How to Make 'Professional Ethics' Ethics

A paper presented at Los Angeles City College, February 27, 1985.


For some years now professional ethics, the more or less systematic study of the moral aspects of specifically professional life and institutions, has been an important part of, and was a significant element in the motivation to, the recent return of philosophy to those reflections upon substantial human affairs which positivism and their linguistic analysis as a matter of fact ruled out.

Yet a survey of popular comment, as well as the more cerebral and scholarly discussions of professional ethics might lead one to suspect that most of those engaged in the discussions have little understanding of the moral aspects of human life or of what makes up moral criticism of a profession or of its practitioners as such. We must beware of verbal euthanasia.

I shall begin with a very shallow illustration drawn from the Calendar section of the Los Angeles Times, April 1, 1984 (p. 106). The article leads off by stating that, “More than 100 of LA’s finest have voluntarily pledged to hold the line on prices for the Olympics.” They have formed a restaurant ethics committee. Under the direction of Jean Leon (owner of La Scala), this group of restauranteurs came together in the words of the paper, “to demonstrate the worth of Los Angeles restaurants to a dubious world.”

Leon, the instigator and chairman of the group, remarked, “The purpose is, first and foremost, to enhance the image of Los Angeles and Los Angeles Restaurants.” The specific issue was, of course, prices to be charged during the period of the Olympics, and the reliability and quality of service to be offered—the best possible at fair prices.

One might well ask: Why is this “ethics committee” not concerned with helping individual owners and employees do what is morally right, or better still, to become the kinds of persons which would make pointless concerns about price gouging, reliability, and quality of service? Pointless because the persons involved would already be wholly devoted to fair and good service to their customers and communities.

The fact is this “ethics” committee has nothing essentially to do with ethics but with the managing of the appearance of righteousness.

I think there are a number of reasons for this. First of all, the occasion is not moral reality, but image, and the power of the image of moral rectitude of business. But, more importantly, the very idea that serious moral issues are to be dealt with by such a group would be ridiculous or offensive to the group members themselves. They would never think of coming to such a group either for guidance or criticism concerning their worth as human beings, or even the moral rectitude of their acts. Rather, they come together as a group of honorable persons, to ensure that their virtue not lack appreciation, that there be no miscalculations and waywardness among their members, and above all that potential customers would not be scared off. Possibly they also wished to pre-empt efforts at external control over their activities on the part of the local governments.

Those of the more august and duly established professions may object to bringing up restauranteurs as an instance of a profession. I certainly agree that a restauranteur association is not to be confused with a full-fledged profession, such as law or medicine, or such as accounting or the clergy. Nevertheless, I think that the abuse of the term “ethics” which stands out in this case is often found today in discussions of the ethics in the more traditional, clear cases of professions. There are many degrees in which social groups may participate in that range of traits which define a profession: special expertise in knowledge and protocol facilitating (for pay) a vital social function, official recognition of “standing” in this expertise by society at large through formal processes, self-regulation through education, licensing and review involving the members of the group itself, and a significant degree of freedom and “public trust” for the individual [members] as to how they arrange and go about their work. But for all significant degrees of these traits in social groups there is, in the nature of the case, the need for the group to appear ethically praiseworthy; and simultaneously there are certain reasons why “professional ethics” may come to have little to do with traditional concepts of morally praiseworthy character and action, coming to deal only with what is arguably not wrong or defensible. These are:

  1. The dependence of the success of the professional upon the appearance of righteousness. Therefore, this appearance must be managed and might be discovered to be sufficient without the reality.
  2. The tradition of self-regulation. The fox is set to guard the chicken coop, and in addition may just not know much on the subject of ethics.
  3. The air of “having arrived”. Just being of professional status has something about it that is tremendously resistant to ethical reflectiveness and criticism. I speculate that this has something to do with the aspect of passing the barriers to degrees, licensing and getting of a position. “I must be okay, though I may be mistaken.”
  4. The “why ain’cha rich” attitude of the stronger professions toward outsiders who would talk of virtue. (“If you’re so smart, why ain’cha rich?!”)

I believe that such factors easily lead the professional group to develop elaborate systems of norms and regulations to which they give the name of “ethics” but which in fact only provide a framework of defense against charges of wrongdoing which may come from clients, the government, or fellow professionals. The paragon of professional morality is, then, the person who has not done anything clearly wrong according to these norms and regulations. It has nothing essentially to do with the person’s character, motivations or with the relation of the person’s work with the meaning of his or her life. This I shall call professional phariseeism, because it specifies professional rectitude without reference to the human heart and personality.

