Monthly Archives: September 2015

Professional Judgment

Emma Arrington Stone Young

The phrase “professional judgment” is usually taken to refer to the exercise of expertise. We trust that the doctor or architect has superior information and comprehension of their subject matter, and this is why their professional judgment carries weight.

However, there is a second dimension to professional judgment, an often implicit moral dimension that is made explicit when a field attempts to increase its “professional status” through codes of ethics or principles. Professionals are never only market actors; they are governed by specific role-based ethics that put them in a direct moral relationship to (a) the individuals they serve, e.g. clients, and/or (b) the field to which they contribute, e.g., the sport, the theater, the academy, and/or (c) a community, for example the nation, in which the profession as a whole is seen as playing a necessary or a beneficent role. This dimension of moral responsibility complicates professionals’ relationship to employers and regulators. One important function of a code of ethics is to create a third point of reference in certain conversations: In a moral dispute with a colleague or employer an engineer can appeal to “professional integrity” in a way that a store clerk cannot.

Thus, while a professional may be either independent or employed, she is never only an employee.

In the twentieth century, this unique dimension of professionalism was expressed partly through professional associations such as the AMA and ABA. Sectors that wished to “professionalize” did so not only through developing claims to expertise — degree programs — but also notions of integrity, codes of ethics, and professional associations that instantiated their members as participants in a specific self-regulating moral role, and entailed on them the responsibility of making judgments about both the ends and means of the profession (e.g.,

Currently, we can see the field of moral judgment as an interesting element in the various shifts, debates, and innovations in different fields of work. Consider:

Rubrics over judgment: Increasing standardization, once the sign of “low-skill” occupations, is on the rise in long-standing professions such as medicine and education. Standardized procedures automate and regulate decision-making, placing new limits the exercise of professional judgment, both prudential and moral. In the wake of a sharp shift away from medical paternalism, and with the rise of evidence-based medical standards, technocratic and care-based narratives about medicine compete. Nevertheless, while the moral focus has shifted, the moral foundation of the doctor’s calling remains largely unquestioned. Standardization in education has hit teachers harder: Many find themselves fighting a constant battle to be seen as professionals who exercise moral judgment about the ends of education, goods and harms to their students, and appropriate means of cultivating the goods, rather than as assembly line specialists turning out test result quotas while managed by pervasive quality control “assessments.” In contrast, the law and the clergy remain largely un-standardized domains.

Moral choices: One of the touted benefits of “freelance professionalism” is “choosing clients,” not only in terms of market advantage, but in terms of choosing work that is meaningful and morally satisfying. Many freelancers try to resist the suspension of moral judgment that characterizes wage-work. Whether or not this benefit actually materializes in all cases, its discursive prominence points to the role of moral judgment in how people think about the difference between professional work and a mere job.

Integrity: Many occupations continue the tradition of attempting to professionalize by instituting ethics codes. The Designer’s Hippocratic Oaths ( is one — albeit a post-modern, de-institutionalized (more on that another time) — continuation of the tradition of codes of ethics  that serve to separate guild members/moral actors from wage laborers/market actors. This case of the Designer’s Hippocratic Oath is particularly interesting, because designers are well represented in the ranks of the salaried, the self-employed, and hourly workers. Asserting professional identity isn’t just about rare skills or economic status. It’s also about whether going to work demands that you exercise moral judgment, or suspend it.

In a precarious economy, the link between professional identity and moral judgment is one that matters to people. And the places that we recognize moral judgment in action may help shape which new occupations become “professions,” and which do not.

Emma Arrington Stone Young
September 28, 2015

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Live tweets from first IUB workshop

Thanks to Saul Kutnicki for live tweeting the first workshop of the IU Bloomington series today, “Professions and Service to All: Challenges, Problems, and Solutions.” The keynote speaker was Steven Salbu,  Cecil B. Day Chairholder and Professor, Scheller College of Business, Georgia Institute of Technology (a.k.a. Georgia Tech).

Here are the tweets:

There will be more about this workshop as soon as we can manage.

Ken Pimple
September 25, 2015
2:40 pm EDT

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APPE Conference Announcement: Updated Call for Papers

Another news flash from the APPE offices! Program and book submissions deadline has been moved to October 16. Other important deadlines are listed below.  For complete information, go to the 25th Annual International Conference page.

