Moral Responsibility in Professional Ethics

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Professionals generally acknowledge gravely that they shoulder special responsibilities, and believe that they should conform to “higher” ethical standards than laypersons.2 Yet, doctors, lawyers, engineers, and indeed all other types of professionals also claim special warrant for engaging in some activities that, were they performed by others, would be likely to draw moral censure.3 Skeptical of this claim to special license, Macaulay asked about lawyers (and most of my examples in this essay shall be drawn from law since that’s where my experience lies), “[w]hether it be right that a man should, with a wig on his head, and a band round his neck, do for a guinea what, without these appendages, he would think it wicked and infamous to do for an empire.”4 This conflict may trouble the layperson, but for the professional who must come to grips with his or her professional responsibilities it is especially problematic.

The concerns discussed in this essay were first suggested to me in discussions with several participants at the Institute on Law and Ethics sponsored by the Council for Philosophic Studies during the summer of 1977. Larry Alexander, Bernard Williams, and Gary Bellow were especially helpful. An earlier version of this essay was written as a background paper for the Philosophical Perspectives on Public Policy Project of the Center for Philosophy and Public Policy, the University of Maryland, College Park.