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Professional Ethics and Collective Professional Autonomy: A Conceptual Analysis Asa Kasher ABSTRACT. In the first section, it is argued that a professional activity involves systematic knowledge and proficiency,
Professional Ethics and Collective Professional Autonomy: A Conceptual Analysis Asa Kasher ABSTRACT. In the first section, it is argued that a professional activity involves systematic knowledge and proficiency, a form of continuous improvement of the related bodies of knowledge and proficiency, as well as two levels of understanding: a local one, which is the ability to justify and explain professional acts, and a global one, which involves a conception of the whole profession and its ethical principles. The second section is devoted to a conceptual analysis of professional ethics. It is argued that it consists of a general conception of professionality, a particular conception of the profession under consideration, and a conception of the normative requirements made by the societal envelope of the professional activity, in particular basic norms of democracy. The third section draws conclusions with respect to the nature and limits of professional autonomy. It is shown that such autonomy is much more restricted than its apparent extent. Examples from engineering and other professions are provided. The purpose of this article is to outline a systematic answer to the question of collective professional autonomy, its conceptual nature and limits, and apply it by way of example to the case of the engineering profession. The first part will answer the question, What is a profession? Although communities of a distinct professional identity have existed for decades, centuries and millennia now, and many insights have been gained into the nature of professional communities, there is still no commonly held philosophical answer to that question that would provide us with a starting point for discussions of particular topics such as that of professional autonomy. Sociological delineations of the realm of professions, in terms of higher education, formal certification, full-time activity, earning a living, organization, professional society, code of ethics and related ones, abound. 1 The most recent example of the same approach is the ETHICAL PERSPECTIVES: JOURNAL OF THE EUROPEAN ETHICS NETWORK 11, no. 1 (2005): by European Centre for Ethics, K.U.Leuven. All rights reserved. ETHICAL PERSPECTIVES MARCH 2005 newly ( dot pro ) top-level internet domain being available only to certified members of the medical, legal and accounting professional communities. However, we are interested in a deep conceptual analysis of the notion of profession rather than in an enumeration of its surface features. Accordingly, the first part of the present article will be devoted to a conceptual analysis of the notion of profession as a certain sphere of human activity. Our conception of profession, as presented in what follows, involves several major ingredients of every context of professional action. One of those constitutive ingredients is going to be professional ethics. Again, though very much has been done in various areas of professional ethics, much less has been done in clarifying the notion of professional ethics itself, in the most general terms. Hence, as another part of setting the stage for a presentation of our views of professional autonomy in general, the next three sections of the paper will outline a philosophical conception of professional ethics. On the grounds of our proposed conceptions of profession and professional ethics, we will then address the issue of collective professional autonomy and offer a delineation of it, both in general and as it applies to the case of engineering. 1. PROFESSIONAL ACT AND PROFESSIONAL PRACTICE Our basic notions are those of a professional act and a professional practice. When a physician treats patients, when an engineer designs devices, when a teacher instructs pupils, each of them performs professional acts within professional practices. Apparently, such professional acts and practices are very different from each other in many respects, but our assumption is that they are also sufficiently similar to each other to justify their depiction under the same label of being professional acts and practices. 68 KASHER PROFESSIONAL ETHICS AND COLLECTIVE PROFESSIONAL AUTONOMY Conceptual analyses of the notions of professional act and professional practice should tell us in exactly what way all professional acts are similar to each other and in exactly what way all professional practices are similar to each other, as well as what are the relationships between professional acts and professional practices. We take the notion of professional practice to be primary, in the sense that questions about professions or professional aspects are answered on the basis of our answer to the question, What is a professional practice? Put differently, philosophy of profession is, so we propose, first and foremost an extension of philosophy of action and a branch of philosophy of practice, rather than part of social or moral philosophy. Using the notion of professional practice as our primary notion means that our conception is going to identify professions not with groups of persons, but rather with certain professional practices. Logically speaking, engineering is not what engineers do; engineers are those people that participate in the professional practice of engineering. We will return to this major point, after we present in more details our notion of professional practice at the end of the present section. Notice also that our philosophical analysis is not restricted by any usage of the English term profession or its cognates in other languages. As has been pointed out by Sven Ove Hansson (private communication), languages such as English, French and German, for example, differ nowadays in the extensions the term profession and its cognates. However, we take it for granted that speakers of different languages would not fail to notice the differences between professional practices, such as medicine and engineering, and non-professional practices, such as domestic shopping or watching football matches. It is not a linguistic usage that we are going to portray, but a conceptual distinction. Human acts involve body movements, beliefs, desires, ends, means, reasons, norms, intentions, decisions and products. These elements and other ones constitute the contexts of action in which ordinary human acts are 69 ETHICAL PERSPECTIVES MARCH 2005 performed. Professional acts are no exception. Each professional act is performed in an appropriate context of action. In a nutshell, a professional