We can probably agree that professionalism is an important value, but what is it? It’s a virtue of the workplace, and isn’t limited to doctors, lawyers, accountants, and so on, but can apply quite broadly to people in any number of jobs. You can work for minimum wage and have a sense of professionalism; how much money you make doesn’t really matter here. What matters is more like an attitude, a disposition, a way of conducting yourself in the work that you do. I’m going to suggest that the popular conception of professionalism that we have today is mistaken, and I’m going to suggest an alternative.
Let’s start with what this idea is usually taken to mean today. The prevalent view seems to be that a professional, first, must be a member of a designated profession, second, must have a certain level of knowledge and skill, and third, must be someone who knows and follows the rules that their profession establishes. I’m interested especially in this third point. Every form of work has its rules. Let’s think about what these rules are. In my own profession—probably yours too—there are a thousand rules, procedures, terms of reference, “best practices,” a whole regime of regulations that you’re expected to comply with. The person who is deemed unprofessional either lacks knowledge and skill or doesn’t comply with the rules. Often the notion of professionalism itself, or a major part of it, essentially comes down to rule-following. The consummate professional not only obeys but obeys willingly and happily, and is typically well rewarded for this in the form of promotions, raises, a good reputation, and so on. There’s more to it, of course, and there’s a good deal of ambiguity to the concept of professionalism itself, but it seems to me that when people use this word today, most often this is what they mean.
I’m going to suggest a different view, and for a couple of reasons. The first has to do with freedom. If you value freedom very much, you may have noticed that while we continue to say that we live in a free society, our freedom today is in a precarious condition. It no longer has one big enemy, whether it’s communism, fascism, or whatever, but there’s a phenomenon called death by a thousand cuts which can undermine our freedom as surely as any dictator and probably more so because it goes unnoticed. My own view is that we do and do not live in a free society, in about equal measure. There’s an enormous amount to say on that subject, but right now let’s just think about how much freedom you have in your workplace. Think about those rules, procedures, best practices, and so on. What is a best practice? This is a phrase I hear every day, and what it is is someone’s opinion about how something should be done. It becomes a rule that everyone is expected to follow, whether the rule makes sense in a given case or not. It also has a fine-sounding name: best practice. You don’t want your own practices to be second best, do you? So you go along with whatever gets called a best practice, thinking that’s what a good professional does. You probably also don’t have a choice.
In my own profession, university professors have long had quite a lot of freedom. No one tells me what books to write, how to write them or how often, nor what courses to teach and how to teach them. Professors have long and jealously guarded our academic freedom, and I do too. But even here, the regime of best practices exists, and university committees and administrators are always sending down communiques about this or that, some new rule which sometimes makes sense and sometimes (probably more often) doesn’t. Some of it can and should be ignored—new rules dreamed up by administrators who probably haven’t seen the inside of a classroom in a decade and who know little or nothing about research either. There’s always someone who will tell you how to do your job, but if you’re a professional you don’t follow rules unthinkingly or unquestioningly. You use your judgment.
At the center of my understanding of professionalism is the concept of judgment. Quite often a professional has to make what are called judgment calls. Consider a referee in hockey. This person has to use their judgment about, for example, whether to call a penalty for tripping in a given case. There’s a rule against tripping, but the rule doesn’t apply itself but must be applied to particular situations, and not in any way but in the right way. No rule governs how you apply rules, nor could there be. The problem with a rule, as Aristotle pointed out, is that it’s general while the cases it’s applied to are specific. It needs to be tailored to the specific case, and in a way that makes sense. Hockey referees, if they know what they’re doing, aren’t going to call that tripping penalty in exactly the same way in overtime of a playoff game as in the first period of a regular season game. You apply the rule differently in different situations and show some flexibility, recognize exceptions and extenuating circumstances in ways that the rule book can’t predict. What’s called good judgment is unformalizable since what ultimately matters isn’t the rule itself but the situation on which it comes to bear and creating the best result that we can. Now consider the legal judge. Here too one is making judgment calls, applying a law that’s known in advance to a particular case. If they’re doing it right, they’re looking back and forth between an abstract law and a particular case, and they’re trying to establish a kind of fit between them. They’re not just filing things in pigeonholes or following rules in an automatic or computational way, or if they are then we’re going to fault such a judge for being a rule fetishist.
In any profession, you encounter situations quite often when you need to make decisions like this, decisions where there may be no rule to apply or, if there is, you need to decide how best to apply it. No method dictates how to do this. Instead you need experience and usually a lot of it. A doctor needs to use their judgment in treating a patient; you don’t treat every patient the same, even when they have the same condition. A teacher needs to decide what grade to put on an essay and what comments to write. No one and no rule can tell you exactly how to do this, but again experience helps. In the usual case no one knows better than the teacher what they should write on that paper, assuming a certain level of competence. What the teacher needs, as in these other cases, isn’t a regime of rules but the freedom to teach their students in the way that’s indicated in the circumstances. Different students need different things, and one size never fits all.
Professionalism as I think of it is more than any possession of informational knowledge but is a disposition of mind, an ability to discern what the situation before you requires, and it requires experience and a good deal of freedom. A person who conforms to rules unthinkingly is not a professional but a conformist. In any profession today there are rules that are excessive, overreaching, and impossible to justify. Often they are an over-correction of a problem, a rule that applies to everyone and in all cases, reducing the scope for judgment just a bit—multiplied by a thousand. Over time, professional autonomy is often replaced by systems of rules and layers of bureaucracy, and with the consequence that whole professions are no longer professions. The virtue of professionalism as I understand it is a disposition and an ability not only to perform a certain range of tasks at a relatively high level but, as a necessary condition of this, to make judgment calls that are unformalyzable and oriented not toward following rules for the sake of it but toward achieving aims that are built into and that are the raison d’être of the profession itself. You need sometimes to break the rules, and not in any way but in the right way, at the right time, and for the right reasons. It’s impossible to say in general terms what the right way is. You have a sense of how to do it, and that sense can’t be codified.