Registration opens
October 16
Program and Book Submissions (Except for Special Paper Competition submissions)
November 3
Paper Competition Submissions
Notification of Program Presenters
January 28
Hotel Reservations deadline

Ken Pimple
September 24, 2015
3:45 pm EDT

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Freelance professionals?

It seems like all of the items in the media I come across these days — the ones that make me think about professional ethics anyhow — aren’t about how professionals behave (ethically or otherwise). Rather they concern the broad contexts of labor, management, professions, unions, governments, the economy, and I-don’t-know-what. Every worker is more-or-less tangled in forces beyond her control, including the apparently least tangled workers these days, the freelancers or gig workers.

I don’t know much about the freelance economy, aside from the techies who can work anywhere they can get an Internet connection and any time they feel like working. Sara Horowitz, in her call for “Help for the way we work now”[1], tells us that “there are now 53 million freelance workers nationwide, according to a 2014 study,” and they “make up more than one-third of the American work force.”

Freelancing provides a great deal of autonomy (one of the often mentioned characteristics of a professional) at the cost of job security, retirement and health care benefits, and other difficulties that are part of the cost of working ahead of the rest of the work culture and governmental support.

My earlier posts on finding meaning in work, higher education’s responsibility to graduates seeking jobs, and intense workplace cultures are all about tensions between how people become workers/laborers/professionals and how being workers fails to nurture people (who happen to work).

Is this social justice? Is it professional ethics? What is the future of professional ethics if not the environment of professionals (no matter how defined)? Is the standard concerns of professional ethics – confidentiality, conflicts of interest, fiduciary duties – the past of professional ethics?

Tell me what you think.

Ken Pimple
September 7, 2015
(Labor Day in the United States)
3:30 pm EDT


[1] Horowitz, Sara. 2015. “Help for the way we work now.” New York Times (September 7 online and in print in the New York edition, on page A17). (verified September 7, 2015).

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Finding meaning in work (if you can get it)

George and Ira Gershwin taught us that falling in love is  “nice work if you can get it / And you can get it if you try.” Creators of romantic musical theater are notably optimistic — too few people get love just by trying. However, trying to get love is often pleasurable in itself, even though it’s also often anguishing. As far as I know, there’s hardly any pleasure in looking for any job.

It would be nice if landing a job portended a pleasant future, but, according to Barry Schwartz[1] and the research he cites, working is usually disagreeable. The first citation Schwartz offers is from a 2014 Gallup survey that shows that “almost 90 percent of workers were either ‘not engaged’ with or ‘actively disengaged’ from their jobs.” He goes on:

Think about that: Nine out of 10 workers spend half their waking lives doing things they don’t really want to do in places they don’t particularly want to be.

This jibes with my earlier post, Intense workplace culture, but it has a different focus: Some workplaces (notably online businesses such as Amazon and Facebook) are strenuous or “intense” because the culture valorizes – even demands – long hours and intense pressure. This, they think, is how to succeed.

In contrast, Schwartz is talking about common, everyday, non-glamorous jobs — in short, most jobs, the ones that are generally experienced as meaningless.

As in the “intense” post, there’s reason to believe that the sense of meaningless nurtured by workplace culture in general can be attributed by ignorance as well as the Puritanical[2] belief that people don’t want to work and they will not work productively or efficiently unless they are forced to do so — that labor, in line with its Latin root (labor “toil, trouble”) is inherently unpleasant. Schwartz debunks this attitude several times, including a passage on “the Stanford organizational behavior professor Jeffrey Pfeffer.”

In his 1998 book, The Human Equation, which reviewed numerous studies across dozens of different industries, . . . [Pfeffer] found that workplaces that offered employees work that was challenging, engaging and meaningful, and over which they had some discretion, were more profitable than workplaces that treated employees as cogs in a production machine.

It seems that the evidence shows that in many areas employers and businesses could relatively easily increase profit while improving workers’ satisfaction. It may not be ethically required to do so, but it would clearly be ethically praiseworthy.

Ignorance is not usually considered to be unethical, but that doesn’t mean it’s not harmful

Ken Pimple
September 5, 2015
6:00 pm EDT


[1] Schwartz, Barry. 2015. “Rethinking work.” New York Times (August 28 online; in print in the New York edition on August 30, page SR1). (verified September 5, 2015).

[2] Schwartz blames this attitude on Adam Smith’s 1776 The Wealth of Nations and doesn’t mention the Puritans. I don’t know that my attribution is sound — but it does fit with the popular image of them.

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