In ordinary language, “professions” may refer to activities one engages in for money. (This is the sense in which we speak of “professional” athletes or refer to prostitution as “the world’s oldest profession.”) In a business ethics context, however, professions are generally understood to be occupations marked by three main characteristics: (i) a specialized body of knowledge shared by all members of the profession; (ii) a high degree of organization among, and self-regulation by, members of the profession; and (iii) a commitment on the part of members of the profession to public service. A concept applied originally only to law, medicine, and the clergy, professions today include many other occupations. (Examples especially relevant to business include accountancy and financial planning.) “Professionalization” refers to the process by which previously non-professional occupations seek to become professions.

A number of controversies surround professions and efforts to professionalize previously non-professional occupations. One common question is whether an occupational group in fact shares a specialized and common body of knowledge that is sufficiently complex to justify an effort at professionalization. An important justification for professionalizing an occupation is the existence of information asymmetries that place a customer or client at a substantial disadvantage when looking out for his own interests and makes him vulnerable to the service provider. Clients, for example, typically lack the knowledge to evaluate the quality of the services provided to them by their lawyers. Professionalization is one remedy to such asymmetries. This is one reason why professionals are frequently bound by both ethical and legal duties to act as fiduciaries for their clients. However, not every information asymmetry is a vulnerability that is best remedied by professionalization. For example, someone considering buying a car may be at an information disadvantage with respect to a car salesman when it comes to understanding the features and attributes of that car. Eliminating or reducing the effect of that information disadvantage may be better accomplished by legislatively-enacted disclosure requirements or by establishing a legally-mandatory cooling-off period after purchase, rather than by professionalizing car sales.

The complexity of an occupation’s specialized and common body of knowledge is also the basis for justifying a profession’s organization and self-regulation. Ordinarily, public policy discourages industry organization and self-regulation (think, for example, of various elements of competition law) out of fear that the industry will use self-organization and self-regulation to engage in anti-competitive collusion and price-fixing. The existence of a genuinely specialized and common body of knowledge, however, makes ordinary, legislative forms of regulation less effective, as legislators may lack the necessary knowledge to regulate effectively an occupation in the public interest. It is for this reason that organization and self-regulation may be the most effective feasible alternative. However, this fact does not eliminate the fear that organization and self-regulation will be pursued by members of an occupation in an anti-competitive, public-interest-compromising way. Some commentators suspect that professionalization efforts are most often motivated by the desire on the part of members of an occupation to restrict entry into and cartelize the market in their services, thereby inflating their own incomes.

Another controversy about professions surrounds how to understand a profession’s commitment to public service in the context of the fiduciary duties that professionals frequently have to their customers and clients. A fiduciary duty is a duty to be in the customer’s or client’s corner (to use a metaphor from the sport of boxing). A criminal defense attorney, for example, is duty-bound to represent zealously the interests of her client. Thus, her commitment to public service does not and cannot include undermining even a guilty client’s defense in the interests of justice. The point here is not that fiduciary care and a commitment to public service are contradictory, but instead that the way we understand “public service” must be compatible with the duties of loyalty and client service that frequently go along with professional roles.

Professionals are important in part because they frequently act as gatekeepers within companies. A company’s lawyers, for example, are duty-bound to uphold the law even if the company’s interests could better be served by breaking it. Similarly, an internal auditor is duty-bound to ensure that a company’s financial reporting is compliant with generally-accepted accounting principles, even if they company’s interests would be better served by some non-standard manner of reporting. In this way, professional ethics act as an important constraint on the manner in which client interests may be advanced, serving the public good by keeping companies honest.

See also in CEBE:

Further Reading:

By Chris MacDonald and Alexei Marcoux
© The Journal Review Foundation of the Americas