act is one that is performed in a context of action of a professional practice. A practice is a sphere of regulated intentional activity. A professional practice is one that involves the following elements: (pr-a) systematic body of relevant knowledge; (pr-b) systematic proficiency (or competence) in solving relevant problems; (pr-c) a practice of constant improvement of relevant knowledge and proficiency; (pr-d) local understanding of claims of knowledge and methods of proficiency; (pr-e) global understanding of the nature of the system of knowledge and proficiency (ethics). We turn now to a brief presentation of each of these five elements. Knowledge. Obviously, no person can function in any professional area merely on the basis of common sense or general education, without having properly mastered a comprehensive knowledge of one s sphere of professional endeavour. A physician has systematic knowledge of human anatomy and physiology. A military commander has such knowledge of the enemy s territory, force deployment and military capabilities. A chemical engineer has the same kind of knowledge of the required part of chemistry. Proficiency (or competence). Self-evidently, a person cannot function in a professional area unless he knows how to solve typical and ordinary problems that arise in it. A lawyer knows how to muster evidence and arguments and present them to the benefit of a client, in civil or criminal cases. A social worker knows how to help a person under some social or mental duress to cope with it or overcome it, if possible. An engineer knows how to make an attempt to solve a given design problem by going through the steps of an appropriate design process. A proficiency can be systematic in the same sense that a body of knowledge can be of that nature. A tool-box can be full of helpful tools 70 KASHER PROFESSIONAL ETHICS AND COLLECTIVE PROFESSIONAL AUTONOMY without thereby being systematic. A systematic proficiency is built and maintained in a way that enables its owner to solve almost all the problems of the kind one usually encounters in one s professional area. Notice that a proficiency involves appropriate notions of success and failure in solving problems. Criteria for success and for failure involve, in turn, an appropriate notion of error and a characteristic attitude towards errors. Different professional practices often involve different attitudes, as is clear from the extent to which we tolerate errors in the media, but less so in software and even to a lesser extent in medical prescription. Different attitudes involve different methods of error prevention, error detection and error correction, but no professional practice fails to include error management as part of the systematic proficiency it involves. Improvement. Knowledge and proficiency are never static in an area of professional activity. Knowledge is extended by becoming aware of new facts, acquiring more accurate depictions of the same facts, or removing factual errors. Knowledge also changes in a more profound way by theories being replaced by better ones. Proficiency is improved by incorporating variants of given methods, when they can be reasonably expected to secure better results than their previous versions, as well as by introducing utterly new methods that successfully replace previous ones. An electrical engineer, for example, will always learn from his own and his peers accumulated experience and will also continuously extend his knowledge and proficiency in the area of computation or communications or any other relevant area by incorporating into his systems what has recently been discovered or invented in his area of expertise. Members of IEEE (the Institute of Electronic and Electrical Engineers) are, therefore, naturally committed to maintain and improve [their] technical competence. 2 Understanding. This element of the context of action of a professional practice is not as familiar and obvious as the three previous elements, but it is of no lesser significance. A person can carry out a procedure ( proto- 71 ETHICAL PERSPECTIVES MARCH 2005 col, routine ) that consists of a certain series of acts and thereby solve a given problem, knowing that this is the procedure that should be followed, under the circumstances, in order to solve the given problem, but at the same time, without actually knowing why that procedure should be followed in order to solve such a problem. However, this is impossible in the context of action of a professional practice. Here, a person understands what he is doing, knows why under the circumstances he should administer a certain procedure rather than another, is able to explain the grounds of the procedure employed and justify his employment of it. Understanding is a kind of knowledge, but it is different from the kind of knowledge mentioned above. Imagine an engineer who knows that a certain design problem is solved by setting the values of certain parameters, which in turn are determined by solving certain equations. Understanding what one is doing under such circumstances is being able to explain the relationships between the given design problem and the associated set of parameters, to explain the relationships between those parameters and the associated equations, as well as to explain the equations themselves in terms of some theoretical argument or some empirical data. Understanding is knowing an appropriate answer to a why question, under certain circumstances of professional action. In academic activity, understanding is of intrinsic value. However, in other ordinary contexts of professional action, understanding provides one not only with firm grounds for one s action, but also with effective tools for solving additional problems, in particular problems with which one is unfamiliar, because they are new, surprising or unusual. One s professional proficiency enables one to solve ordinary problems. One s professional understanding enables one to solve extraordinary problems as well. Ethics. Understanding, as we have just portrayed it, is of a local nature. To understand a procedure is to know why it is effective or even the most effective, under the circumstances of its usage. Another important 72 KASHER PROFESSIONAL ETHICS AND COLLECTIVE PROFESSIONAL AUTONOMY element of the context of professional action is also an element which has to do with understanding, but rather of a global nature. One cannot regularly act in a proper way, in any professional area, unless one has gained an adequate understanding of the nature of the whole area of one s professional activity, not just some parts of the related knowledge or proficiency, or even each of their parts. Global understanding pertains to the nature of a whole