Professional Responsibility and Ethics

     Copyright © 2005 Bruce W. Hauptli

Professional responsibility is a “hot topic” now.  Some individuals hope that by encouraging the discussion of professional responsibility, we will produce moral professionals.  I hold no such wild hopes.  On the other hand, I also reject the orientation of those who believe such discussion is pointless.  When pressed on the subject of professional responsibility, such individuals usually base their rejection on some version of the claim that “business and ethics don’t mix”.  While few like the crass tone of this remark, any working professional knows that moral scruples cost—in the real world outside this lecture hall, being a moral professional means being at a competitive disadvantage.  Many believe the costs are so great that moral considerations should be utterly divorced from professional considerations.  Such a view might be called the Myth of Amoral Professional.1  A simplistic yet appropriate reply to the view that business and ethics do not mix is one which continues “nor do business managers and heaven.”

     A more detailed response to this sort of view would be one which examined in greater detail the notion of professional responsibility.  I will sketch such a response here today.  In short, I will elaborate a position which strongly contrasts with that offered by those who would have us accept the Myth of the Amoral Professional.  I will claim that the moral considerations encapsulated in our general moral framework almost always override professional considerations, and that becoming a professional generally means becoming burdened with additional responsibilities—[moral] responsibilities over and above those which are incumbent upon us all generally speaking.

     There are at least three reasons for maintaining that moral considerations generally override professional considerations.  Listed in order of decreasing strenuousness they are:  

one might point out that however central the aims and goals of a given profession are to our lives, they are not intrinsically valuable (whereas the aims of morality are);

one might maintain that while both the aims of the professions and of morality are important to human happiness, the moral concerns are more important in this regard; or

one might claim that professional activities are only possible in a generally moral environment and, thus, that moral concerns, aims, and goals must generally be considered to be prior to those of any profession.

The third argument is a popular one.  It offers a rationale for moral behavior which could appeal to the most egoistic amongst us—it maintains that if all those engaged in professional activities (the designers, producers, managers, advisors, facilitators, sellers, and buyers) were amoral or immoral, then professional activities would quickly grind to a halt.2  I will not develop such arguments for the priority of moral considerations today however—that would be a topic for a much longer presentation.  Instead I wish examine the consequences of such a view such—that is, I wish to see what professional responsibility amounts to when one believes that moral considerations generally over-ride other considerations (be they professional or non-professional).

     Many who take up the topic of professional responsibility maintain that while the moral considerations codified in our common moral framework generally override the special considerations of a professional, there are numerous specifiable occasions where it is appropriate to contend that they are outweighed by professional considerations or interests.  That is, some individuals contend that various professionals have special demands placed upon them which excuse those professionals from certain of their general moral obligations.  For example, business managers sometimes claim that they need to pursue profit goals without moral restraint because their obligation to their stock-holders outweighs their general moral obligations to others (the consumers, the environment, etc.).  Lawyers, to cite another example, often claim that the requirement that they place their clients’ interests first outweighs their general obligation to tell the truth.  Similarly, doctors sometimes claim that the need to prolong the lives of their patients outweighs their general obligation to consider the patients’ other desires.  In such situations these professionals respond to charges of moral misconduct by appealing to the special goals, norms, and rules of their professions.  They hold that these goals, norms, and rules, at least in some situations, outweigh the moral considerations, interests, and goals which are generally held to apply to all human agents.

     Clearly, the claim that professional goals, norms, and rules outweigh the moral ones can not simply be a matter of personal preference.  If this were all there were to the claim that professional interests, rules, and norms may override the dictates of morality, we would quickly degenerate into a moral relativism where individuals would not be bound to any values or obligations beyond those of the group they choose to associate with.  This would undercut the professionals’ activities however—a business managers’ unbridled pursuit of profit given a personal preference for profit as opposed to morality, for example, serves to undercut the general moral climate which is a prerequisite for business activities in the first place.  In other words, the argument for moral considerations outweighing the business manager’s professional obligations is that where the business manager holds that thing are the other-way-around, business itself becomes impossible.

     I believe this sort of argument may be extended beyond the case of the business profession to include other professions: the activities which professionals engage in are possible and make sense only against the background of a generally accepted moral framework.  If this is correct, then any deviations from the general constraints imposed by this moral framework must be justified in a manner which avoids engendering a relativism which would ultimately undercut these professional activities themselves.