I think that such an understanding of “professional responsibility” lies at the heart of currently widespread misgivings about the moral status of professionals. I don’t want to try to argue this today, because I want to spend my time on other topics. Still, it seems true to me, and it seems crucial to me, that professionals be able to lead in society at large, and that they cannot do so given only this understanding of professional responsibility and virtue, as not having offended against the standards accepted by the profession itself as the expression of professional rightness.

Before proceeding to say what I think must be done to make professional ethics ethics, I want to examine Alan Goldman’s view of The Moral Foundation of Professional Ethics in his book by that title (Totowa, N.J.: Rowman Littlefield 1980). Goldman refers to how the layman “judges the behavior of professionals by applying ordinary moral categories and principles to assess their conduct.” (p.1) Those judgments often concern misuse of professional status for private advantage, including excessive prices for professional service. But

“Certain other charges of misconduct in business and the professions are defended by appeal to special professional goals, norms and roles. The need to pursue profit for business managers, the requirement to place clients’ interests first for lawyers, or to prolong life itself for doctors. Such disputes relate often to well-meaning behavior of professionals in pursuit of the fundamental values of their professions.” (p.1)

This sort of conduct is Goldman’s concern, and he takes it that “the most fundamental question for professional ethics is whether those in professional roles require special norms and principles to guide their well-intentioned conduct.” (p.1) Are certain norms or values directly tied to the professional function to be given heavier weight by the professional in his or her decisions than they would be for the non-professional? A professional role is said by Goldman to be “strongly differentiated if it requires using principles, or if it requires its norms to be weighted more heavily than would be against other principles in other contexts.” (p.2) In such roles, certain normal values may be justifiably overridden by the excuse: “I was just doing my job.”

The professional must elevate certain values or goals, those central to his profession, such as health, legal autonomy of clients, or profits, to the status of overriding considerations in situations in which they might not appear overridden from the viewpoint of normal moral perception. In doing so he will elevate certain interests of those to whom he is professionally obligated, e.g., legal clients, political constituencies, patients or stockbrokers, over other interests, or those of other individuals in apparent violation of rights expressive of these interests. His authority to protect certain interests will be systematically augmented, and his authority or responsibility for taking account of opposing claims will be correlatively diminished, if his position is strongly role differentiated. (pp.3-4)

Goldman recognizes that the members of most professions, if you judge from the codes of professional ethics, tend to view their roles as strongly differentiated in the above sense. (p.6) If this is so it must be because the relevant actions are necessary for their fulfilling of their proper professional functions. The function in question must be one vital to society. “In addition, the elevation of the norm crucial to that institution, whether legal advocacy, health or profits, with its consequent limitations or augmentations of the authority and responsibility of the professional, must be necessary to the fulfillment of that function. The interposition of the special professional norm between the professional’s ordinary moral perception and his action must be justified in terms of the deeper moral teleology of his profession. It must be shown that some central institutional value will fail to be realized without the limitation or augmentation of his authority or responsibility, and that the realization of this value is worth the moral price paid for strong role differentiation.” (p.7)

Goldman’s very interesting and useful book is, mainly, an evaluation of “arguments that attempt to provide... justification of role differentiation within specific professions.” (p.7) He examines judges, legislators, lawyers, doctors, and corporate managers. His result is that judges, prosecutors, and police do have strong role differentiation (283). Not so with the latter three groups examined: lawyers generally, doctors and business managers. (284-286) Their special norms or “professional ethics” do not successfully override personal perception of moral right and wrong. His clarification and criticism of the use of professional codes to justify behavior is quite trenchant (pp. 288-291) and would not be welcome by many of those who—as I have suggested—use professional ethics as a tool for managing their image and manipulating the public.

And yet I believe it does not go deeply enough. The fundamental point to be made is that Goldman’s account of professional ethics remains at the level of defense against charges of wrongdoing. The problem is the justification of action by special norms or goals imposed by the profession, and the guidance of action by norms which can serve in such justification. The person who is “morally okay” on this vision of professional ethics may be an individual whose only use of professional ethics is to stay out of moral trouble. He or she may be in the respected profession for no moral ends of their own, without any moral sense of vocation and hence with no commitment to being a doctor, nurse, teacher, or journalist, for example, as this individual way of being a good, a morally admirable person. Being a “fill in the blank” may then be a means to money, social status, or “something to do.” But it is not the focus, or a chief focus of integrated moral personality.

