The Marks of a Profession

This is a handout Dallas used in his Philosophy 141g course, "The Professions and the Public Interest in American Life."


The Marks of a Profession:

  1. A profession is a practice (action or advice) on the behalf of others of some activity of great importance to the well-being of society generally.
  2. The practice is dependent upon a large body of “esoteric knowledge and high skill” (Callahan p. 31d), possession of which confers upon the respective professionals an exclusive right to practice. A profession is always to some degree a monopoly.
  3. The professional knowledge and skill required to be professional is acquired only through association and training with superiors within the pre-existing professional group; AND the degree to which one possesses it (is ‘good at it’) can be determined only by professional peers and superiors. This is why the profession as such must be socially organized and recognized and cannot exist without public support. A ‘profession’ unrecognized (and hence without public support) is no profession. Whether a professional has acted ‘professionally’ and therefore responsibly can only be determined by “expert witnesses” from the same profession. Thus, a profession is essentially non-egalitarian.
  4. Therefore, the member of a profession are essentially obligated to their society and the professional body which it makes possible through its trust, respect, and provision. Their service to the profession and society is owed because they owe their very existence as a professional to the profession and society. The professional in professing asks to be trusted by the public, and invokes the profession as certification that she is trustworthy: both in terms of experience and good intentions. If strictly self-interested he or she is not to be trusted, no matter how good their experience. (See Ruskin ‘Due Occasion”.) For when the chips are down, they will do what is in their interest, not that of the profession, society, and the client.
  5. Because of the foregoing, the profession and professional status confers a dignified identity upon the practitioner in good standing. “They are! Somebody!” The professional is essentially a person with authority and honor in society. Note: Recommended reading Samuel Haber The Quest for Authority and Honor. Especially note the historical connection in America of the professional role with that of the “gentleman and scholar” in England, and the traditional primacy of university education to professional standing. (pp. x-xi). Note also how “From the beginning…professionalization in America was linked with the ‘art or rising in life’ with upward mobility” (p. 6). Note also the historical association with the warrior class, and how that was modified under the impact of Christian ideas (pp. 9-14).
  6. The professional is “never for hire” and retains a certain freedom based upon her special knowledge and social role. She cannot be ‘bought’ or controlled, because of her special knowledge, which means she knows best, and her special dignity deriving from devotion to objectives transcending her self-interest.
  7. Finally, being a profession, or a professional, permits of degrees (Callahan 36c-d) or is a matter of “family resemblance” (Haber p. x). The degree of resemblance is always measured against the class defining members of the extension of the concept profession and professional. They set the type.


For more of Dallas's teaching on the professions, see Called to Business and The Divine Conspiracy Continued.

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