This paper presents a critique of the ethic of confidentiality in the personal service professions.

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This paper presents a critique of the ethic of confidentiality in the personal service professions. Drawing on research in social work, medicine, psychiatry and related fields, on philosophical professional ethics and on current thinking in law, it argues that the idea of ‘confidentiality’ conflates a number of ends that are frequently in tension or incompatible. These comprise personal privacy, the safety of vulnerable individuals and the wider third party or public interest. • Findings: Professionals and the interested public should not be misled by the traditional idea of confidentiality as constituting in itself a cardinal principle of professional ethics. Nevertheless, difficult conflicts of interests will still arise. It is suggested that liberal rights theory, the source of standard professional ethical codes, is inadequate to resolve these conflicts. Professional ethics needs to be complemented by a more communitarian view of private and public interests. • Applications: Good practice should focus on achieving the best balance of personal privacy, the safety of vulnerable individuals and the protection of the wider public in the context of a view of society devoted to the realization of the communal good as much as to the defence of individual interests

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