Profession and Professionalism

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Engineering is generally considered a profession, but science, or at least some of the sciences, are sometimes counted as professions and sometimes distinguished from them. Often, a dispute about the professional status of a science begins when someone proposes it have a code of ethics. What is a profession? What has professional status to do with ethics? What distinction, if any, exists between the professional status of engineering and science? Why should the professional status of either matter?

Four Senses of "Profession"

In ordinary usage, profession has at least four senses. First, profession can be a mere synonym for vocation (or calling), that is, any useful activity to which one devotes (and perhaps feels called to devote) much of one's life. (If the activity were not useful, it would be a hobby rather than a vocation.) Profession in this sense has no necessary relation to income. Even a gentleman—in the now outdated sense describing someone rich enough to live comfortably without working—might have such a profession. Max Weber's "Science as a Vocation" (1901) explains how a now-bureaucratized professoriate can still be a vocation in this sense. Weber never uses the term profession.

Second, profession can be a synonym for occupation, that is, any typically full-time activity (defined by function or discipline) by which practitioners generally earn a living. In this sense, one may, without irony, speak of a professional thief or professional athlete. The opposite of professional (in this sense) is amateur (one who engages in the activity for love rather than money) or dilettante (one who lacks the seriousness of those who must live by such work). This is the sense of profession from which professionalism derives. To exhibit professionalism is to exhibit the knowledge, skill, or judgment characteristic of someone who makes a good living in the occupation. Both engineers and scientists are now generally professionals in this sense, though science still seems to have more room than engineering for amateurs and dilettantes.

Third, profession can refer to any occupation one may openly admit to or profess, that is, an honest occupation: While athletics can be a profession in this sense, neither thieving nor being a gentleman can. Thieving cannot because it is not honest; being a gentleman (in its outdated sense) cannot because, though an honest way of life, it is not an occupation. Occupation seems to be the (primary) sense of profession in Émile Durkheim's seminal work on professions (written about the same time as Weber's work on vocation).

These three senses of profession are alike in having obvious synonyms. If profession had only these senses, it would, being redundant, seem destined to disappear from use. Its increasing popularity suggests that these three senses derive from a fourth, the primary sense and the source of the term's popularity. Profession in this fourth sense is a special kind of honest occupation. There are at least two competing approaches to defining it: the sociological and the philosophical.

Sociological Definitions

The sociological approach to defining profession has its origin in the social sciences. Its language tends to be statistical; the definition does not purport to state necessary or sufficient conditions for an occupation to be a profession, but merely what is true of "most professions," "the most important professions," or the like. Generally, sociological definitions understand a profession to be any honest occupation whose practitioners have high social status, high income, advanced education, important social function, or some combination of these or other features easy for the social sciences to measure.

Sociological definitions differ a good deal. Some emphasize public service, (individual) autonomy, (group) self-regulation, dangerous knowledge, having a code of ethics, or the like, while others do not. What explains the great variety of sociological definitions? Part of the explanation is that, being statistical, such definitions are not threatened by a few counter-examples. But that is only part of the explanation. Another factor is that when the counter-examples grow more numerous than the professions fitting the definition, defenders can distinguish between true professions, fully developed professions, or paradigms and those not fitting the definition (pseudo-professions, less well developed professions, or quasi-professions). The only professions that appear on every sociological list of true, fully developed, paradigmatic professions are law and medicine. When evidence suggests that even these do not fit the definition, sociologists can retreat again, claiming that their definition states an ideal type that actual professions only approximate. When asked why this ideal type is chosen over another, sociologists generally explain the choice in terms of a theory of society they accept (Marxist, Weberian, Durkheimian, or the like). Sociological definitions seem to derive from theory, not evidence. The way professions understand themselves plays a surprisingly small part in the sociological approach.

For most sociological definitions, little distinguishes contemporary professions from what used to be called the liberal professions (those few honest vocations requiring a university degree in most of early modern Europe). Carpentry cannot be a profession (in the sociological sense) because both the social status and education of carpenters are too low. Science is a profession in this sense because scientists have relatively high status, high income, advanced education, and important social functions. Technical managers also form a profession in this sense because they too tend to have high income, high status, advanced education, and an important social function. According to most sociological definitions, Europe and the Americas have had professions for many centuries.

Philosophical Definitions

The philosophical approach to defining profession attempts to state necessary and sufficient conditions. A philosophical definition is therefore much more sensitive to counter-example than sociological definitions are. Philosophical definitions may be developed in one of (at least) two ways: the Cartesian or the Socratic.

The Cartesian way tries to make sense of the contents of one person's mind. One develops a definition by asking oneself what one means by a certain term, setting out that meaning in a definition, testing the definition by counter-examples and other considerations, revising whenever a counter-example or other consideration seems to reveal a flaw, and continuing that process until one has put one's beliefs in good order.

