The Intractable Plurality of Values
  • Lisa H. Newton
Part of the Contemporary Issues in Biomedicine, Ethics, and Society book series (CIBES)


Any account of the professions, and of the role played by professions in the larger society, must meet two criteria: it must include the salient characteristics of professions, even the characteristics apparently in conflict; and it must make logical and moral sense of the substantial rights and responsibilities assigned to them. The two features most publicly associated with professionalism, by any profession’s own declaration at least, are maximal competence in a certain area of knowledge or skill, and a moral commitment to the public good in that area; these features may be treated as the individually necessary and jointly sufficient conditions to justify “professionalization,” i.e., the social award of a legitimate monopoly of practice in that area to the organized profession. A third prominent feature of some professions is the commitment on the part of individual professionals to the welfare and interests of individuals in their charge—clients, patients, students, or parishioners—even when (as in certain cases of maintenance of “confidentiality”) protection of such interests is contrary to the public good and thus apparently derogates from the “public service” commitment above. This feature too can be integrated into the larger picture of the common good as productive of social welfare in the long run. By reassuring the public that confidences will be respected, such a provision increases public trust in the profession and encourages the public to resort to professionals in time of need. There is also a fourth characteristic of most professions: the professionals seem to be able to command very large fees. This feature can be justified as a benefit of legal monopoly.For example, remuneration is one more inducement to the profession to adhere to the set of rules identified as its “professional ethic,” general adherence to which will benefit the society as a whole: if the ethic is substantially violated the monopoly will be withdrawn and the benefit will be lost. 2 The first criterion is well met by this account; the second is satisfied in the assumption that the specific moral commitment of any profession fits an area of social concern or need: there must be a match between the service that the profession is qualified to provide and an area of public need that would be very difficult to provide for through ordinary public facilities. Such a close fit between professionally offered service and demand—conjoined with the requirements that provision of the service entail lengthy training in esoteric skill and knowledge, that the providers offering the service can validate claims to competence in it, and that they have publicly committed themselves to use their skills only for the public good—justifies entrusting that area of social need to the providers of that service.


Public Service Large Society Professional Practice Professional Ethic Collective Responsibility 
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Notes and References

  1. 1.
    This paper is a revised version of a paper read at the inaugural meeting of the Society for Philosophy and the Professions, December 27, 1978, in conjunction with the annual meeting of the Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    See the account along these lines in Kenneth Kipnis’ article in this volume, “Professional Responsibility and the Responsibility of Professions.”Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Kurt Baier, “Guilt and Responsibility” in Individual and Collective Responsibility, P. French, ed. (Cambridge, Ma.: Schenkman Pub. Co., 1972), pp. 35–61.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    And perhaps it should avoid the whole process. See Alison Jaggar, “Philosophy as a Profession” Metaphilosophy 6: (1975), 100–116.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    That membership figure on the AMA is from Tristram Engelhardt’s paper on “Physician’s Responsibility and the Community of Physicians,” read at a conference on Collective Responsibility in the Professions, Dayton, Ohio, October 27, 1978.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    Richard T. DeGeorge, “Moral Responsibility and the Corporation,” read at the conference on Collective Responsibility in the Professions (n. 5).Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    Cited by Kipnis, op. cit. p. 5.Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    As Monroe Freedman points out in Lawyers’ Ethics in an Adversary System (Indianapolis and New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1975), portions of the professional ethic of law may be flatly incompatible with pursuit of the public interest, not just potentially but actually and alwaysGoogle Scholar
  9. 8.
    See Stephen Toulmin, “The Meaning of Professionalism: Doctors’ Ethics and Biomedical Science” in Knowledge, Value and Belief, H. T. Engelhardt Jr. and D. Callahan, eds., (Hastings-on-Hudson, New York: Hastings Center, 1977), 264–268.Google Scholar
  10. 9.
    Some elements of the following account are borrowed from Engelhardt, op. cit., n. 5.Google Scholar
  11. 10.
    Toulmin, op. cit., p. 256.Google Scholar
  12. 11.
    Kipnis, op. cit. p.11, n. 6.Google Scholar
  13. 12.
    See Toulmin, op. cit..Google Scholar
  14. 13.
    Op. cit. pp. 256, 258.Google Scholar
  15. 14.
    See Engelhardt, op. cit., n. 5.Google Scholar
  16. 15.
    “The Fragmentation of Value,” in Knowledge, Value and Belief, op. cit., p. 290.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© The Humana Press Inc. 1983

Authors and Affiliations

  • Lisa H. Newton

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