Ethics In Educational Linguistics

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1. Current Obsession

Ethics, the study of how we are to live, of right and wrong, also known as moral philosophy, has been called ‘the emperor of the social sciences’ (Scriven 1991: 134). But it is only in the 1990s that the emperor has been reclosed. Coady and Bloch (1996) refer to the current ‘obsession with ethics not the ethics of private individuals so much as the ethical behavior of groups, whether these groups are professions, businesses, government or non-government organizations.’ (Coady and Bloch 1996: 1).

There is another reason for this current ‘obsession’ with ethics, which is its neglect in the first part of the twentieth century. That period, writes Singer (1986) ‘was aberrant due to the influence of logical positivism, with its implication that ethical statements were nothing more than the evincing of emotions.’ (Singer 1995).

Linguistic philosophy, concerned as it was with meaning rather than knowledge, queried the whole basis of ethics, maintaining that ethical statements were essentially circular. ‘Ethics, as I conceive it, is the logical study of the language of morals’ (Hare 1952: v). The critical turn in the last decades has made the quest for meaning equally problematic and in a paradoxical way has prompted the search for fragments of knowledge as bulwarks against the emptiness that postmodernism threatens. Docherty discusses the ‘basis of an ethical demand in the postmodern,’ admitting that ‘there is no escape from the necessity of judging in any specific case. Yet’ he agonizes ‘we have no grounds upon which to base our judging.’ (1993: 26).

2. Institutional Ethics

Ethics has a clear role in institutional settings where there is concern to declare and to limit institutional duties and responsibilities. This applies particularly to professions. House offers this definition: ‘Ethics are the rules or standards of right conduct or practice, especially the standards of a profession’ (House 1990: 91).

Since no social science now is immune to such criticisms it becomes less and less tenable for academic disciplines to allow their members the liberty to make up their own minds as to the conduct and practice of their professional research. Indeed, anthropology may have become untenable as a discipline, attacked as it has been on all sides, not only by critical and Marxist theorists but also by feminists, post colonialists, and anti-imperialists.

Critical applied (and educational) linguistics asks us the same question. Following critical theorists in other social sciences, critical applied linguistics has been asking questions about the ethics of applied linguistics and whether an ideologically neutral study of applied linguistics is possible. To a degree this is the current challenge from postmodernism that it questions the professionalism established by the children of the Enlightenment.

3. Professions

Institutional ethics or morality (and in particular professional morality) can be seen as standing between public morality on the one hand and individual morality on the other. Public morality is concerned with large social issues in which there is a genuine public interest, for example, genetic engineering, in vitro fertilization, female circumcision, capital punishment.

The current ‘flight to professionalism’ represents a desire for social status and a search for an ethical framework which will provide the kind of group security that is no longer available to the individual or indeed to those occupations which do not claim ‘a distinctive ethos, where an ethos is understood as a characteristic devotion to a particular good.’ (Koehn 1994: 3)

What the professional offers is service or duty, to be professional, to act professionally rather than to be successful, since success cannot be guaranteed. Nor of course can the integrity of every member of the profession be guaranteed and when a member violates the ethics of his/her profession then the profession’s membership sanctions come into play. As we shall see, the problem with sanctions is that they are essentially legalistic rather than ethical and therefore difficult to implement on ‘rogue’ members.

4. Limits on Ethics

Group ethics must aim at balance: not too much (the ‘within reason’ limitation) but not too little. What is at issue here is the danger of an incestuous concern with the protection of members of the profession by avoiding and covering over complaints and offences to avoid litigation. Educational linguistics does not in general have the life and death risks that medicine does but all professional activity involving language provides for potential complaints and legal action because of the intrusive nature of the activity and its normative role.

Safeguards for professional practitioners, in educational linguistics as much as in medicine, are necessary but it is important that the safeguards are also applicable to stakeholders other than the professionals themselves. Otherwise they become not safeguards but fortresses.

It has been suggested that in educational linguistics and in particular in language testing, the existing principles of reliability and validity are in themselves sufficient ethical statements, and that a separate ethics is not needed (Alderson et al. 1995). It appears that for some scholars the existing principles are not enough; hence the introduction of consequential validity by Messick (1989). But the promise offered by consequential validity smacks of over-reaching; it violates the ‘within reason’ principle of professional ethics.

5. Codes

In view of the limited influence of professional association in the areas of applied linguistics and language teaching studies, limited because they lack sanctions for exclusion of members for unethical conduct as in medicine and law, limited because there are intractable differences and disagreements in personal moralities, limited too because of the practical problems of locating subjects for research and the consequent temptation of researchers to ignore ethical demands, the solution is probably to create a professional community (community of scholars, self-governing, etc), which has agreed on a code of behavior and organized itself into a formal association.

Banks (1995) points out that a Code of Ethics can more easily become accepted by an activity which sees or wishes to see itself as a profession when there is a single form of activity (and one basic qualification), where there is mainly one type of work, and where the activity is already strongly organized and formally registered. The professions of law and of medicine are the canonical examples.

A Code of Ethics is a set of principles which draws upon moral philosophy and serves to guide good professional conduct. It is neither a statute nor a regulation and it does not provide guidelines for practice, but it is intended to offer a benchmark of satisfactory ethical behavior for all those in the profession. It may be associated with a separate Code of Practice which instantiates the principles of the Code of Ethics. While the Code of Ethics focuses on the morals and ideals of the profession, the Code of Practice identifies the minimum requirements for practice in the profession and focuses on the clarification of professional misconduct and unprofessional conduct.

In educational linguistics two comments are relevant. The first is that too much should not be claimed: An ethical perspective is necessary. But all professional statements of morality must limit what is achievable or even perhaps desirable. The second is that in spite of their fragility Codes are necessary and through them sanctions can be made available. These may amount to little more than loss of membership of the professional association; but we should never undervalue the importance in professional life of being recognized as a member in good standing by one’s peers. With colleagues like these, such membership would imply, who needs a Code of Ethics? See also: Language Testing: Impact.


Spolsky, Bernard. (1999). Concise Encyclopedia Of Educational Linguistics. Amsterdam: Elsevier.

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