation. Second, a code, though unformulated, might be so obvious to those who know the practice that the formulation need only be stated to be accepted. While some police departments may have a few unwritten rules in one of these two exceptional ways (”the code of silence,” for example), no substantial department (or larger organization) of police seems to have enough such rules to constitute an unwritten code. Nor is it likely that they would. How could so many individuals differing in age, education, and experience—with some arriving as others leave—reach and maintain agreement on a complex set of rules without putting the rules in writing?


Ethics has at least four senses in common English usage. In one sense, ethics is a synonym for ordinary morality (those universal standards of conduct that apply to moral agents simply because they are moral agents). Etymology fully justifies this first sense. The root for ethics (ethos) is the Greek word for ”habit” (or ”character”) just as the root of morality (mores) is the Latin word for it. Etymologically, ethics and morality are twins (as are ethic and morale). In this first sense of ethics, codes of ethics would just be systematic statements of ordinary morality.

In at least three other senses of ethics, ethics differs from morality. In one, ethics consists of those standards of conduct that moral agents should follow (”critical morality”); morality, in contrast, is said to consist of those standards that moral agents generally do follow (”positive morality”). Morality in this sense is very close to its root mores; it can be unethical (in the first sense of ethics). What some believe is morally right (for example, that torturing suspects is justified) can be morally wrong. Morality, in this sense, has a plural. There can be as many moralities as there are moral agents. Even so, ethics, in this sense, can be a standard common to everyone. Hence, this second sense of ethics is as irrelevant here as the first.

Ethics is sometimes contrasted with morality in another way. Morality then consists of those standards every moral agent should follow. Morality is a universal minimum, our standard of moral right and wrong. Ethics, in contrast, is concerned with moral good, with whatever is beyond the moral minimum. This is another sense that seems not to fit codes of ethics, for at least two reasons. First, this ethics of the good is still universal, applying outside professions, employing departments, and other organizations as well as within. Second, codes of ethics consist (in large part at least) of requirements, the right way to conduct oneself rather than just a good way to. Any sense of ethics that does not include the right cannot be the sense relevant to ”codes of ethics.”

Ethics can be used in a fourth sense to refer to those morally permissible standards of conduct governing members of a group simply because they are members of that group. In this sense, business ethics is for people in business and no one else; engineering ethics, for engineers and no one else; and so on. Ethics (in this sense) is relative even though morality is not; it resembles law and custom, which can also vary from group to group and over time. But ethics (in this sense) is not mere mores. By definition, ethics in this sense must be at least morally permissible. There can be no thieves’ ”ethics” or torturers’ ”ethics,” except with scare quotes around ”ethics” to signal an analogical or perverted use.

Ethics resembles law and custom in another way: It sets a standard to guide and evaluate conduct. Unlike ”scientific law,” ethical rules do not describe conduct— except insofar as people act as they should (which they generally do only for the most part).

The Moral Force of Ethical Codes

A code of ethics, though not a mere restatement or application of ordinary morality, can be morally binding on those to whom it applies (that is, can impose new moral obligations or requirements). How is that possible? Some codes of ethics are morally binding, in part, because of an oath, promise, or other express commitment (for example, one’s signature on a contract making acceptance of the employer’s code of ethics a condition of employment). In general, though, codes of ethics bind in the way rules of a (morally permissible) game bind while one is a voluntary participant. While one voluntarily receives the benefits of a code of ethics, one has a moral obligation, an obligation of fairness, to do what the code says. Because a code of ethics applies only to voluntary participants in a special practice, not to everyone, a code (if generally followed) can create trust beyond what ordinary moral conduct can. It can create a special moral environment. For example, a code of ethics can justify trust in ”professional law officers” beyond what they would be entitled to if they were known simply to do no more than law, market, morality, and public opinion required of them.

Because law applies to its subjects whether they wish it or not, law (as such) cannot bind in the way a code of ethics (a voluntary practice) can. A code of ethics is therefore always distinguishable from a mere statute even when the code is embedded in a statute. One need only ask, ”Does this code state a (morally permissible) standard of conduct I (at my rational best) want everyone covered by it to follow so much that I would be willing to follow it too if that were the price of everyone else doing the same?” If everyone the code governs can answer yes, then it is a code of ethics. If some (at their rational best) answer no, then the code will have the same status as other statutes. There will be no moral obligation to fellow officers resulting from participation in a cooperative practice (an obligation of fairness). There will be no ethical obligation (in the fourth sense of ethics).

Uses (and Misuses) of Police Codes of Ethics

Codes of ethics have at least six uses: First, and most important, a code of ethics can establish special standards of conduct where experience has shown common sense is no longer adequate. Second, a code of ethics, being an authoritative formulation of the rules governing a practice, can help those new to the practice learn how they should act. Third, a code can remind those with even considerable experience of what they might otherwise forget. Fourth, a code can provide a framework for settling disputes, even disputes among those with considerable experience. Fifth, a code can help those outside the group (”the public”) understand what may reasonably be expected of those in the group. Sixth, a code of ethics can justify discipline. The discipline must, however, aim at helping those disciplined to understand the code, not at deterring or punishing misconduct. Deterrence or punishment would turn the code into ordinary (criminal) law. A code of ethics is for the honest; the criminal law, for the dishonest.

Codes of ethics may also be misused in at least two ways. First, codes of ethics may be proposed as ”window dressing” to fend off regulation, closer supervision, or public criticism. A code of ethics should never be used in that way. Where it is not a serious attempt to raise standards, a code of ethics is a deceptive practice to be avoided precisely because it is deceptive. Nonetheless, one by-product of a code of ethics that is well written, sufficiently demanding, and (generally) followed should be an increased trust in (and respect for) those subject to it.

Second, well-meaning advocates often defend a code of ethics as a way to raise the status or income of police by making law enforcement a profession like law or medicine. While adopting a code of ethics can help change law enforcement from an ordinary honest occupation into a profession, it probably cannot raise the social status or income of law enforcement officers. A profession is simply a number of individuals in the same occupation voluntarily organized to earn a living by openly serving a certain moral ideal in a morally permissible way beyond what law, market, morality, and public opinion would otherwise require. In no society in the world does law enforcement have the social status or income of law or medicine. A code of ethics probably will not change that. Ethics has little to do with social status or income.

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