3 Jan, 17 | by Iain Brassington
“Professionalism” is a funny thing. About this time last year, I was struggling to get a new course written for the coming semester; it was on professional ethics for lawyers. A colleague made a comment along the lines that I must be spending a lot of time looking at the professional codes; I replied that I’d be spending almost none doing that; she looked baffled and wandered off, presumably convinced that I was joking.
I wasn’t joking. I did look a little at the professional codes, but only as a jumping-off point. My schtick was more like, “Here’s what the SRA says about client confidentiality; now let’s spend the remaining 98% of this lecture looking at why it might say that, and whether it ought to say something different”.
Yet, as I wrote the lectures, professionalism – not professional codes, but professionalism – did keep cropping up. After all, if you’re going to talk about lawyers’ ethics, or doctors’ ethics, or engineers’ ethics, the implication has to be that there’s something quite specific that applies to each of those professions, otherwise it just collapses into… well, ethics; and it might be that there is a clear way to define who belongs to the profession, and a clear hierarchy, and that it is proper (or, at least, it may be proper) that there is some sort of pressure exerted by that hierarchy that shapes behaviour in a way that neither the law nor standard social norms do. There are some things that are regulated by professional ethics that aren’t regulated by bog-standard ethics. To return to the lawyers’ example, there might be certain things that are acceptable or even required from a lawyer that wouldn’t be in other cases, and other things that are unacceptable that are trivial outside the profession; and the same might apply to medics. (In passing, I think that that might be one of the fault lines in academic medical ethics: those of us that come from a philosophical background understand “ethics” to mean one thing, and those of us who come from a medical or, in at least some cases, a social science background understand it to mean another. We normally rub along fine, but sometimes we are talking at cross-purposes.)
A range of problems arises from that, though. For example, though codes of ethics might attempt to codify what it is that’s demanded by professionals, they’re often rather vague, or presuppose a heck of a lot that’s actually rather important. That can lead to situations in which it’s impossible to tell what’s required on the ground. “Maintaining the reputation of the profession” is a concern of some of the professional codes I’ve seen, though quite what that means is anyone’s guess, since it might collapse to “doing whatever keeps the public on side, no matter how senseless”; and while that might maintain esteem in one sense, it does so only by undermining the concept of professional integrity.
A second problem comes from the need to know what things are properly within the “professional” remit, and what professional bodies have any business talking about. The difficulty here is that “professionalism” implies living a kind of life; being a professional involves being a certain kind of person. One doesn’t stop being a professional when the end-of-shift klaxon goes. And yet there’re certain things that do have nothing to do with professional regulation: whether or not to be teetotal is not a professional matter, and a professional body that tried to involve itself in such decisions would be stepping over the line. Still, where the line should be drawn may not be obvious.