POSTED: January 11, 2017
Cover of Melissa Lane Essay

Professionals and citizens. A response to Melissa Lane

I am almost fully in agreement with Melissa Lane’s paper, but I think she greatly understates her case, which could and should be applied far more widely. Her paper calls on professionals to consider a much wider than usual range of responsibilities, including a moral obligation to pursue sustainability as an objective.

But who are “professionals” and why does the argument apply only to them? Traditionally, a professional occupation – architect, lawyer, teacher, accountant, dentist, doctor, and so on – is a white-collar job requiring a specialist form of higher education, with its own set of rules or standards in addition to any requirements from employers, clients, or the law.

It is true that professionals generally are relied upon by members of the public to an extent that is not the case for most other occupations, and it is also true that most professionals are conscientious about doing their jobs in a “professional” way. However there must also be a suspicion that claiming to be a “professional” is to claim some special prestige for one’s occupation, perhaps in a way which tends to downgrade the standing of other occupations.

One indication of this is that saying that something – for example, engineering – should be regarded as a profession is a way of saying that it deserves a higher status in society. And to say that some other walk of life – for example, public relations – is not really a profession at all is a way of calling for it to be downgraded.

The types of moral obligations to respond to the state of the world which Prof. Lane’s paper claims should apply to “professionals” should surely apply to everyone, in whatever occupation or activity we find ourselves, paid or unpaid. The paper in fact concedes something very close to that, but only in the penultimate paragraph (“all professionals – indeed all occupants of roles in the economy”), and too late in the argument for the paper really to take on board the implications.

Another way in which the argument could be extended is through the concept of “citizenship”, which is excluded from the discussion here on the grounds that all citizens have the same obligations – “ethical injunctions that do not differentiate one individual citizen from another” (page 7) – unlike “professionals” who have specific sets of obligations depending on their particular profession.

Is this really true of citizens? If I live near a green space, don’t I have a greater responsibility for its protection than if I lived further away? If I suffer a particular form of unfair disadvantage, don’t I have a greater obligation to bring that subject to society’s attention than someone who doesn’t suffer in that way? If I am a committee member of a civil society organisation pledged to campaign on a particular issue, haven’t I signed up to a particular obligation not everyone shares?

It seems to me that citizenship is not so undifferentiated as this paper makes out, and in fact is every bit as diverse in the particular duties it implies as is the case with the professions the paper focuses on. Professionalism matters – but being a good citizen matters even more.

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