In contrast, the Socratic way seeks common ground between one or more philosophers and practitioners (those who normally use the term in question and are therefore expert in its use). A Socratic definition begins with the definition a practitioner offers. A philosopher responds with counter-examples or other criticism, inviting practitioners to revise. Often the philosopher will help by suggesting possible revisions. Once the practitioners seem satisfied with the revised definition, the philosopher again responds with counter-examples or other criticism. And so the process continues until everyone is satisfied with the result. Instead of the private monologue of the Cartesian, there is a public conversation. But neither the Cartesian nor the Socratic approach is empirical (in the way the sociological approach at least claims to be). They are equally analyses of concepts. They differ primarily in how they understand concepts. For the Cartesian, concepts are more or less private; for the Socratic, they are a public practice.

What follows is a Socratic definition: "A profession is a number of individuals in the same occupation voluntarily organized to earn a living by openly serving a certain moral ideal in a morally permissible way beyond what law, market, and morality would otherwise require."

According to this definition, the members of a would-be profession must have an occupation. Mere gentlemen cannot form a profession. Hence, members of the traditional liberal professions (clergy, physicians, and lawyers) could not form a profession until quite recently—until, that is, they ceased to be gentlemen, began to work for a living, and recognized that change in circumstance. That seems to be well after 1800. Most professions are much younger than the function they perform or the discipline they exploit.

The members of the would-be profession must not only have an occupation, they must share it. So, for example, chemists and chemical engineers cannot form one profession because they are trained in different academic departments, learn different skills, and generally do different work. They belong to different occupations.

Ethics and Professions

According to the Socratic definition above, each profession is designed to serve a certain moral ideal, that is, to contribute to a state of affairs everyone (all rational persons at their rational best) can recognize as good. So, physicians have organized to cure the sick, comfort the dying, and protect the healthy from disease; engineers, to help produce and maintain safe and useful objects; and so on. But a profession does not just organize to serve a certain moral ideal; it organizes to serve it in a certain way, that is, according to standards beyond what law, market, and morality would otherwise require. A would-be profession, then, must set special (morally permissible) standards. Otherwise it would remain nothing more than an honest occupation. Among its special standards may be a certain minimum of education, character, or skill, but inevitably some of the standards will concern conduct. These standards of conduct will be ethical (as distinct from moral): they will govern the conduct of all members of the group simply because they are members of that group (and not, as ordinary moral standards do, just because they are moral agents).

These special standards will, if effective, be ethical in another sense as well. They will be morally binding on members of the profession (and only them). The members of a profession must pursue their profession openly; that is, engineers must declare themselves to be engineers, chemists must declare themselves to be chemists, and so on. The members of a (would-be) profession must declare themselves to be members of that profession in order to earn their living by that profession. They cannot be hired as such-and-such (say, an engineer) unless they let people know that is what they are. If their profession has a good reputation for what it does, the declaration of membership will aid them in earning a living. People will seek their help. If, however, the profession has a bad reputation, their declaration of membership ("I am a tinker") will be a disadvantage. People will shun their help. The profession's special way of pursuing its moral ideal is what distinguishes its members from others in the same occupation, and from what the members would be but for their profession.

Of course, the declaration of membership must be true. Those who declare membership in a profession to which they do not belong are mere charlatans, quacks, impostors, or the like. How membership is determined may vary a good deal from one profession to another. Some professions have only a set curriculum to assure minimum knowledge. (Graduate with the appropriate degree and one is a chemist.) Other professions have only a test. (Pass the examination and, however one learned the discipline, one is an actuary.) And other professions have a more complex standard. (So, for example, to be a physician, one must graduate with a certain degree, work under supervision for a time, and pass certain examinations.) What all professions share are special standards distinguishing members from others. Whatever their origin, these standards, once accepted in practice, constitute the professional organization. The professional organization (that is, the profession) is distinct from any technical, scientific, or mutual-aid society members of a profession may form.

The members of a profession, being free to declare membership or not, will generally declare membership if, but only if, the declaration benefits them overall—that is, serves some purpose of their own at what seems reasonable cost. The purpose may be high-minded, self-interested, or even selfish. Whatever the purpose of individuals, their membership in a profession identifies them as engaged in pursuing the profession's moral ideal according to the morally permissible special standards the profession has adopted. Occupations can be "value free" (that is, have no special commitments); professions cannot.

