The Ethics of Professional Environmental Practice: an Exploratory Study of the Ethical Principles of Practitioners

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McAuliffe, Donna A

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Low Choy, Darryl C

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Although the practice ethics of many professions have been investigated in various empirical studies, those of the emerging environmental profession have received little research attention, notwithstanding community need for trust in ethical environmental experts, and the adversarial nature of practice. In Australasia, young professionals in environmental disciplines express concern and confusion regarding professional and environmental ethics, despite the currency of a code of ethics developed by the Environment Institute of Australia and New Zealand (EIANZ). As a senior environmental professional involved in certifying practitioners, I wished to contribute to the profession by researching the ‘field-tested’ ethical principles of fellow practitioners with 20 to 40 years of experience. Fourteen (14) seasoned environmental practitioners participated in semistructured interviews to explore how they construct meaning for their practices with respect to ethical principles, using techniques appropriate for ‘insider’ research. Literature review confirmed that the appropriate theoretical basis for such an investigation is qualitative, and in particular a phenomenological / interpretivist approach (within a constructionist paradigm) and a role identity perspective. Interpretivist phenomenological analysis indicated that the ethical principles and environmental values of seasoned practitioners are personal and largely based on childhood and early influences, adapted to meet the situations and context of their discipline, profession, type of practice and public or private sector. Coding and iterative analysis of interview transcripts by themes and sub-themes revealed patterns and general agreement on many principles, as well as outlier approaches and omissions. Ethical principles comprise one of four broad groups of interacting influences on professional environmental practice, according to a model proposed in this thesis, the others being professional identity, capabilities and contribution. Thematic analysis revealed three broad integrity principles (professional, technical and process integrity) generally consistent with the principles of a science-based profession, with emphasis on truth, competence, rigour and impartiality. These, together with the virtue ethic of resolve (the courage to hold firm to principles under pressure) are expressed by practitioners in three ways - as important principles for their own practices, as advice they would give to juniors, and also (conversely) as criteria for judging unethical practice. Based on case studies discussed in interviews, an ethical acceptability spectrum model is proposed whereby the persuasive capacity of practitioners to achieve better environmental outcomes is critical in addressing compromises and reducing ethical dilemmas. This study also revealed five ‘professional identity perspectives’ which correlate with individual practitioner roles, ethical priorities and decision-making. The practitioners interviewed for this research generally adopted perspectives of an objective scientist, problem-solver, balance-seeker, environmental advocate or practice manager, or adopted dual or changeable perspectives depending on the situation. Although this research has been a preliminary study, this typology suggests avenues for further research into different expressions of ethical principles among environmental practitioners, and different ways of addressing the tension between professional and environmental ethics. Ethical principles are recommended for environmental practice which combine professional codes with the practice wisdom of seasoned practitioners. Four primary ethical obligations emerge: responsibilities to clients, to truth, to environmental harm reduction and to one’s own moral principles. This thesis also suggests, as an aspirational adaptation of Kant’s categorical principle, a ‘categorical sustainability imperative’ viz. act only according to that maxim that your actions, if adopted universally, would sustain human society and all forms of life indefinitely. Among the implications of this research is that ethics education is inadequately addressed in environmental degree courses to date, and that professional institutes could also play a larger role in providing guidelines, moral leadership and continuing professional development, including ethical decision-making and scenario training. Another implications of this investigation, both for institutes and for environmental education, is that a ‘one size fits all’ approach to professional ethics may be inappropriate, as practitioners need a framework of principles within which they can develop ethical guidelines appropriate for their professional identity perspectives, as well as their role, situation and context.

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Thesis (PhD Doctorate)

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Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


School of Human Serv & Soc Wrk

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The author owns the copyright in this thesis, unless stated otherwise.

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environmental practitioners

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