POSTED: January 8, 2017
Cover of Melissa Lane Essay

‘Professional ethics’ or ‘risk management’? A response to Melissa Lane

Within the dominant self-understanding of liberal societies, ‘state’ and ‘market’ are two separate domains, which correspond to the realms of ‘politics’ and of ‘economics’ respectively. In its simplest philosophical form, this suggests that the state acts on behalf of the nation or public as a whole, enacting laws, punishments and public policies, while the market is a space of individual self-interested calculation.

This depiction was famously criticised by Karl Polanyi in The Great Transformation, for neglecting to specify the various ways in which the state deliberately instituted the market, while also claiming to be separate from it. It continues to suffer severe defects as a description of how capitalism actually works. For instance ‘the state’ is deeply penetrated by market contracts thanks to outsourcing and PFI. Equally, the regulation of ‘the market’ involves complex combinations of state and commercial agencies, with the state seeking to regulate in a way that is ‘pro-business’ (being ‘light-touch’) while agents such as accountants and credit-raters must to some extent act in the interests of ‘the public’. As industries get more complex, in fields such as finance or pharmaceuticals, it becomes harder to say precisely what counts as public agency and what as private agency.

It’s this growing sociological problem of complexity that makes Melissa Lane’s analysis an especially urgent one. Governing liberal societies has never involved entirely clear bifurcation between the realm of public and private action, but has always depended on what Lane terms the ‘meso-level’, including professions. Trust in the marketplace rarely depends entirely on calculation or on informal norms, but is produced partly by formal endorsements and explicit commitments on the part of traders towards some uncalculated common good.

As Lane makes clear, professional ethics, properly understood, has an ambiguity of purpose: it involves professionals making commitments beyond the limits not only of their commercial interests, but also of their jurisdictional know-how. It requires experts and consultants to factor in issues that exceed their range of expertise, thereby positioning them as public citizens as much as signatories to certain explicit codes or formal norms. The very existence of professions ought to unsettle the comfortable assumption that a problem such as climate change is either to be tackled via the state (acting on behalf of the whole) or via individual discretion or, as is the dominant neoliberal solution, the government design of new markets to alter individual incentives.

Lane alerts us to the need to seize spaces of ethical and political ambiguity (such as professional and working life), where our responsibilities are under-defined. Given the fundamental ambiguity of climate change as a problem, seeing as it has an unerring tendency to disrupt assumptions, cross boundaries, break up clean disciplinary divisions, and so on, it may be necessary to meet a messy and fluid challenge with ethical commitments that are never strictly specified.

However we should also recognise the nature of the threats to such an idea of professional ethics. Increasingly, this ‘meso-level’ of regulation (between state and individual) has been handed over to complex chains of ‘agents’ who lack a professional self-understanding and possess few extra-commercial commitments. The obsession with ‘risk’ over the past 40 years has meant consultants and contractors being held to account in increasingly explicit, quantifiable and commercially acceptable terms. The space for ambiguity has closed down, and with it, the necessarily ambiguous nature of public citizenship.

The financial crisis of 2007-09 saw public accountability being lost in the feverishly complex web of auditing, accounting, consulting, rating, valuing and regulating. A public sector ‘technocracy’ meshed almost seamlessly with a private sector ‘consultocracy’, and when the music stopped there was nobody who carried any ultimate public responsibility.

The hardest challenge that stems from Lane’s argument is how to drive a commitment to sustainability (a necessarily inter-sectoral, international, intergenerational problem) into those corners of capitalist society where expertise has become ever more narrow and divorced from notions of the public good. Iconic examples of professional authority – such as medicine – retain a more clear-cut liberal identity, as publicly visible mediators between state and market. How one drives a concern for the wider, longer, greater good, into chains of mediation that are as feverishly complex and intricate as those of contemporary risk management is a whole other problem altogether. But one thing is clear is that environmental ethics cannot simply focus on the macro and the micro-levels of decision-making, when the sociology of contemporary capitalism compels us to consider the ethical commitments of institutions and authorities that operate between the two.

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