Is there an alternative? I believe that there is, but one which requires that we return to what I may loosely call moral inspiration for such diverse works as Plato’s Republic and Spinoza’s Ethics.

What we make of professional ethics will very largely depend upon what we make of ethics period, and the conception of ethics under which we currently operate in this country is one articulated almost wholly in terms of rights and rights claims, and the consequences of actions and policies. Consequently, the obligations and values now at issue in ethical discussions have only incidentally to do with the kinds of people we are. And, to make the long story short, the norms of professional ethics into the requirements of moral personality, i.e., into what it is to be an admirable person.[i]

Plato and others like him were not necessarily further from the truth in their views of human praiseworthiness because they lived long ago. For classical ethics the basic question was: For what are you alive? To be a ship’s pilot was to engage in a totally integrated kind of function; that is, one which brought the full personality to bear upon correctly guiding ships, or, at least, one not interfered with by other forces within the self. Any human need of great importance may generate a function of sufficient weight to serve as the core of one’s life. At a primitive level, the demand for food and shelter.

But this return to the self must not be just to the self’s absolute responsibility to abstract moral principles: don’t lie, don’t steal, etc. This approach is inadequate because it does not take into account the special obligations which accrue to the professional role. That is, I think, the point of Goldman’s book. But Goldman is concerned only with the limits of justification of the professional (in his or her specialty), not with acting merely in completely generalizable moral perceptions of right and wrong. He does not take as the primary focus the professional’s opportunity to live for a great and significant value, to integrate his or her life around it and find life’s meaning therein. The excellence of the professional life is not something that can be captured in rules for right and wrong action in the professional-specific domain. As Aristotle long ago said, and as all of the great moralists have recognized in one way or another, the praiseworthy person is not the one who does the great act, but the one who does the just act as the just person would do it: namely, from certain habits, motivations and insights that express who this person is and what dominates their life as a whole. Professional rectitude also is not to be viewed as just one dimension of technical competence: of “being really professional.” It is, rather, a condition of the total personality, that to which the individual is devoted as their way of being a morally admirable individual.

This way of understanding the relation between profession and ethics takes correctness and an individuation—I cannot say “individuality” since that word is ruined in our culture by abstract negativity—seriously. That is, it holds that one’s place in life, whether it can usefully be called professional or not, is the primary moral fact as well as psychological fact. It is out of my “station” that my duties come, and in response to that station that I become an admirable or not so admirable individual as I respond by there integrating, or failing to integrate, my whole life around the major human values: moral, aesthetic and theoretical.

It is only by holding this picture of life, and of the professional life, before us that we can make professional ethics ethics. Modern ethical thinking like modern culture generally—at least in the Anglo-Saxon dominated world—denies, or denies the moral relevance of, the concrete self: the self that has a mother living in Cleveland, buck teeth, enjoys professional wrestling and garlic, majored in Anthropology before taking up accounting, and is a supervisor at J. C. Penny’s regional office downtown. It does not see the primary moral task for the individual to be to pull him/herself together around something of value, and how work, being work, must have a central function in this task of moral integration, bringing that order and appropriate subordination in the self and its world which all of the great Western moralists up to natural law doctrines, and many beyond this (Butler, Kant) saw as the ideal for the moral life.

One effect of this way of understanding professional ethics is that many “failures” of practice—the mistakes really are seen to be ethical failures—failures to develop as persons to where they understood the conditions of their work and how the kind of people we are effects the failures of our work.

Another effect is the vitalization of work effort. John Gardner has noted that “much of the lethargy in a decaying social system is traceable to the large number of individuals who no longer believe in what they are doing. Those who can find something to believe in and work for are granted a blessed release from emptiness.” (quoted in L.A. Times, 2/8/1984, Pt.V, p.3)

[i] One of the things that makes one most uneasy about professional ethics is how comfortable everyone talking is. Can I really be that morally comfortable about my performance in my professional role as a teacher, writer and intellectual? Then maybe I have just adjusted my “ethics” until they are not ethics anymore. What do I take to be the ethical demands of my profession?

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