What are ethics? How do ethics differ from morals? What ethical concerns are inherent in forensic science? Everyone learns basic ethics from the time he or she is born, so why is it necessary to explore the topic? Who decides what is ethical? Who regulates against those who have been unethical? These are just some of the questions posed when discussing the topic of ethics in regard to forensic science. Approaching the topic of ethics is quite daunting for a variety of reasons: It is philosophical in nature, there is not always a clear distinction between right and wrong, it is closely related to personal beliefs, and it is viewed as noncritical training. Personal character may influence ethical decisions, so to fully explore the subject of ethics, people should possess open-mindedness and a willingness to discuss their points of view, as well as to acknowledge points that differ from their own. Answers to the questions posed previously and many more will be presented in a manner that encourages contemplation, discussion, and reflection. The reader should consider the information provided and relate it to his or her everyday life as the information will have less of a focus on right versus wrong and more of a focus on what is better or worse within specific circumstances.
Forensic science is a profession of scientists whose work answers questions for the law through reports and testimony (Houck and Siegel, 2006). It is composed of a variety of disciplines that work with the legal system. Common statements made by the forensic science community in regard to ethics include the following:
- • Forensic scientists are ethical by nature.
- • It is not possible to teach a person ethics; people are ethical or they are not.
- • The topic of ethics is boring and/or too philosophical.
- • A course, lecture, or text is not going to make an unethical person ethical.
- • Explain what is right and wrong for given situations so that ethical dilemmas are not an issue.
Although such points have some validity, they do not provide a clear picture of the purpose in discussing ethics as it relates to forensic science. Before delving into this text, consider the purpose for reading it: What are you hoping to learn? What professional problems should be addressed? Why is the topic important to individuals, agencies, organizations, and/or the forensic science profession?
Though everyone would like to believe that all forensic scientists are ethical in nature, it is simply not the case. Circumstances coupled with pressure, motivation, and opportunity can cause anyone to cross the proverbial ethical line. Throughout my years of studying ethics as it relates to forensic science, the statement, “You cannot teach someone ethics,” has been a recurring theme. The point of publications that explore the topic of ethics is not necessarily to teach ethics as much as to create awareness of the subject, including professional risks. Knowledge, discussion, and analysis are important to avoid ethical dilemmas in the future, while learning from mistakes colleagues have made in the past. Information also provides people with the tools necessary to refocus after misconduct has affected the workplace or the profession. Finally, although it would be much easier to have a rulebook containing do’s and don’ts for every situation a professional may encounter, it is unrealistic. Variables, such as the people involved, the agencies and their affiliations, common professional pressures, the circumstances of the situations, and the consequences and effect on innocent people, create unique situations. Due to these variables, it is impossible to have a set of rules that comprise any and all situations.
Ethics is an extremely important topic in professional cultures such as law, business, medicine, science, and technology. A culture is a large group of people with shared beliefs, laws, morals, standards, and characteristics, and forensic science overlaps with other professional cultures. The common view shared within a culture influences behavior, communication methods, and values. Values describe a belief that a specific method of conduct is personally or socially preferred. Components of professional cultures include managerial styles, traditions, loyalties, hierarchy, legacy, and decisionmaking rules. It is important to explore how cultures communicate with, and about, each other to gain a deeper understanding. Discussing ethics among cultures begins with recognizing common interests or goals and valuing diversity. To work with other professional cultures, it is imperative to understand their values, to maintain positive cooperation and conflict resolution, to determine potential diversity within the culture, to listen carefully, and to show respect for differences. Most professions have had examples of misconduct. Throughout this book, we will explore the intricacies of ethics as it relates to the forensic science profession. By the end of this book, the reader will have a greater appreciation of the professional culture of forensic science as well as the professional cultures that work with, and against, the rules of the forensic science profession, thus creating pressures that may lead to unethical behavior.