I think it is important to take a minute to step back and briefly discuss what being a professional means. Alcorn and Humphrey's So You Want to be an Interpreter? does a nice job of comparing a doctor to a person who sells cars as a metaphor. Both sales people and doctors are paid; however, how their clients or patients understand their advice or actions is vastly different. Professionals have a body of oversight, an established code of conduct, a grievance process, and typically a certifying or licensing aspect. For many ASL interpreters, this is the function that RID serves. Keeping in mind what you just read, being paid for your work does not make you a professional, it's how people in society (yourself, your peers, and your consumers) view the consequences of your choices.

In English, we throw around the word dilemma when we are faced with a tough situation. However, in my experience, most of the time, we know what the right thing to do is-- we just don't want to do it. Ethical decision-making is one of the primary tasks that a professional interpreter must face. More so, it's something that interpreters must live out. See, the life and principles of ethical, or moral, decisions are a continuous commitment to your principles.

In a way, our personal and professional ethics are the result of many parts of our lives that combine together to create a framework.

What ethics are not: How you feel, what your religion or theology states, the norms of your culture, or scientific knowledge you or others have. Of course, the list of “things that ethics are not” does speak to meta-ethical questions (see below) and can be used as part of an applied-ethical framework

For some people, the RID Code of Professional Conduct is their entire framework. There are many ethical frameworks, and since ethics is a branch of philosophy, it can become quite academic. Let's break down ethics into some basic branches:

  1. Meta-Ethics - Where do our ethics come from? How do humans perceive right vs. wrong? Understanding the epistemology (knowledge and the point at which we can no longer understand) and anthropological questions (being human) of the origin and purpose of ethics.
  2. Normative Ethics - Creating systems that sort things into right and wrong. What should be the right thing to do, and why is that the right thing to do? As you can see with normative in the title, it's practical, prescriptive (which also leaves room for bias and systemic oppression) and aspirational (in the eye of the normative group).
  3. Applied Ethics - We understand where our ethics come from, why we have them, and a general framework for what makes something right and wrong. Applied ethics takes those concepts and explores what they mean within a specific part of society.
    Here are some obvious examples: is the death penalty wrong? Is democracy the right way to govern a country? Should attorneys or clergy have the right to keep confidential what is shared with them?

Applied ethics is also the area that deals with interpreting. The Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf's Code of Professional Conduct (or the RID CPC for short) is a list of 7 tenants, or umbrellas, each with their own sub-points:

  1. Interpreters adhere to standards of confidential communication.
  2. Interpreters possess the professional skills and knowledge required for the specific interpreting situation.
  3. Interpreters conduct themselves in a manner appropriate to the specific interpreting situation.
  4. Interpreters demonstrate respect for consumers.
  5. Interpreters demonstrate respect for colleagues, interns, and students of the profession.
  6. Interpreters maintain ethical business practices.
  7. Interpreters engage in professional development.

I would challenge you to learn these 7 tenants, and then go beyond them. These are a living set of responsibilities (and, some rights) that will change over time. They provide a good framework, particularly for newer interpreters. They are also limited, primarily to the professional aspects of an interpreter's life. Ethics and principles guide our whole lives, not just the professional portions. Within the interpreting field, it is also easy to see the lines between professional and personal begin to blur. Since the CPC is behavioral expectations, I would challenge the RID (and NAD, in collaboration) to re-frame the CPC in terms of a Rights-based approach to ethics.

When I teach ethical decision-making, I always use Kidder (My list of recommended books you should own). Kidder makes a very clear point, one that many people do not understand: An ethical dilemma is not simply a tough situation, it is when both options are right which means they are also both wrong. No matter how hard the right thing to do is, it's not a dilemma; it is just a situation you are in where it is hard to do the right thing. Another way of looking at it is this definition of an ethical (or moral) dilemma:
Ethical dilemmas, also known as a moral dilemma, are situations in which there is a choice to be made between two options, neither of which resolves the situation in an ethically acceptable fashion. In such cases, societal and personal ethical guidelines can provide no satisfactory outcome for the chooser. (YourDictionary.com)

Kidder groups dilemmas into four types, and it creates the Kidder Ethical Paradigm (pps. 105ff, How Good People Make Tough Choices) :

  1. Individual versus community - Can be restated as "Us versus Them," or "Myself versus others, " or "The smaller group versus the larger group
  2. Truth versus loyalty - Honesty, candor, or integrity versus my committments, responsibilities, or keeping my promises
  3. Short term versus long term - The difficulties arising when immediate needs or desires run counter to our future goals or prospects
  4. Justice versus mercy - Fairness, equity and even-handed application of the law (or rules) often conflict with compassion, empathy, and love

Kidder rightfully suggests that right versus wrong situations are better labeled as, "moral temptations" (Kidder, page 110). Internally, we know what the right thing to do, we are simply tempted to do the wrong thing-- this internal conflict is not a dilemma, it's a matter of maturity, self-control, boundaries and other characteristics that everyone should strive to improve upon.

Kidder's Ethical Paradigm is foundational to our understanding of appropriate and professional decision-making.


The next post in the ethics series is about ethical tests, rights-based ethics and ethical maxims.

The third posts will be about how I use my RIDIR Framework to analyze situations.

Emory David Dively

Emory is an NIC: Master ASL interpreter, has operated small and large agencies, and consulted with agencies across the US. He has an MA in Communication & Leadership from Gonzaga University.