Friday, June 1, 2012

Honesty is the best policy

"Promote the trust and security of genealogical consumers" is the third of eight items in the code of ethics every member of the Association of Professional Genealogists signs on joining. I think it offers a relatively quick and easy answer to many ethical dilemmas we experience as genealogists, whether professional or not.

Item 3 does not say, do what's right. It says, do whatever will make it easier for people to trust a genealogist. Or, more dramatically, treat every person in such a way that they will not run screaming for the hills the next time they meet a genealogist!

This is actually prudence, just as honesty and treating-others-as-you-would-like-to-be-treated are usually good policies as well. Dorm-room bull sessions and philosophical journals do not linger long at this point, because it's not very entertaining or hard to figure out. By contrast, you can really get into an argument over eight people in a seven-person lifeboat, or -- back in the day -- whether to let a neighbor into your fallout shelter when the bombs are falling.

But most everyday ethical decisions (including decisions we don't even realize we're making) rest on the firm foundation of simple prudence. If I were to use client reports without getting the clients' OK, and they found out, they would have reason to badmouth genealogists ever after. If a relative gave me information in confidence and I used it or published it, ditto. So this isn't just about professionals.

In a former life I was a journalist, and I was always very conscious that my livelihood depended greatly on the willingness of strangers to talk to me. Genealogists are not in quite as dire a situation, but we do depend on the goodwill (or tolerance) of record custodians, and of one another, in order to do our research well. So prudence plays a big part.

Don't get me wrong. It's important to think about right and wrong, and there are really hard cases that require us to do so. But most of the time simply being prudent will lead us in the right paths.

Harold Henderson, "Honesty is the best policy," Midwestern Microhistory: A Genealogy Blog, posted 1 June 2012 ( : accessed [access date]). [Please feel free to link to the specific post if you prefer.]

1 comment:

Dorene from Ohio said...

Excellent my genealogical travels, I have often had to use discretion. I listen to my internal moral compass in such cases!