By Matt Levine via bloomberg.com Article
Ethics, Quants and Cold-Calling
I used to be a lawyer, and lawyers have a code of ethics. Now I am a journalist, and journalists have a code of ethics. One thing that strikes me about these codes is that they are opposites. Oversimplifying massively, the basic rule for a lawyer is that your obligations are to your client, and you have to act in her best interests, even if that is against the interests of accuracy; legal ethics is then mostly a set of exceptions to this principle. Oversimplifying massively, the basic rule for a journalist is that your obligations are to the public, and you should be accurate even if that is against the interests of the people you talk to; journalistic ethics is then mostly a set of exceptions to this principle. In both cases the exceptions are huge and important: You’re not supposed to lie to the public as a lawyer, or mislead your sources as a journalist, etc; none of this is meant to be any sort of ethical advice. But if someone says to you ‘oh yeah I murdered someone,’ as a lawyer, your baseline expected response would be not to tell anyone; as a journalist, your baseline expected response would be to tell everyone.
Obviously these opposite rules make sense in their respective contexts; the role of a lawyer is different from that of a journalist, and each profession’s ethics are well adapted to doing their jobs usefully. Still it is weird to think of them as ‘ethics.’ They are both functional systems adapted to the work of their professions, not absolute moral-ethical rules handed down by a higher power. Keeping a murderer’s secret is not absolutely ethical for humans, and disclosing that secret is not absolutely ethical for humans; each is ethical or unethical depending on its social context.”