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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Ken Pimple

About Ken Pimple

I've been involved in the Association for Practical and Professional Ethics before its actual creation. I am coordinating the international conversation on the future of practical and professional ethics for APPE, and organizing five workshops that will be held at Indiana University in Bloomington in academic year 2014-15.

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