Geoethics and Professional Societies

Susan Kieffer, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign


Codes of Ethics for scientists have been formulated primarily by professional organizations. Most of these codes enumerate principles that cover practical issues regarding the professional conduct of individuals, not the conduct of the organizations themselves. They basically call for traditionally honorable behavior. It is striking that, given that the work of these societies and their members is directly relevant to the future of the earth, most existing Codes of Ethics remain far from addressing our obligations to the planet itself. I propose a discussion of how the ethical obligations to the planet might be included in professional ethical codes.


Advanced undergraduate and graduate level.

Class size: Less than 15 students

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered
Most undergraduates will have no knowledge of the purposes and activities of professional societies. Therefore, an introduction to the societies will be required. We have compiled a list of 19 professional societies and faculty could pick any one(s) relevant to the course in which they are teaching geoethics. Students will be asked to choose (or assigned) 2-3 professional societies and asked to research their Codes of Ethics on the WWW. They will also be asked to look for Mission/Vision statements of the socities.

How the activity is situated in the course
Stand-alone exercise.


Content/concepts goals for this activity
This is not a typical case study, but rather a thought exercise about professional obligations on all levels from self to profession to society to the planet.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity
Critical thinking. Comparing and contrasting stated ethical principles with other purposes of professional life.

Other skills goals for this activity

Students can work in groups prior to class discussion to discuss (a) the goals of specific societies (e.g., geographers, petroleum geologists, meteorologists, geologists, engineers, etc.), and (b) similarities and differences in the codes of ethics.

Ethical Principles Addressed in this Exercise

Ethical principles are laid out explicitly in Codes of Ethics. Mission/Vision statements are also given by the societies selected.

Description and Teaching Materials

Students will discuss the pros and cons of existing ethical codes and analyze whether or not they feel that the codes address the stated mission and vision of the societies. Students will find that existing codes address geoethics and self, profession and society, but not the obligation to the earth itself. They will be asked to make specific suggestions of actions that societies might undertake or enlarge.


The activity is successful if students come to understand the role of professional societies in a geologic career, how they will relate to or be involved with professional societies, and how the codes of ethics do and do not extend to the natural environment.

References and Resources

Students should Google (at least) the following professional societies, and are encouraged to add others of interest. American Association of Geographers, American Association of Petroleum Geologists, American Geophysical Union, American Geosciences Institute, American Meteorological Society, Australian Institute of Geoscientists, Australian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy, Ecological Society of America, European Federation of Geologists, Geological Society of America, Geological Society of London, Geoscientists Canada, International Association of Volcanology and Chemistry of the Earths Interior, National Association of State Boards of Geology (USA), National Society of Professional Engineers, Oceanographic Society, Planetary Society, Society for Conservation Biology, South African Council for Natural Scientific Professions.