Ethics and Excuses: The Crisis in Professional Responsibility

By Banks McDowell | Go to book overview
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The field of excuses, which is largely unexamined both in theory and in our common culture, is the battleground where the daily conflict between high ethical expectations and the pressures to cross the lines constantly takes place. The exploration of that psychological war zone for me and for others is in large part the purpose of this book.

There is an interesting discussion of both the definition and the criteria of professionalism in Andrew Abbott, THE SYSTEM OF PROFESSIONS: AN ESSAY ON THE DIVISION OF EXPERT LABOR ( Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1988), pp. 3-9.
WEBSTER'S NINTH COLLEGIATE DICTIONARY ( Springfield, Mass.: Merriam-Webster, 1987), p. 307.
One example is the practice of the infamous New York City Law firm of Howe and Hummel during the nineteenth century. By alleging breach of promise of marriage by beautiful showgirls against wealthy admirers, they raised blackmail to such a lucrative activity that many states passed statutes outlawing this legal action as a result. See Richard H. Rovere, HOWE AND HUMMEL: THEIR TRUE AND SCANDALOUS HISTORY ( New York: Farrar, Straus, 1947). No unethical activity by lawyers today could be worse than the work of this firm.
The assumption of perfect compliance on which most ethical theories are constructed avoids many of the real problems any effective system of applied ethics must deal with. See Michael Bales, "Ethical Theory in the Twenty-First Century," in Joseph P. DeMarco and Richard M. Fox, NEW DIRECTIONS IN ETHICS: THE CHALLENGE OF APPLIED ETHICS ( New York and London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1986), pp. 257-258.
See John Rawls, A THEORY OF JUSTICE ( Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1972), pp. 8-9, where he says:

I consider primarily what I call strict compliance as opposed to partial compliance theory. . . . The latter studies the principles that govern how we are to deal with injustice. It comprises such topics as the theory of punishment, the doctrine of just war, and the justification of the various ways of opposing unjust regimes, ranging from civil disobedience and militant resistance to revolution and rebellion. Also included here are questions of compensatory justice and of weighing one form of institutional injustice against another. Obviously the problems of partial compliance theory are the pressing and urgent matters. These are the things that we are faced with in everyday life. The reason for beginning with ideal theory is that it provides, I believe, the only basis for the systematic grasp of these more pressing problems.

An example of legislative regulation of conflict of interest problems faced by professionals is 18 U.S.C.A. 207, a federal statute that makes it criminal for any former employee of the executive department or an independent federal agency to appear as an agent or attorney in any matter about which he or she was engaged as a governmental employee for any party other than the United States for a specified period of time. For a contemporary and thorough canvassing of federal ethics


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Ethics and Excuses: The Crisis in Professional Responsibility


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