There are two broad ways to think about the nature and purpose of professional economic ethics. The first (The Posnerian View), which comes most readily to mind for economists, is ethical legislation that is intended to prohibit illicit or otherwise inappropriate behavior by the members of a profession. The goal is to prevent bad or weak-willed professionals from doing bad things. In this way of thinking, professional ethics must take the form of a binding code of conduct that spells out the “do's” and “don'ts” of professional practice. A second view, the Naïve View, argues that professional ethics is something other than a code of conduct. In this view, professional ethics seeks to enable virtuous practitioners to do good. This view presents an expansive view of professional ethics—as a tradition of careful inquiry into the full range of ethical issues that arise in the context of professional practice.
This paper elaborates the central assumptions and claims of these two perspectives on professional ethics, and explores what these two perspectives imply about the content of and prospects for professional economic ethics. The paper criticizes the Posnerian View, advocates the Naïve View, and teases out what the latter perspective implies for the economics profession.