Considering Professional Ethics: March 2024

Would We Watch Marcus Welby and Cliff Huxtable Today?

Comments from David Goldman (FASPE Chair) 

The authority and influence with which we imbue our professionals translates into leadership; and that leadership extends, for example, beyond just the individual doctor/individual patient relationship. As we create health policy, for example, we rely on medical professionals, not, say, police professionals, to help fashion that policy. We grant authority to the doctor because she is a professional in the medical profession. That concept seems self-evident and fundamental to a well-functioning society. My question: do we still believe that?  

 Does our expectation of diversity and our rejection of the very notion of elitism mean that we must also deny the concept of the professional? That is, is there a role today for Marcus Welby and Cliff Huxtable–the iconic representations of professionals, here doctors?

For some, this question may seem bizarre–of course we recognize the influence and importance of our professionals. But, the challenge to the entire idea of the professional has been teed up by those who understandably see that the concept has been co-opted and misunderstood by those who improperly apply an anachronistic (and unethical!) view of the professional. 

Presumably Drs. Welby and Huxtable both went to an Ivy League college and a “fancy” medical school. Dr. Welby was always well-coiffed, conservatively dressed–he likely slept either in suit and tie or white coat. Dr. Huxtable was always either in white coat or fabulously stylish sweater. They lived in perfect homes, with perfect wives, perfect children. We can easily imagine Welby on the golf course; we know that Huxtable was active on the courts–basketball and tennis. While we cannot be sure, they likely attended religious services but not at a mosque, synagogue or mandir (to name a few). 

And, they were trusted.

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Is professionalism defined by gender, elite education, clothing, economic power, and athleticism? Does professionalism depend on gender, elite education, clothing, economic power, and athleticism? If the answer to either is yes, then the anti-professional must be right.

The problem is that those characteristics were the accouterments of the professional of the 1950s. But they must not define them today! We must not see the accouterments as defining the professional or professionalism.

So, what are the traits and values that qualify the professional for the influence and trust that we depend on? Consider whether any of these sound like Cliff Huxtable and Marcus Welby, even if hidden behind their clothing, style, or other accouterments: expertise, objectivity, curiosity, integrity, judgment, creativity, reliability, availability, commitment, empathy, altruism, selflessness, self-awareness. 

We can discuss which of the above are fundamental, what others we want to add–perhaps depending in some cases on the profession. But, we know that none of the above assumes any specific race, religion, gender, or cultural heritage; any particular schooling or family wealth; a personal appearance or style. 

So, why this crisis of trust, crisis of definition? It is no revelation to say that we are a society in transformation, one that is far from defined by the supposed white male symbol of expertise or trustworthiness. Do luddites exist? Are there many who remain tethered to the white male symbol? Yes to both. But, this must not be a political discussion; this is not a debate. There has been progress; and we require more. Professionalism does not lie in the past. 

Our greatest risk lies in a class of prospective professionals who themselves reject true professionalism because they believe (or fear) that it remains dependent on the old models. That is itself an act of anti-professionalism that undermines the need for ethical leadership.

In fact, this is a false and entirely counter-productive discussion. The remnants, however powerful, of the outdated models and symbols have absolutely no place in the present, no possibility in the future. The existence of the remnants must not preoccupy, or be daunting to, the prospective professional who does not look like a Welby or a Huxtable. 

Professionals: do not deny your responsibility. Consumers of professional services: do not reject true professionalism. 

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