Barack Obama and Professional Ethics
Tibor R. Machan
President elect Obama told us, during his appointment of several financial regulators, that even while the best regulators are being selected, “everybody from CEOs to shareholders to investors are going have to be asking themselves not only is this profitable, not only whether this will boost my bonus but is it right.” This remark is quite revealing. It pits the professional responsibility of CEOs, for example, against their responsibility to consider what is right.
When a professional such as a teacher or doctor or, yes, a financial manager sets out to do his or her job, it’s assumed that that job is a morally justified undertaking. So doctors who set out to cure patients, teachers who try to educate their students, and financial managers who attempt to make money for their clients are supposedly doing what is right. It isn’t that they do what their profession requires and in addition they must also do what is right. There is no such “in addition” except in so far as they have other responsibilities, as parents, friends, citizens, and so forth. But in their capacity as the professionals they are, what is right amounts to performing well at work.
Imagine if it were not like that. Imagine that what is the right thing to do is something other than fulfilling their professional obligations. What would that additional right thing be? Would it be something that conflicts with their professional responsibilities? Should a doctor care for his or her patients and then do what is right? What would that be? Should a CEO work hard to make the firm he or she manages succeed in the market place and then take time out to do what is right? What would such extra “doing what is right” amount to?
Actually, professional ethics guides the CEO--and the doctor and teacher and plumber and farmer--to act properly and that amounts to nothing else than fulfilling the proper tasks of their profession. That is what doing the right thing means for professionals. Sadly, when it comes to CEOs and other professionals in the financial industry--and indeed in any other profit making endeavor--many people believe that there is a conflict between doing what the profession requires and doing what is right. For example, many attorneys hold that when they do their work on the job that’s one thing but when they do pro bono work, that’s doing what is right. But why would this be the case?
The problem is that many people see ethics or morality in terms of sacrifice, of unselfishness, and of course all professionals carry out their work as a matter of their self-interest, their self-expression even. No one embarks upon a career (unless perhaps if they are monks) for unselfish reasons. Parents, too, send their children to college so they can develop themselves and find a line of work that will be self-fulfilling.
In teaching or medicine this is fine enough since those professions appear to require service from the professionals. As if doctors or teachers did their work purely as a matter of serving others. The pay they receive, the living they make from that work, tends to be overlooked. Of course, the pay is rarely all that such professionals seek from doing their work--they tend, also, to gain other rewards (often called in-kind compensation), such as the joy of the work, the satisfaction that comes from what they accomplish, and so forth. Even those involved in what seem to be service professions--nurses, fire fighters, and so on--seek to find satisfaction from the work they do. It is often indirect satisfaction--they find the work they do worthwhile and that gives them satisfaction.
The point is that few professionals are doing their work from altruistic motives even when they benefit others with what they do.
In the financial industries, in markets, it is mostly quite obvious that professionals are after financial or economic success. And there is nothing wrong with that except that many moralists, folks who advance ideas about how people ought to act in their lives, do not see what such professionals do as moral or ethical. Quite the contrary. So they are viewed as professionals who must not only heed their professional responsibilities but also what is right, something mysteriously different and even more important.
What people who go corrupt in various professions do is to violate either ordinary human morality or their professional ethics. But if they do not do violence to either, then they are doing what is right. Their professional tasks are what is the right thing for them to do. In other words, there is no conflict between seeking success in the market place and doing what is right, not unless one is violating the ethics of one’s profession.