Within the broad field of applied ethics, professional ethics assesses the moral dimension of human activity in the classic occupations of law, medicine, ministry and by extension higher education, engineering, journalism, management and other occupations that aspire to professional status. Professional ethics is concerned with the standards and moral conduct that govern the profession and its members. More specifically, professional ethics examines issues, problems, and the social responsibility of the profession itself and individual practitioners in the light of philosophical and, in some contexts, religious principles among which are duty and obligation.
Occupations that by social consent enjoy professional status are generally characterized by the following criteria: technical training that implies generalized knowledge, detailed information and practical skills in a specific field; an institutionalized mode of validating or certifying mastery of this knowledge and the accompanying skills; and, an institutionalized means of insuring that they will be put to service in the public good. Associations made up of the professionals themselves set standards to secure the competence and integrity of members engaged in private practice and, in some fields such as medicine and law, structures to monitor their conduct. These same standards are in many cases reinforced by civil law through a process of examinations and licensing.
It is characteristic of professional ethics that, in addition to providing guidelines that govern the relationship of the professional with clients, as in the case of a doctorpatient relationship, they define norms that govern the professional's responsibility to colleagues and the public as a whole, as in the case of lawyers who are officers of the court and sworn to serve the cause of justice. This latter point is illustrated by the guidelines provided by the American Bar Association and the American Medical Association governing advertising. Lawyers and doctors may participate in programs that provide information and educate the public regarding services available in order that individuals be in a position to make informed choices regarding the selection of specialists who can address their needs. It is improper, however, for advertising to promote one lawyer or doctor at the expense of others.
Theoretical Issues and Specialized Questions.
Professional ethics raise a number of theoretical and specialized questions that are not easily resolved. Among the theoretical issues is the extent to which the special norms and principles governing the professions override individual rights and other moral principles. Professional ethics is concerned with the obligations and responsibility that arise out of a particular kind of service performed for individuals or groups, and in that sense approximate obligations arising out of contractual agreements. In themselves the norms of professional ethics do not define the social or personal relationships of individuals towards one another.
Every code of professional ethics puts greater or lesser emphasis on the confidentiality that is intrinsic to every professional relationship. Counselors, accountants, clergy and other professionals are narrowly restricted in what they can discuss about their clients, and it goes without saying that they cannot reveal information that they have come to know through private conversation or examinations. The client's right to privacy must be safeguarded on the one hand, and the professional cannot use information for personal gain or aggrandizement. The right to confidentiality, however, is not absolute. Laws in many states require that doctors report gunshot wounds, and teachers, counselors, nurses, and others report evidence of child abuse.
Contribution of Catholic Ethics. Although philosophical and religious ethics hold much in common when analysis in each discipline is brought to bear on the dilemmas faced by and the virtues and character required of professionals, there is a specific meaning as well as a transcendent horizon or purpose that religious ethics generally, and Catholic ethics in particular, bring to the discussion.
The Roman Catholic understanding of professional ethics is based on a theology of work and vocation. In biblical and papal teaching, it is not just physical labor that is central to human identity, but work includes the notion of intellectual activity and service as well. The Church opposes every economic and political system that erodes the connection between human dignity and work. Catholic values, shared by other religious believers, see work as a calling from God, a sharing in divine creativity that is directed to the common good as well as the transcendent horizon, the Kingdom of God. The Second Vatican Council declared in Gaudium et spes,
People are not deterred by the Christian message from building up the world, or impelled to neglect the welfare of their fellows. They are, rather, more stringently bound to do these very things (n. 34).
In laborem exercens, Pope John Paul II stated, "Work serves to add to the heritage of the whole human family, of all the people living in the world" (par. 10).
"To profess" has clear resonance in the Catholic tradition. Members of religious orders and congregations profess their vows publicly. They affirm their membership in a community and proclaim their willingness to fulfill the mission of the group as set forth in the rules and constitutions. Similarly, Catholic social teaching reaffirms that the professional's primary obligation is to the public good in some form, with financial remuneration playing a distinctly subordinate role.
Crisis in Professional Ethics. In the 1980s the popular media reported a widespread collapse of ethical standards in general and in the professions in particular (Time, May 25, 1987). One reason for the crisis in professional ethics was said to be that professions had lost their heritage, one which is rooted in the Christian understanding of profession as commitment (Campbell 1982). This loss of heritage, however, is not an indictment of the professions so much as a statement that is descriptive of a cultural crisis presently facing Western civilization.
This loss of a cultural consensus has its roots in the profound changes wrought by technological innovation and scientific discovery in the middle of the 20th century: splitting the atom, developing the computer and telecommunications, and unlocking the genetic code. An emphasis on individualism, human freedom, and privacy (summed up as human rights) coupled with unprecedented economic power in a pluralistic/heterogeneous American society contribute to the loss of consensus that explains much of the present concern about professional ethics. The central question becomes "What is the social responsibility of the doctor, lawyer, minister, and by extension, educator, manager, engineer, accountant, journalist, social worker, and public policy maker?" It is a question that was not likely to be asked in a social context which assumed that certain standards and values were held in common. Professional behavior was virtually dictated by a consensus among the practitioners and popular expectations woven into the fabric of everyday life. (It must be acknowledged, however, that the consensus also resulted to some extent in a society in which women and minorities, whose roles were also sharply defined, found many of the professions closed to them.)
Although the moral complexity created by technological innovation and cultural pluralism is not of the individual's making, it is the responsibility of the individual professional—doctor, lawyer, scientist—to take a stance. Not everything that is medically and scientifically possible is permissible. To what extent does the technological imperative alone define the moral and legal context? The question is not one that individual professionals can be expected to resolve in principle even though, by default, they must resolve it in practice on a case-by-case basis. They face ethical dilemmas for which there is no precedent. Their responsibility to clients must be balanced against larger social issues as, for example, the right of an AIDS patient to anonymity and the need to safeguard the public from an infectious disease. Consequently, the requirements of social responsibility are central in any discussion of professional ethics.
The task facing the professions in the last decade of the 20th century is to discern ethical responsibility tentatively in an age of change while building a community in which the common good has primacy. The twin challenges of discerning personal moral behavior and the common good are no small matters. In Roman Catholic ethics this individual/social issue is clarified by the natural law tradition as well as by contemporary Catholic thinking which emphasizes historical consciousness and interprets the human person as responding to God's call in history and community.
To be designated a professional demands a commitment to the common good. Thus, to be a professional is to be called. It is to have a vocation, not just a career connoting upward mobility, success, and wealth. In the Catholic tradition, this call is from God and signifies that it is not only in our work (in vocatione ) but through our work (per vocationem ) that we carry out the task of continuing creativity and preparing for the Kingdom of God (Frankena 1976).
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[j. r. wilcox]