Advocating a utilitarian profession in a Kantian world? LIS ethical reflection and the challenges of political philosophy

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The over-arching political philosophy of the past 30 years has seen a movement from the Utilitarian principles that had dominated since the mid to late Victorian period to a more Kantian, rights-based approach to justification of public services and professions.
Political philosophy has a major impact on the ethical parameters in which professions operate. In publically-funded libraries a change in such philosophy can alter the aims and objectives of the organisation, and even the justification for its very existence. In a sector that grew out of the Utilitarian era, such as public libraries, old arguments for advocacy that have been used historically hold little sway with elected officials and managers inculcated within a rights-based framework.
LIS professional education rarely fills such gaps; while many LIS courses contain modules that deal in professional ethics, a key tangential issue is the understanding of political philosophy and the motivations and beliefs of those who fund library services. Conversely many elected officials come to public service with an education that covers the broadest range of political philosophy. In the UK, North America and Europe, for instance, the PPE degree (politics, philosophy, and economics) and its variants are a staple of the ruling classes. Such a background sees them well able to understand and be able to rebut any arguments for justifying services that do not fit into the rights-based approach. LIS professionals’ ethical reflection must become more strategic and be aimed at advocacy that is effective and will be understood by elected officials influenced by rights-based arguments.
Utilising the public library service as an example, this paper will identify how many in the profession may have strategically misfired in terms of their advocacy approach, and instead suggest how ethical reflection could be enhanced by presenting the justification of library services within the philosophical context of the day, and how in doing so fill a major gap in the knowledge of many library and information professionals.
It will be argued that used in partnership with ethical codes, such a focused ethical reflection can take such static documents and apply them to myriad real scenarios, enabling them to become a living embodiment of active ethical reflection in library and information services.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages8
Publication statusPublished - 15 Aug 2014
EventIFLA World Library and Information Congress. 80th IFLA General Conference and Assembly - Lyon, France
Duration: 16 Aug 201422 Aug 2014


ConferenceIFLA World Library and Information Congress. 80th IFLA General Conference and Assembly
OtherLibraries, Citizens, Societies: Confluence for Knowledge


  • public libraries
  • ethics
  • political philosophy
  • kantian
  • utilitarian
  • ethical reflection
  • advocacy

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