Professional Responsibility and the Responsibility of Professions

  • Kenneth Kipnis
Part of the Contemporary Issues in Biomedicine, Ethics, and Society book series (CIBES)


If one studies the statements emerging from those organizations that undertake to speak for professions, one is struck by the codes of ethics and canons of professional responsibility that appear so frequently as to make them seem almost the hallmark of professionalism itself.1 These codes appear to be based on the assumption that some actions can merit one assessment if undertaken by a certain professional, but another assessment if undertaken by some other person. For a philosopher, perhaps the most interesting thing about professions is their suggestion that there somehow exist certain special justifiable standards for the conduct of a certain class of persons.2 At least two questions are raised. First, one wonders what might be the justification for these special standards?3 And second, one wants to know how it is possible to delineate the proper dimensions of these special standards and to assess the magnitude of the claim that they have upon professionals. These are, I submit, the two most important philosophical issues that arise in the field of professional ethics. It is the aim of the present essay to map an approach to them.


Engineer Ethic Professional Ethic Professional Responsibility Substantive Responsibility Individual Professional 
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Notes and References

  1. 1.
    Most of these are to be found in Jane Clapp’s Professional Ethics and Insignia (Metuchen: Scarecrow Press, 1974).Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Allison Jagger has considered philosophy itself as a profession in “Philosophy as a Profession” in Metaphilosophy 6 (1975): 100.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    At least one commentator has denied that there are such special standards. See Robert M. Veatch, “Medical Ethics: Professional or Universal,” Harvard Theological Review 65 (1972): 558.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. 3.
    Veatch’s main argument has been criticized in Kenneth Kipnis’s “Professional Ethics” in Business and Professional Ethics 2 (1978): 2.Google Scholar
  5. 3.
    Recently, Veatch has modified his views in “Professional Medical Ethics: The Grounding of Its Principles,” Journal of Medicine and Philosophy 1 (1979): 1.Google Scholar
  6. 4.
    The discussion here builds upon H. L. A. Hart’s analysis of “role responsibility” developed in Chapter IX of his Punishment and Responsibility (New York: Oxford University Press, 1968).Google Scholar
  7. 5.
    Graham Haydon, “On Being Responsible,” Philosophical Quarterly 28 (1978), 56.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. 6.
    There is another view in which responsibility is generated where the serious need for attention encounters the capacity to meet that need. Thus, on this account, if someone should discover that a serious mishap can be averted through attention that only he or she can provide, then, even in the absence of any explicit delegation or assumption of responsibility, that person can have a substantive responsibility for the matter of concern involving the imminent mishap. Some of the dimensions of this theory are brought out in Kenneth Kipnis, Philosophical Issues in Law: Cases and Materials (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1977), 99–158. See also the bibliographical references on pages 328–330. Though I am in some sympathy with those who advance this view, I have not been convinced by the arguments that have been brought forward in defense of it.Google Scholar
  9. 7.
    Note that even if this expectation were unfounded, even if it were conclusively shown that other means were better suited to the task of rearing children, even if it were demonstrated that parents should not have the special rights and responsibilities that they presently have, parents would still have those rights and responsibilities, both legal and moral. They are, I would say, built into the present social structure and cannot be altered until that structure is changed.Google Scholar
  10. 8.
    The issues surrounding organizational irresponsibility are helpfully represented in Christopher D. Stone’s Where the Law Ends (New York: Harper and Row, 1975).Google Scholar
  11. 9.
    The general issue of collective, nondistributive responsibility is treated in Peter A. French, ed., Individual and Collective Responsibility (Cambridge: Schenkman, 1972). See especially the articles by R. S. Downie and David Cooper.Google Scholar
  12. 10.
    See Harold Wilensky, “The Professionalization of Everyone,” The American Journal of Sociology 70 (1964), 137.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. 11.
    See Talcott Parson, “Professions,” International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences 12 (1968), 536.Google Scholar
  14. 12.
    Quoted in Maynard E. Pirsig, ed., Cases and Materials on Professional Responsibility (St. Paul: West Publishing Co., 1970), 337.Google Scholar
  15. 13.
    Quoted in Stephen J. Martin, ed., Commentaries on the Code of Ethics (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1974), v. I am grateful to Mary Carson Smith for calling this material to my attention.Google Scholar
  16. 14.
    In the end this produces a distinctive type of transaction in the payment of fees to professionals. They are paid, not for their work, but, rather, in order that they may do their work. Lawrence Haworth develops this point in his Decadence and Objectivity (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1978), 112.Google Scholar
  17. 15.
    I am grateful to Andrew Jameton for calling the matter of hospital governance to my attention.Google Scholar
  18. 16.
    Milton Friedman presents a strong case in “Occupational Licensure” in Capitalism and Freedom (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963).Google Scholar
  19. 17.
    See, for example, Rule 27 of the Uniform Rules of Evidence.Google Scholar
  20. 18.
    There may be substantial obstacles in the way of effective political action within the profession itself. The structure of many professions precludes significant participation by large and distinct segments of its membership: the AAUP and nontenured professors, the American Bar Association and sole practitioners, the various engineering professional associations and working (nonmanagerial) engineers.Google Scholar
  21. 19.
    See, for example, the writings of Ivan Illich: Deschooling Society (New York: Harper and Row, 1972); Tools for Conviviality (New York: Harper and Row, 1973); and Medical Nemesis (New York: Pantheon Books, 1976).Google Scholar

Copyright information

© The Humana Press Inc. 1983

Authors and Affiliations

  • Kenneth Kipnis

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