professional practice. A teacher of mathematics is expected to understand certain mathematical theorems, which means knowing the basic ideas and the fine details of their proofs, as well as certain methods of mathematical education, which means knowing which method of presentation of theorems and proofs to use when, and for what purpose. However, a teacher of mathematics is expected to understand also the practice of teaching mathematics and be able to answer the question, What is the point of teaching mathematics to children of a certain age, cognitive abilities and developmental needs? In other words, a teacher of mathematics is expected to have a conception of her practice of teaching mathematics. Similarly, a physician and a social worker, as well as a psychologist and a nurse, are each expected to have a conception of their area of professional activity, the professional practice in which they partake. On the grounds of such a conception, each of them is expected to be able to address other questions about their practices, such as What is the essence of care-giving? or What is the right priority to be given in one s life to one s professional practice? Notice, again, that understanding enhances ability. Persons who understands their own professional practice is better equipped to solve common problems in a most appropriate manner and to be successful in their attempts to solve new, complex problems encountered during their professional activity. A proper understanding of the essence of a professional practice is the substance of professional ethics. The subject matter of professional ethics is commonly held to consist of principles and rules of the form 73 ETHICAL PERSPECTIVES MARCH 2005 thou shalt or thou shalt not, meant to regulate activity in a certain professional area. To my mind, this is a wrong portrayal of professional ethics. I take the subject matter of professional ethics to be an understanding of the whole of professional practice. Rules of conduct are products of such an understanding, not its constitutive ingredients. A sufficiently profound understanding of a professional practice gives rise to practical constraints imposed on the related professional activity. A systematic family of such constraints, which stems from a conception of the essence of the professional practice under consideration, constitutes a conception of the practical ideal of professional activity, which can be couched in terms of the basic values of that professional practice and then also in terms of principles and rules of proper behaviour within the framework of that professional practice. Following professional norms is tantamount to embodying professional values. Thus, the professional ethics of an engineer is expected to portray the essence of the practice of engineering, i.e. the spirit of the profession, which determines principles and rules of conduct. Similarly, professional ethics of combatant troops is expected to reflect the spirit of the professional field of combat, which gives rise to principles of persevering in a mission, responsibility and discipline, as well as principles of protection of human life and comradeship, for example. 3 This concludes my brief presentation of the notions of professional practice and professional act. The context of action of a professional practice, in which a professional act is performed, involves a distinct body of systematic knowledge, a distinct systematic proficiency, a practice of constant improvement, local understanding of that knowledge and proficiency, and a global understanding of the related professional practice, which is the subject matter of the related professional ethics. In conclusion of the present discussion I return to an observation made earlier in passing: engineering is not what engineers do; engineers are those people that participate in the professional practice of engineering. 74 KASHER PROFESSIONAL ETHICS AND COLLECTIVE PROFESSIONAL AUTONOMY Generally speaking, a profession is not what people in its community do; people belong to its community when they participate in it. Notice, first, that under some circumstances, a professional practice can exist, in a sense, without a community of persons who practice it. Imagine a professional practice of training birds of prey of a certain species to perform certain activities. Imagine that we have books that describe all the required components of the practice. If it so happens that this species of birds becomes extinct, then after a while there is going to be a practice, as described in the books, though there is no one to participate in the practice. Secondly, our observation should not be taken to mean that engineers have no influence with respect to the nature of the professional practice of engineering. Indeed, engineers may change the nature of their profession, as any professional community can do with respect to its professional practice, however they cannot merely change their behaviour rather capriciously and remain within the confines of engineering simply because they are engineers. What they can do is to undergo some process, within the professional practice, of changing some of it components. We will return to this point yet again, when we discuss professional autonomy. 2. PROFESSIONAL PRACTICE AND PROFESSIONAL ETHICS We turn now to a brief presentation of the nature of professional ethics, beyond the fundamental claim that we have just made, that professional ethics, within the framework of a certain professional practice, is first and foremost a conception of that practice. Accordingly, values and norms, principles and rules, policies and solutions of specific practical problems of professional ethics, all stem from that basic conception. Hence, psychotherapy ethics is impossible without a conception of psychotherapy, to the same extent that medical ethics is impossible without a conception of medicine, and scientific research ethics is impossible without a conception of science, in the sense of scientific research. 75 ETHICAL PERSPECTIVES MARCH 2005 A global understanding of a certain professional practice consists, I propose, of three basic conceptions. In the case of engineering, they are the following: (ee-a) a conception of engineering as a professional practice; (ee-b) a conception of the distinct vocation of engineering; (ee-c) a conception of engineering as constrained by its societal envelope, particularly by the fundamental moral principles of democracy. Let us now briefly consider each of these three parts of professional ethics. The first part, a conception of the practice under consideration being professional, is actually the conception, outlined in
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