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The paradox of the public pledge

9 May, 2016 - 11:40

A profession is literally so called a profession because the aspirant to the office is orally sworn to specific public commitments—he/she professes publicly legal and ethical obligations unique to the vocation of lawyer, physician, counselor or priest. The public pledge is the portal condition into the unique relationships afforded the vocation. Be clear, it is not primarily a privilege the professional assumes, rather it is fundamentally self-imposed burdens. No one is forced to swear they will put another’s interest above their own, yet this is the condition of all professionalism.

There is a tension between a profession’s public responsibility and its commitment (also made publicly) to the private, vulnerable client. Brandies includes both in the observation that, “A profession is an occupation which is pursued largely for others and not merely for oneself”. The paradox of “the other” is the paradox of the public pledge.

Quite a great deal is made of the special relationship between professionals their parishioners, patients, or clients—the sanctity of the confessional, the doctor patient relationship, or the lawyer client relationship—each special, private and protected both in law and ethics. Thinking of the confessional booth, the examination room, and the lawyer’s office the idea of a uniquely protected privacy, of almost a sacred space, emerges. Assuredly the priest, doctor and lawyer are sworn to hold sacred the disclosures within this zone of professionally protected communication. Being a professional means nothing less than willingly and publicly affirming that the client’s, patient’s or parishioner’s interest shall come before one’s own interests.

For many professionals the matter stops with the pledge: “I swear the patient’s interests comes first, end of discussion.” Yet this commitment to the vulnerable client is only half the issue, as the business and professional crises of our times illustrate. Not only is the priest sworn to care for particular souls, he is also sworn to see to the care of “the people of God”, the moral welfare of the parish, the salvation of the world. Not only is the doctor sworn to put the interest of the patient above his own, but the health of the patient’s family, neighborhood, and the public is also his professional obligation. The lawyer is not simply employed to represent the particular client, but also sworn to be an “officer of the court”. While accountants may be employed by Arthur Anderson to do the books for the Enron Corporation, they also are sworn to keep the interests of the public uncompromised (after all, we call the profession Certified Public Accountants).

I know of no professional comfortable with the tension inherent in this public pledge. No one likes hard choices; no one likes moral ambiguity; each of us wishes to live in a world where things can be reduced to some least common ethical denominator (for example, a single duty). When teaching business students, the mantra of Milton Friedman is the droning undertone of almost every class discussion: “the business of business is business”, the sole responsibility of the business executive is to increase shareholder return.

Yet, the very essence of professional responsibility is to address the difficult and unavoidable ethical tensions between public and private interest—the priest who hears the confession of a disturbed and homicidal parishioner intent on killing yet again; the lawyer who discovers that a client has misrepresented the facts of his case, and is asking for a plea to the court based in lies and distortions; the doctor who is asked to prescribe extraordinarily expensive treatments to a patient too ill, or old to have any reasonable chance of curative benefit; or the engineer who is told that she is bound by a confidentiality agreement, in spite of her certain conviction that a plane, bridge, or space shuttle is likely to fail and potentially cause extensive loss of life. These are not plot summaries for Hollywood; in an infinite variety, they are the stuff of professional life in the complex world of the twenty-first century.

It is by design, and not by accident, that professionals are thrust continually into such Hobson choice predicaments. The professional’s public pledge is an acceptance of ethical burdens not incumbent on the rest of society. It is an acknowledgment of the reality of human existence where things do not come out even, where real ethical insight must be exercised and where benign outcomes are far from assured. Someone must live in the land between the rock and the hard place, and those who do so are designated “professional”.

I think of professionals as the value bearers for society, those particularly burdened and practiced to address the most difficult and sensitive human ethical dilemmas. I do not mean to imply that a business person, lawyer, doctor, psychiatrist, or teacher is better in some moral sense than anyone else. Instead, that they have agreed to assume a unique ethical burden, to work at the transaction point where issues of significant human value are on the line. The professional is sworn not to desert this post, to be there to counsel, reflect and bear with the human condition in the midst of transition and crisis. This is, to me, the essence of professional practice—the practice of raising the value content of human decisions and choices. That is the professional’s sworn burden, it is the very nature of the ethic that defines who the professional is.

All this said, it astounds me that anyone would want the title of professional. But to make sure this point is underlined, let us consider the “Paradox of pay”, perhaps the most complexing of all to the business professional.