Professionals Who Lost Their Virtue

By Sardar, Ziauddin | New Statesman (1996), July 10, 2000 | Go to article overview

Professionals Who Lost Their Virtue

Sardar, Ziauddin, New Statesman (1996)

Doctors and lawyers base their right to self-regulation on their moral superiority. The claim no longer stands up, argues

The professions have become increasingly prone to professional fouls. Trust, competence and moral integrity -- the conventional trademarks of "the professions"--have evaporated. Hardly a day goes by without horror stories involving doctors, dentists, lawyers, accountants, even members of the clergy. We are beginning to realise that George Bernard Shaw was not just joking when, in The Doctor's Dilemma, he declared: "All professions are conspiracies against the laity."

The laity, we ordinary citizens, find ourselves at the receiving end of the untender mercies of professionals. Consider, for example, the doctors. There is the ease of Dr Harold Shipman, who murdered his patients unsuspected and undetected for decades. Then we heard of the doctors at Bristol Royal Infirmary hoarding body parts from dead infants without parental knowledge or consent. Now we read of the consultant gynaecologist Rodney Ledward, whose botched operations over 16 years have left a trail of more than 400 maimed women.

But our dilemma is not just with doctors. We learn that 90 per cent of dental work performed in Britain falls below international standards, that the profession is littered with "cowboy dentists" who are destroying patients' teeth with impunity. Complaints against lawyers are increasing exponentially. According to the Law Society, there is a backlog of 13,000 complaints against solicitors that will take decades to investigate. The Office of Fair Trading is looking into the huge fees and probably unfair profits being made by the professions -- surveyors, architects, accountants. And we all know about the scandal at Lloyds where a businessman's word is no longer his bond -- but someone else's money down the drain.

Nothing new here, you may say. Many of Dickens's novels turned on the villainy of a member of the professions. But, in Dickens's day, the bad egg was no more than that: public trust in the professions generally was maintained, and the social opprobrium that greeted the transgressors was considered a sufficient sanction to uphold standards. In these postmodern times, when moral certainties have dissolved, the principles that govern professional behaviour are less clear. Our dilemma is that the very professions we need to trust in good times and rely on unreservedly in times of personal distress now incite our distrust, suspicion and even fear.

Professions evolved and consolidated their positions during the Victorian era, and they are deeply entrenched in the morality of the period. Originally, the term was reserved for such "gentlemanly pursuits" as law, medicine and divinity. In pre-industrial Europe, these occupations gave those who lacked a private income the opportunity to make a living without troubling themselves with commerce or manual work. Eventually, officers in the army and navy were also included in the professions.

Most conventional definitions present an idealised picture of the professions as selfless public service. The classical definition is provided by A M Carr-Saunders and P A Wilson in their 1933 study, The Professions. The profession, they claimed, "exhibits a complex of characteristics" which are absent in other vocational pursuits; the main being the "ethical imperative" to render "altruistic service" to the public. Later, in his much quoted 1964 book, The Qualifying Associations, Geoffrey Millerson provided a compact list of the most frequently mentioned characteristics of professions, as enumerated by a host of writers and commentators: a skill based on theoretical knowledge; a requirement for training and education; the need for the professional to demonstrate competence by passing a test; a code of professional conduct; the performance of a service for the public good; and a professional organisation.

Such formal definitions leave out a number of other, perhaps more important, aspects of the professions. …

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