Competence, ethical practice and professional ethics teaching

Gideon Calder*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Citations (Scopus)


Ethical practice has a complex and ambiguous relationship to notions of ‘competence’. Both, of course, seem vital elements of suitability to practise in professional roles across the settings of health and social care. But exactly how they relate is less self-evident. Is there such a thing as ‘ethical competence’? This article argues that there is, and that is it something which we might assess in the teaching of professional ethics. After comparing different versions of what a practitioner ‘competent’ at meeting ethical challenges in their work might look like, I argue (1) that ethical practice and wider professional competence (or, from the reverse angle, misconduct and incompetence) are integrated rather than distinct, and relatedly that (2) competence and ethical practice should be seen as achievable in tandem, rather than one being prior to the other. I then consider the model of skills acquisition utilised by Hubert and Stuart Dreyfus—and in nurse education by Patricia Benner—and argue that while illuminating, it does not provide an adequate framework for the development and assessment of ethical competence. Rather, we need a pluralistic approach incorporating different forms of propositional knowledge, practical reasoning and orientation-based skills.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)297-311
Number of pages15
JournalEthics and social welfare
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 1 Aug 2015
Externally publishedYes


  • Competence
  • Ethical practice
  • Ethics of care
  • Professional ethics
  • Skills acquisition
  • Teaching


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