     A plausible argument legitimating the claim that certain professional goals, norms, and rules may outweigh those of our general moral framework would allow the assignment of a special status to the professionals’ concerns, interests, and goals if this served more important general social goals and interests (i.e., some of the goals and interests considered fundamental by our general moral framework).3  Thus one might maintain that lawyers may assign a special weight  to their professional relationships with their clients (especially in regard to confidentiality, advocacy, etc.) since this aids us in our efforts to advance the important moral concerns of justice.  Similarly, we might maintain that judges and police officers must place certain professional considerations above the general moral ones if justice is to be served.  If these professionals can justify their deviation from what the general moral framework calls for by claiming that the deviations advance one of the fundamental values which that framework serves to foster and protect, their divergence from what is generally required may be deemed legitimate.4

     In his The Moral Foundations of Professional Ethics Alan Goldman suggests that the justification most often advanced for the claim that the business professional’s special interests may make an overriding claim is one which holds that the unbridled pursuit of profits in the free market engenders a greater aggregate welfare than would otherwise be possible.  Given the individualism implicit in the free-market assumptions generally embraced by those who offer this argument, Goldman sees an underlying contradiction between the concern for the individual which is the fundamental value from which the argument proceeds and the concern for the benefits for the aggregate or collectivity which are promised should the managers be allowed to deviate from the general moral requirements.  Goldman claims that this contradiction vitiates the claim that business professionals may deviate from the general moral norms.5  In effect, this argument claims that it is not the case that the aims and goals appealed to here are of the fundamental sort which might justify the claim that the professionals’ concerns may override the demands placed upon us by our general moral framework.6

     Where an appeal to such fundamental aims or goals is legitimate, and, thus, we grant a degree of moral license to professionals which is greater than that granted to other individuals, we will wish to ensure that these professionals adhere closely to the norms, goals, and rules of their profession which allow for the overriding of our general moral constraints.  Here a profession’s “Code Of Conduct” or “Code of Ethics” becomes important—it should specify the sorts of situations wherein professionals may legitimately claim that their behavior is appropriate although it diverges from that which is generally required by our moral framework.  Traditionally society has allowed professional codes of conduct to be developed and administered by professional organizations because these groups seem best suited to determine whether specific individuals have acquired the relevant arcane knowledge and they seem best suited to judge whether individual professionals have properly applied such knowledge in particular circumstances while adhering faithfully to the norms, goals, and rules of their profession.

     In addition to specifying the situations wherein the professional concerns may outweigh the general moral restraints, the profession’s Code of Conduct should specify how the profession will police itself.  Since the members of the profession are best suited to determine whether a specific case is one where professional concerns override moral considerations, these individuals must be prepared to evaluate the acts of particular professionals to determine whether they fall within such an area of license.  The professional Code must clearly indicate that it is each member’s responsibility to regularly evaluate the professional actions of others and determine whether they fall within this area and it must specify what is to be done (by individuals and by the profession at large) when this determination is negative.  The license granted the professionals to diverge from the moral norm should be granted only where they assume the attendant responsibility of evaluating the acts of their fellow professionals to insure that this license is not abused.

     While the members of a profession are especially suited to determine whether or not a specific professional act falls within the class of those which are licensed, the general latitude offered these individuals requires that their behavior indeed be such as to support the fundamental goals of our general moral framework.  The professionals themselves have no special expertise in determining whether this is the case—they are no more adept in determining whether certain kinds of actions are efficacious here than are those outside their profession.  Nor are their professional evaluations of their fellows immune to general criticism.  Where doubts are cast upon a profession’s evaluations of professional acts, nonprofessionals may step in and evaluate whether or not the alleged overriding benefits are indeed accruing to the society at large.  Where they are not, the license should be revoked since the latitude offered the members of the profession is conditional upon it indeed yielding the general benefits.

     In the case of many professions, no leeway will be available to the professional—there will be no professional actions which warrant granting an exception to the moral obligations which apply to citizens in general.  In these cases (though this will be the case where are such over-riding conditions also), being a professional of imposes additional responsibilities upon individuals.  Here a different role of Professional Codes emerges: rather than codifying cases of legitimate divergence from the general moral requirements, these codes may (or may also) provide a codification of the increased responsibilities which one assumes upon entering a profession.

