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Elmbrook’s Philosophy of Professional Life

In this article we present the basic understanding of the professions and professional life that underlies Elmbrook’s programs. Our programs aim to transmit this view of professional life to students and prepare them to take on the responsibilities which it implies.


Professions and Society

A well-functioning society, one that is able to provide a good life for the persons that make it up, requires a large variety of professions. Many different people have to take up many different tasks and specialize in them. Each of these different tasks becomes a profession. The persons engaged in a particular task gain an expertise (knowledge and other skills) and then spend most of their time and energies applying that particular expertise in the appropriate areas: a carpenter builds houses, a doctor cures bodily ailments, a shoemaker makes shoes, etc. This societal division of labor is necessary, because there is more to do and to know than any one person can master. While this distinction among the professions has been found in all times and in all places, the number and variety of them has increased greatly in recent centuries with the rapid development of knowledge and technology.

Service Through Expertise

As we have just seen, the very idea of a distinction among the various professions (the societal division of labor) implies that each person, in his professional activity, acts primarily for the good of other persons. The doctor spends his day curing others’ illnesses, the carpenter builds houses for others, the shoemaker makes shoes for others. Each person exercises his special expertise for the good of many other persons and, of course, receives the help and benefits of those who have different expertises (the doctor gets his clothes from the tailor). This orientation toward seeking the good of other persons– service– is intrinsic and essential to the very idea of a profession. And while it is true that most professionals earn their living by means of their professional activity, this does not change the fact that the activity itself is directed to the good of other persons (patients, customers, clients, students, etc.).

Looking at the relationship from the other side, a person who receives services from a professional usually does so because he himself lacks that particular professional expertise. The doctor, who does not know how to make shoes, repair his car, or program his computers, depends on others for these tasks, Precisely because he does not possess the necessary expertise, he has to trust the professional. It is not just that he lacks time to do the work himself or time to check the other professional’s work; rather, in most cases, he is simply not even competent to judge whether or not the advice or work of the professional is good (even a second opinion requires trust in the second expert). So, trust on the part of the one who receives the services is also intrinsic and essential to the distinction among the professions.

Responsibilities of a Professional

This two-fold relationship of service and trust generates a number of basic responsibilities or obligations for any professional. In the first place, he should actually possess the expertise he claims to have. He must master the basics of his profession and then continue to learn, so that he is capable of performing well the services his profession calls for. To do otherwise is fraud.

Secondly, the professional has to seek the true good of his client, customer, patient, etc. Because he possesses an expertise that his client or customer lacks, he often finds himself in a position of being able to act in a way that will be more in his own individual self-interest rather than being truly in the customer’s or client’s interest. In other words, he is quite often presented with opportunities to betray the trust that is put in him. A true professional does not abuse this trust, but will seek the good of his client. Here we might observe that the qualities of the professional that make him honor this trust go beyond technical expertise and fall into the category of character or virtue. Hence, being a good professional requires, in addition to technical expertise, a certain moral character.

Thirdly, and related to what has just been said, a professional should not let considerations of remuneration interfere with this basic orientation toward the good of the client or customer. When a professional puts remuneration ahead of service to the client–an attitude of greed–he will often end up abusing the client, i.e., acting in a way that is not really in the interest of the client. He may simply not take on work if the remuneration is not what he needs to support himself (and his family), but once he has taken on the work, he should not cheat the client or customer by doing work that does not truly serve their good.

In light of the foregoing, Elmbrook’s programs instill in students a sense of responsibility in their studies, teaching them to see those studies as laying the groundwork of their professional expertise and so, with a view to their future professional life, to be taken as very seriously. The programs also try to instill in the students basic ethical principles along with the more specific principles of professional ethics. Students are also encouraged and helped to develop their own personal moral character.

Professional Innovation

A good professional, who understands his professional activity as a form of service to other persons, wants to contribute to the advancement of his own profession in order to make it more effective in rendering that service. He does this, first of all, in trying to make technical improvements in the area of his professional expertise, such as a doctor discovering a new, better technique for curing a disease. Second, he will collaborate with others in his profession, so that the profession as a whole adopts professional standards that promote and protect the particular service offered by that profession. An engineer, for example, will work to have accepted standards that adequately protect the users of the products they design. Also, he will work to ensure that the standards of the profession respect ethical norms (this is particularly important for professions like medicine). To this end he will usually try to participate in various professional organizations. Finally he will be willing to help younger members of the profession to gain their professional expertise and try to pass on his experience to those who follow.

In light of the above, Elmbrook’s programs try to instill a sense of enthusiasm for one’s profession, among other things by helping students find the profession best suited to their talents and aspirations.

Integrating Professional Work and Life

To help students prepare to exercise their professions in a well-integrated way in all the aspects just mentioned, Elmbrook’s programs encourage students, even those in technical fields, to acquire some measure of formation in the humanities, in areas like history, literature, and philosophy. The study of such subjects allows a person to reflect on the larger life-questions and come to a mature understanding of what counts for success in life and what makes for a good community; this sort of understanding is needed if one is to live a well-integrated life. Also, as mentioned above, the programs aim to give students basic principles of professional ethics by which they will be able to recognize and confront ethical issues in their professional life.

To be a good professional requires, among other things, that the person successfully integrates his professional activity into the broader context of his whole life. A normal human life includes much more than professional activities: family, religion, participation in the political and civic life of one’s community, as well as many various activities involving sports, the arts, education, etc. It is very possible, indeed it happens all too frequently, that a person becomes overly dedicated to his professional activity to the detriment of other aspects of his life, so that his life, taken as a whole, suffers. To be a good professional implies achieving a healthy work-life balance. And to achieve this balance, a person needs to reflect on what constitutes a successful human life so as to be able to integrate all the elements of his life in a healthy way.

In addition to integrating one’s professional life into one’s personal life, it is necessary for a good professional also to integrate his professional work into the larger community. A good professional needs to consider whether and how his work is contributing the good of the community and needs to avoid activities that are harmful to the moral climate (e.g., contributing to pornography), to the physical environment (e.g., polluting the atmosphere), and even to the economy (e.g., speculation that has no good result other than the enrichment of some private individuals). Otherwise he could easily find himself exercising his skills in a way that is actually harmful to the community (e.g., a plastic surgeon changing a criminal’s fingerprints or a defense contractor developing an intrinsically immoral weapon). Obviously, measuring the effect of one’s activity on the larger community is not always simple; nevertheless, a good professional needs to consider it and try to promote the good of his community and avoid harming it. To this end he needs to have some idea of what is good and what is harmful to the community.

A particularly important aspect of integration is that of professional ethics. Professional ethics mark out certain kinds of activities which are “out of bounds” in the exercise of one’s profession and generates rules or norms that identify such activities. These ethical norms, however, are not arbitrary. Rather they direct and guide the professional precisely in this area of harmonizing his professional activity with the broader human good. To practice ethical behavior is in fact to act in such a way as to promote the human good and not harm it. Hence, a good professional needs to know the ethical norms that apply to his professional activities and needs to follow them. He should see that these norms are not really extrinsic to the profession (or some sort of “brake”), but arise from the profession’s intrinsic ordination to the broader human good.

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