Considering Professional Ethics: February 2024

Is "Trust But Verify" Now Obsolete?

Comments from David Goldman (FASPE Chair) 

We were all a bit bemused when Ronald Reagan frequently used the phrase (interestingly, without noting that it is in fact, ironically, an old Russian proverb) in discussing nuclear disarmament treaties with the Soviet Union. We took the need for verification as an unfortunate but necessary concomitant under these particular circumstances when trust, alone, would normally have sufficed. Fair enough.

Fast forward to 2024 when the whole concept of trust seems so old-fashioned, so quaint. Nowhere is this felt more than in our professions and in our professional institutions, namely the pillars of a functioning society. These foundational pillars become fragile when we do not trust the individuals inside of them.

One might wonder which came first–the breakdown in trust or our clearly dysfunctional society? Does it matter? The fact is that dysfunction thrives on a lack of trust; and that is what we have now.

The FASPE Reunion this year is focusing on the concept of trust within the professions. Namely: what are the core causes of the breakdown in trust? What is the impact of that breakdown?  Why does trust matter? And, most importantly, what can the individual professionals, our Alumni (!), do to play a role in the restoration of trust?

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Let’s be clear. We are not going to return to a world of Marcus Welbys, but does that mean that we must live in a world of deniers or skeptics of medical science; we are not going to return to a world of Thurgood Marshalls, but does that mean that we must live in a world of well-founded lawyers’ jokes that assume ill-motives for every word uttered or written by lawyers; we are not going to a world in which technologists and business executives are seen through the romance and belief in Bell Labs, but does that mean we must, as our default positions, deny technology and question all business? Shall I mention Walter Cronkite and modern media? Or this or that religious group that is more identified by [sometimes extreme] political positions than their spiritual foundation?

And, let’s also be clear that the professions have earned this level of suspicion and distrust. From the doctors behind the so-called Tuskegee “medical” experiments to Rudy Giuliani and his band of “legal” theorists of election denial (let alone a Supreme Court whose Chief Justice, himself, speaks often about the lack of trust); from Elizabeth Holmes and her breakthrough “technology” to the “journalist” Tucker Carlson. Unethical all. Unprofessional all. And, tragically, these individual acts of ethical failure lead to a suspicion of their entire professions. And, of their underlying systems and institutions–medicine and the CDC; the legal system and the Supreme Court; Journalism and Fox News and The New York Times. And on and on.

It is trite to say that trust cannot be acquired, that it cannot be returned overnight. But, it is not trite to say that trust in the professions begins with trust in the individual practitioners. One by one.

Professionals: Question your ethics. A functioning society depends on it.

"Considering Professional Ethics" is a monthly essay shared in the FASPE e-newsletter.
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