     While lawyers, for example, may be freed from some of the obligations in regard to truth telling and full disclosure, their profession also imposes additional responsibilities upon them which do not burden the general population.  The obligation to vigorously pursue the legal remedies available, to diligently investigate the factual and legal environment relative to a case, to demand consistency from the courts, to protect individuals’ legal rights, and to clearly and correctly present their cases are all obligations which the taking up of the profession imposes upon the lawyer.  Lawyers who fail to fulfill these additional obligations act unprofessionally, and they should be censured by the other members of their profession.

     Such unprofessional acts are not simply undesirable.  Their immorality comes clearly into focus when one recognizes that professionals offer services to others.  In offering such services one incurs obligations which one would not otherwise have to meet.  The case is similar to promising here: by promising someone something I incur an obligation which I could have avoided by refraining from promising.  Similarly in the case of taking up a profession: by becoming a lawyer one takes on additional responsibilities which could easily be avoided by not taking up the law.  Of course, one may choose to participate in legal activities indirectly—one might feel an obligation to protect First Amendment rights and, thus, join the ACLU, but one is not obligated to take up such a cause or to battle legal inequities.  In taking up a profession, however, one does assume additional responsibilities.

     Where a profession is granted no license to diverge from the dictates of our general moral framework but is encumbered such with additional responsibilities, its Professional Code should codify these additional responsibilities.  The Code must also codify the professionals’ responsibilities in enforcing such a Code—some group must be charged with evaluating individuals’ actions to determine whether or not these additional responsibilities have been met.  As was noted before, society generally allows the professions themselves to devise and enforce such Codes because the members of the profession seem best able to determine whether or not specific individuals are living up to the rules, norms, and goals specified.  Where a Professional Code does not dictate such responsibilities, or fails to specify an enforcement policy, it is generally useless and does not deserve to be called an Ethical or Moral Code.  Indeed, if a “profession” only pays lip-service to the increased responsibilities which its members must accept, we may wish to withdraw the term honorific term ‘professional’ and treat the individuals as a mere group, association, or club.

     In addition to specifying the additional responsibilities an individual assumes as she or he enters the profession and to specifying the procedures by which the profession will enforce the Code, a Professional Code should protect the interests of those to whom the professionals are offering their services; it should apply to all the individuals in the profession equally (whether they are self-employed or work for a corporation); it should clarify the extent of an individuals’ loyalty to the professional code (addressing whether the additional responsibilities one assumes take precedence over loyalty to one’s employer, for example); and it should indicate what steps can be taken when individuals find that the profession itself is acting inappropriately (by indicating, for example, what steps can be taken to modify or strengthen the Code).7


1 Cf., Richard T. DeGeorge, Business Ethics (second edition) (New York: Macmillan, 1986).   Back

2 DeGeorge offers this argument on p. 9 of his Business Ethics, op. cit.  Kenneth J. Arrow, in his “Social Responsibility and Economic Efficiency,” Public Policy, v. 21 (1973), also states this view quite clearly.   Back

3 Cf., Alan Goldman, The Moral Foundations of Professional Ethics (Totowa: Rowman and Littlefield, 1980) pp. 18-26.  Back

4 Goldman’s book develops this argument in detail.  He claims that the legal, judicial, and law enforcement professions provide norms, rules, and goals which may place obligations upon the professionals which can outweigh the demands imposed by our general moral framework.  He also argues that this is not the case with the medical and business professions.   Back

5 Cf., ibid., pp. 280-281.  An additional aspect of Goldman’s argument which is important here is his emphasis upon individual rights.  Given the importance he assigns to these rights, it is unlikely that contributions to the aggregate good could be considered conducive to more fundamental values which could override moral requirements which are designed to protect these individual rights.   Back

6 Utilitarian theory might have an easier time in this regard and might claim that normal moral requirements (those codified in the “secondary rules” of morality) could be overridden by professional concerns.  On a deeper level, of course, utilitarians would maintain that morality could not be overridden by professional demands—all individuals are to work for the greatest happiness on their theory.   Back

7 DeGeorge discusses the desiderata for Professional Codes on pp. 338 ff. of his Business Ethics, op. citBack

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Last revised: 07/31/2005