Why Professionalism is Still Relevant

24 Pages Posted: 1 Feb 2010

Date Written: January 31, 2010


Professionalism is as, perhaps even more, relevant today as it was when the concept first emerged centuries ago. Defined as a combination of knowledge, skills, trustworthiness and altruism found in those who commit themselves to a life of service to others, professionalism now covers many more disciplines than the original professions of law, medicine and divinity. The professions have steadily proliferated as knowledge has expanded, requiring ever-more specialised education and spawning neo-professions. Specialised knowledge gives professionals power over their clients. Balancing the use of this power for individual and public good, while meeting their own needs, obliges professionals to behave ethically. It also attracts government regulation and provides much of the raison d’être for professional associations. The internet, diminution of self-employment and erosion of public trust are combing to threaten many of the benefits of professionalism. True understanding of professionalism suggests that it remains indispensable to humanity and will continue to evolve its role in society.

In 1853, a meeting of one of the most influential professional associations in the world toasted the three classical professions: divinity, law and medicine. Attendees at this American Medical Association convention noted with self-congratulation that the three professions were profoundly interrelated: “Three graces, all of which combined, support each other” (Imber, 2008, p. 13). Is there something about the professions that binds different disciplines together? If so, what is this underlying essence of professionalism? And is it still relevant in today’s world?

This essay maintains that there is an important essence underlying all the professions that must remain relevant if humanity is to continue to derive benefit from professional services. The concept of “professionalism” includes skills, knowledge and expertise, but also the virtues of trustworthiness and altruism. Josef Mengele of Auschwitz, with his infamous human experiments, was a learned doctor and scientist - but no one would call him a professional. Professionalism as set forth in the early Dialogues of Plato holds that the true professional not only possesses the practical skills and knowledge of his or her trade (tekhne in Greek) but is also disciplined in moral excellence (arête) (Reid, 1998).

This essay examines the notion of professionalism itself against the background of history and modern definitions. Further, the essay explores how professional associations and professional services contribute to professionalism, and assesses the impact of culture, economics, technology and government. Finally, the essay poses the question as to whether professionalism will survive the process of globalisation as knowledge “goes viral,” and offers suggestions why it should.

Keywords: Professionalism, Professional Associations, Professional Services, Profession

JEL Classification: K00, K19

Suggested Citation

Beaton, George Ramsay, Why Professionalism is Still Relevant (January 31, 2010). U of Melbourne Legal Studies Research Paper No. 445, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1545509 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1545509

George Ramsay Beaton (Contact Author)

College of Law ( email )

2 Chandos Street
St Leonards
Sydney, NSW 2065

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