"The greatness and the genuine trait of your thought and writings lie on the fact that you positively and interestingly make use of philosophical thoughts and thoughtfulness in order to deeply and concretely cogitate about America's social issues. . . . This does not mean that your thought is reducible to your era: your thought, being inspired by issues characterizing your era . . . , overcomes your era and will still likely be up to date even after your era, for future generations." Bruno Valentin

Saturday, August 5, 2017

A Professional Misnomer: Everyone Is a Self-Proclaimed Professional!

Certainly by the turn of (and well into) the twenty-first century, the term, "professional" had become such a cherished word in the American lexicon that every American had decided that he or she is one. Evincing the Lake Wobegon effect—the tendency of most people to describe themselves or their abilities as above average—nearly everyone is wont to say, “I am a professional.” On housing listings on Craigslist, for example, people routinely use the word to signify that they are not students. In fact, even some students characterize themselves as professionals (though not as professional students!). Such common usage belies the term's claim to having a specific meaning. Moreover, the tendency of non-professions to deem themselves as professions nonetheless may evince one of the downsides of democracy—namely, its proclivity to excess in terms of self-entitlement. This is particularly likely to ensue from a citizenry that is lacking in self-discipline, virtue and knowledge. 
I contend that the self-appellation of “professional” is in actuality an attempt at inclusion in what was hitherto known as “the professional class.” Nietzsche’s thesis is relevant regarding the instinct of certain herd animals to dominate as if they were strong—even though they are in fact weak. 
It is as though a manager at Walmart imagines a concept of egalitarianism wherein he is akin to a lawyer or surgeon—perhaps based on the fact that the manager distinguishes himself somehow from his subordinate “employees.”  Even in the midst of such self-vaunting, a knowledge of store policies and years of practice in dealing with customer complaints do not constitute an equivalent to the knowledge of law or medicine required of a lawyer and physician, respectively. Nor is there an obligation to the public such as in entailed in the practice of law or medicine.
Technically, the term "professional" applies to “the professions.”  This does not mean “any profession” in the sense of “any job category.” Because a professional relies on years of study, albeit undergraduate (meaning only one degree in a discipline/school of knowledge), in his or her practice, he or she must be allowed significant autonomy. Hence the partnership arrangement, wherein the self-discipline of peerage rather than a boss is relied on, is the typical business form for law firms, CPA firms, and medical offices. Managers in business are not professionals. This can be seen both from the standpoint of the relative salience of a responsibility to the client/customer and of judgment.
According to Relson (p. 750), “the basic social role of the physician . . . is to be an agent and trustee for the patient. Physicians are ethically bound to place the medical care needs of their patients before their own financial interests – an obligation that clearly sets the practice of medicine apart from business.” One could add a lawyer's ethical obligation to act in the interest of the client and the CPA's obligation to act in the interest of the public (people who rely on the financial statements). In business by contrast, "buyer beware" is often the default; a business practioner serves a customer for monetary gain.
Similarly, the judgment of a lawyer, physician or CPA is not easily second-guessed by people outside of the respective profession. Even in a hospital, a physician is not reviewed by a manager who is not also a physician. In contrast, non-managerial board directors commonly review the performance of managers.
Put another way, whereas one can manage a business without having attended business school, I do not think any of us would agree to be seen by a physician who had not graduated from a medical school. Nor would a defendant in a criminal case be likely to chance a conviction (and decades in prison) by hiring a lawyer who had not studied law. Creditors and investors would think twice about the unqualified opinion of a CPA firm whose auditors had not passed the CPA exam after years of study of accounting.  That a certified public accountant might also engage in consulting, however, does not mean that consultants are thereby also professionals. Even were consultants to devise a certifying exam, it would not be as substantive or relied on as the lawyer bar exam, medical boards, and the CPA exam.
According to John Boatright (2008), the "work of most financial services providers does not meet the standard criteria for a profession. Among the criteria for a profession which are lacking in financial services are a high degree of organization and self-regulation, a code of ethics, and a commitment to public service. These criteria are possibly met by financial planners and insurance underwriters, but not by brokers, bankers, traders . . ., who, in the strict sense of the term, are not professionals." Financial planners and insurance underwriters come up short, however, in terms of educational requirements. 
According to Boatright (1992), a professional’s stock in trade is a body of specialized knowledge that is the basis for making judgments. Not only is the reliance placed on a professional’s judgment relatively important; professionals are paid primarily for the value of their knowledge that is the basis for their judgments. Accordingly, it is difficult, if not impossible, anyone other than their peers to evaluate their practice.  In fact, Jean Van Houtte (p. 207) refers to professionals as “individuals who practice their occupation autonomously.” Even another surgeon is limited in being able to second-guess a colleague without being in the operating room at the time. The salient element of judgment includes discretion that is difficult for even colleagues to evaluate (though not impossible); obvious lapses, for example, can easily be discerned by a professional’s peers. 
In short, the term "professional" has a specific and limited meaning centered on the responsibility-autonomy that is entailed when specialized-knowledge-informed-judgment is salient in the practice of an occupation. The term does not apply to anyone who does something for a living (as opposed to being an avocation).  If it did, then even prostitutes and politicians would be professionals.  The term “professional politician” connotes ignorance, for which political office is not a job?  It is not like one can be governor of Alaska as a hobby. Also, neither "mature" nor "responsible” is interchangeable with “professional.” Nor does the term mean “acting impersonally or bureaucratically rather than emotionally.” It is no accident that people not in one of the professions use notably wide criteria.
Until the last few decades of the twentieth century, the term "professional" did not suffer from such lack of clarity. For example, Joe Flom, who was instrumental as a lawyer in the hostle take-over bubble that began in the 1970s, claimed that his parents wanted him to be a "professional." He wrote that for them, "being a professional was a great thing. . . . That meant either a doctor or a lawyer." This was the popular application: medicine or law--not a manager or sales person, or even a CEO. Then a sort of inflation set in, and the value associated with being a “professional” has diminished in proportion. The presumption that simply getting hired or being mature on the job makes a person a professional is odious and false. In fact, the over-reach itself evinces an underlying sordid character. Ironically, such a person is in need of more supervision, rather than warranting any sort of autonomy. 


Jeff Madrick, Age of Greed: The Triumph of Finance and the Decline of America, 1970 to the Present (New York: Alfred A. Knoff, 2011).

John R. Boatright, “Conflict of Interest: An Agency Analysis.” Pp. 187-203 in Ethics and Agency Theory: An Introduction, Norman E. Bowie and R. Edward Freeman, eds. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992).

John R. Boatright, Ethics in Finance (Oxford: Blackwell, 2008).

Arnold S. Relman, “Dealing with Conflicts of Interest,” New England Journal of Medicine 313 (1985): 749-51.

Jean Van Houtte, “Research Report: Conflicts of Interest in Law Firms in Belgium,” Legal Ethics 12 (part II): 207-28.

See also:

Skip Worden, On the Arrogance of False Entitlement: A Nietzschean Critique of Business Ethics and Management.