As I write, barristers are on strike and doctors and others who consider themselves to be in a 'profession' might decide to strike. What is a profession, and is that occupational category on the way out?
Traditionally, the older or the 'real' professions were thought to consist of a smallish group of occupations. The membership was uncertain but it would certainly include law, medicine, education and the clergy. Nowadays, a large number of occupations, including those in science, business or industry, and the arts would see themselves as on the list of professions in the more exclusive sense. But the situation is complicated by two factors. A 'profession' can mean simply whatever someone does for a living, and a 'professional job' is one which is skilled, as distinct from the botched home-improvements of the rest of us.
Can anything be done to distinguish the oldest professions (and no, I'm not including that one) as a group? I think the old professions would see their social significance as resting on four factors: they have a broad education; they possess highly developed skills; they stress ethics as central to their work; they are fiduciary in the sense that their professional engagement with the public is based on trust.
How far can the the traditional professions continue to distinguish themselves by these criteria, and does it matter?
It is certainly the case that the older professions once had a broad educational base. In Scotland in particular it was common for lawyers, doctors and the clergy to begin their respective training from the broad base of a degree in arts or occasionally science. But for constraints of finance that is no longer common. Supported by Sir Kenneth Calman, I managed to infiltrate the Medical Faculty, Law Faculty and indeed Engineering, and offer short courses in the humanities. These humanities courses were quite popular with students, but they have not received the enthusiastic support of deans, who wish to include ever more courses in the category of training. I do not therefore think that the 'broad educational basis' criterion is any longer significant.
But does that ever increasing emphasis on skills training serve as a distinguishing factor for the older professions? I do not think so. The skills of the traditional professions are certainly matched by those of a computer scientist, an orchestral musician or a Wimbledon tennis player. Greater skills will not therefore serve as a distinguishing feature of the 'professions'.
The 'older' professions claim that central to their work is ethics. Again, this is certainly true of all the older professions. But, once again, most occupations nowadays have codes of ethics. There are journals of business ethics, environmental ethics and many others. Ethics is everywhere. Well, perhaps not in politics. It is also worth noting that ethics as a buzz word seems to be being replaced by 'diversity' and 'inclusion'.
It is said (by doctors' leaders) that doctors exceed everyday standards of ethics and as a profession they are 'altruistic'. Indeed, even in the USA, where consumerism in medicine is a dominant value, doctors claim that their professional motivation is altruism. Consider the following characteristic claims:
'Medicine is one of the few spheres of human activity in which the purposes are unambiguously altruistic.' (New England Journal of Medicine
'Altruism is the essence of professionalism. The best interest of patients, not self-interest, is the rule.' (American Board of Internal Medicine).
These and similar claims by other medical bodies in the UK are made by these bodies about themselves – not always a reliable guide to realistic assessment.
But no-one is altruistic simply by doing their day job. What the word 'altruistic' means is action beyond or outside what is required by everyday job demands. (Sometimes the word 'supererogatory' is used but 'altruism' is more familiar so I shall stick with it.) There are certainly altruistic doctors. For example, some doctors work in dangerous situations, or work beyond or outside the call of duty, and most will communicate with their patients in a caring manner and show concern for their patients as appropriate. During the Covid crisis, many doctors were tirelessly working round the clock. But the same was true of their colleagues in nursing, the care sector, ambulance crews, hospital porters and so on. Many occupations, not usually considered members of the traditional professions, have tirelessly gone beyond their duty. They certainly measure up to the altruism of the traditional professions.
Indeed, I read that doctors are planning strikes to increase their incomes and barristers are already on strike. Their claims may well have merits – I cannot comment – but striking does not sit comfortably with altruism.
The final distinguishing feature of the older profession is that their engagement with the public is fiduciary or based on trust, whereas the motivation of other occupations is said to arise from self-interest. The philosopher to blame here is no other than Adam Smith. One of his best known sayings is that it is not from the benevolence of the baker or butcher that we expect our dinner but from their regard to their self-interest. From then on, the older professions have taken the line that they aim at the good of their clients/patients, etc, whereas other occupations aim at their own interest. With great respect, I think Adam Smith has got this wrong.
Retailers aim to provide a product which will suit the customer – that is their job. Certainly they also look for a profit. But, equally, while I trust my doctor or my lawyer to provide an appropriate service, I have no doubt that, like those in other occupations, they will expect a fee or a salary to be negotiated by their trade union (the BMA or similar). Everyone in the division of labour is both providing some kind of service, and also furthering their interests by negotiating the best wage/salary/fee the market will stand.
The other aspect of the fiduciary relationship involves knowledge. It might be said that in a market transaction I know the kind of apples and similar that I want from the shop, but I must take the advice of my doctor/lawyer/tutor on trust. But that is an unfair comparison. Certainly I know the kind of apples I want, but if my garage mechanic tells me I need an engine transplant I must take him on trust. That relationship is as much 'fiduciary' as a professional one. The 'older professions' do not have a monopoly of the fiduciary. Trust is necessary not just for the traditional professions; the entire division of labour from banking to building is based on it. As we see at the moment, when trust disappears, politics doesn't work.
At the start, I raised a secondary issue: Is the idea of a 'profession' in the traditional sense on the way out? I think it is. When every occupation can be a profession there is nothing special about being in one. Does it matter?
Times are changing and the traditional concept of a 'profession' can be thought to carry the undesirable baggage of the 'top-down' and patronising. Moreover, despite the well-publicised stress on 'professional' ethics, member of business groups, of trades, crafts and similar occupations also adhere to standards: the ideas of a 'job well done', of high standards of work and behaviour being satisfied, are ones which can extend to trades as well as to traditional professions. The idea that the traditional professions have a monopoly of ethics is simply self-deception; after all, Jesus was a carpenter.
An excellent description of a desirable and an undesirable attitude to work of whatever kind is provided by an account of motorcycle maintenance. In his novel, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
, Robert Pirsig describes the attitudes implicit in technical manuals as a 'spectator' attitude.
He writes: 'These were spectator manuals. It was built into the format of them. Implicit in every line is the ideas that here is the machine, isolated in time and in space from everything else in the universe. It has no relationship to you, you have no relationship to it…
And it occurred to me that there is no manual that deals with the real business of motorcycle maintenance, the most important aspect of all. Caring about what you are doing is considered either unimportant or taken for granted'.
Doctors, dentists, lawyers, teachers, professors and others certainly care about what they are doing, but so do musicians, mechanics, carers, ambulance drivers, firemen, plumbers, bus-drivers and all who serve the public. If the traditional professions have a weakness, shared with academics and politicians, it is self-importance.
Robin Downie is Emeritus Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Glasgow