Where members of a profession declare their membership voluntarily ("I am an architect"), they are part of a voluntary, morally permissible, cooperative practice. They are in position to have the benefits of the practice, employment as members of that profession, because the employer sought such-and-such and they (truthfully) declared their membership. They will also be in position to take advantage of the practice by doing less than the standards of practice require, even though the expectation that they would do what the standards require as declared members of the profession is part of what won them employment. If cheating consists in violating the rules of a voluntary, morally permissible, cooperative practice (that is, taking unfair advantage of the practice), then every member of a profession is in a position to cheat. Because cheating is morally wrong, every member of a profession has a moral obligation, all else equal, to do as the profession's special standards require.

A profession's ethics imposes moral obligations on members of that profession. These obligations may, and generally do, vary from profession to profession (and, within a single profession, may also vary over time). These obligations appear in a range of documents, including standards of education, admission, practice, and discipline. A code of ethics is the most general of these documents, the one concerned with the practice of the profession as such.

Status and Profession

According to the Socratic definition above, an occupation's status as a profession is (more or less) independent of license, state-imposed monopoly, and other special legal intervention. Such special legal interventions are characteristic of bureaucracy rather than profession. In principle, professions are not the creatures of law; and, even in practice, some professions (such as Certified Computer Professionals) do without license, monopoly, and other legal protection against market pressures, except for protection of their designation (such as "CCP") analogous to that the law gives to trademarks to protect the consumer from counterfeits.

An occupation's status as a profession is, according to this definition, also more or less independent of its social status, income, and other social indexes of profession. There is, for example, no profession of technical managers, even though technical managers have relatively high social status, income, and education and important social functions. What technical managers lack is a common moral ideal beyond law, market, and ordinary morality—and common standards, including a code of ethics, settling how that ideal should be pursued. There is, in contrast, certainly a profession of nursing, though nurses typically earn much less than technical managers and have much lower social status. The only high status a profession entitles one to is being regarded as more reliable or trustworthy in what one does for a living than one would (probably) be if that way of earning a living were not organized as a profession. This high status is deserved only insofar as the profession continues to meet the special standards it has set for itself. An occupation should become a profession in this fourth sense if, but only if, it is willing to assume the burdens that generate that high status. The current popularity of the terms professional and professionalism is evidence that, on the whole, the professions have been handling that burden pretty well.


SEE ALSO Codes of Ethics;Durkheim, Émile;Professional Engineering Organizations.


Abbot, Andrew. (1988). The System of Professions: An Essay on the Division of Expert Labor. Chicago: Chicago University Press. An important example of a sociological approach to professions.

Bayles, Michael. (1981). Professional Ethics. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth. A widely used text.

Camenisch, Paul. (1983). Grounding Professional Ethics in a Pluralistic Society. New York: Haven Publishing. Eclectic approach to explaining the moral status of professional obligations. Contrasts nicely with Bayles' consequentialism.

Chalk, Rosemary. (1980). AAAS Professional Ethics Project: Professional Ethics Activities in the Scientific and Engineering Societies. Washington, DC: American Association for the Advancement of Science. A collection and analysis of codes.

Davis, Michael. (1998). Thinking Like an Engineer. New York: Oxford University Press. A detailed argument for understanding engineering as a profession and understanding that status as central to how engineers actually work.

Davis, Michael. (2002). Profession, Code, and Ethics. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate. A defense of the Socratic definition of profession. Includes a chapter on whether scientists have any professional obligations (and several chapters on engineering).

Durkheim, Émile. (1957). Professional Ethics and Civic Morals, trans. Cornelia Brookfield. London: Routledge. Lectures given in the 1890s but not published until 1947. Seminal work in sociology of professions although it is actually only about occupations.

Freidson, Eliot. (2001). Professionalism: The Third Logic. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. A sociologist arguing that professions are "third logic," distinct both from free market and bureaucratic regulation. Full of interesting examples and important insights.

Gewirth, Alan. (1986). "Professional Ethics: The Separatist Thesis." Ethics 96: 282–300. Classic refutation of the claim that professional status to some degree frees professionals from the constraints of ordinary morality.

Goldman, Alan. (1980). The Moral Foundations of Professional Responsibility. Totowa, NJ: Littlefield Adams. The classic defense of the claim that some professions are to some degree free of ordinary morality.

Koehn, Daryl. (1994). The Ground of Professional Ethics. London: Routledge. An attempt to understand professions as founded on a "covenant"; a worthy example of the Cartesian approach.

Kultgen, John. (1988). Ethics and Professionalism. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. A philosopher attempting to understand professions using the sociological approach.

Larson, Magali Sarfatti. (1977). The Rise of Professionalism: A Sociological Analysis. Berkeley: University of California Press. A good example of the Marxist approach to professions. Dated but still important.

Weber, Max. (1958 [1901]). "Science as a Vocation." From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, ed. H. H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills. New York: Oxford University Press. First published in 1901. A seminal work in the sociology of professions (though it is about vocations, not professions).

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