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What Defines a Profession?

Ryan is a student at Drexel University studying Mechanical Engineering with concentrations in Aerospace and Energy, and Systems Engineering.

A doctor is someone who can be called a professional.

A doctor is someone who can be called a professional.

Up until recently, my definition of a profession was the same as the definition of an occupation. To me, they were interchangeable words. A profession was something that a person would do to make a living. Now, I realize that this definition was incomplete, barely scratching the surface of what makes up a profession. While “professions” are more varied than some concepts and/or ideas make it seem, there is more to them than initially meets the eye.

First Steps

A profession details several vital aspects of a job. The first of which is the “professional.” By definition, a professional is just someone who works in a profession. However, in order to be deemed a professional at something, they are typically held to a higher standard than their peers. This is usually the product of a long and extensive education and years of experience in the field. For engineering, a college education is often required to truly become proficient. Similarly, doctors and lawyers are only allowed to enter the occupation after many, many years of schooling. There are exceptions, however. Professional athletes don’t necessarily need as high of a level as schooling but certainly, need years and years of experience playing the sport at an intense level.

The second requirement that must be met in order to be considered a professional is, as Paul Sieghart described it in his address to Session IV of the World Congress on Law and Medicine, a “gross inequality of power.” Professions are based upon that inequality, as one person in the relationship has the necessary skills to complete the task, while the other doesn’t and needs assistance.

This is where the second requirement sets a profession apart from any other occupation. That inequality introduces a conflict of interest between the professional and the client. This conflict is the fact that the person with the ability to solve the problem at hand has, of course, a duty to himself. He must make a living, possibly for a family, on top of simply himself as well. But now, his profession calls upon him to provide a service to the best of his ability. Why shouldn’t he charge the client what he wants? This fundamental question is what makes a profession different. The “code of ethics” that someone must follow in order to be considered a professional makes sure that they don’t take the abuse the power they hold in the situation.

Codes of Ethics

This brings up another point about professions. Most professions have codes of conduct that the employer will hold his employees to. However, these are often made without any form of discipline or punishment for those who “violate” the code. They serve as a point of common ethic and moral value for all those in the field. This argument that “professions” are the jobs with codes are fundamentally flawed when observing practices in the field. Taking a look at the NSPE Code of Ethics for Engineers, for example. There are several canons that are too broad and outdated to hold any sway over the current field. Canon 2, “Perform services only in the areas of [an engineer’s] competence,” neglects the fact that many engineers perform research that has not been done before, and, therefore, cannot be deemed experts in the area. Should this code prevent them from invention and innovation? Canon 4 deems all engineers should “act for each employer or client as faithful agents or trustees,” but what if an employer asks an engineer to do something he/she disagrees with? Now the engineer is faced with doing something unethical, or risking being in ill favor with their boss.

Many times, engineers do what they have to do in order to keep their job and continue providing for their family, and this can sometimes introduce conflicts of interest. In other fields, actions still prove to outweigh the “codes” that they follow. In the Hippocratic Oath, it states that “I consider for the benefit of my patients, and abstain from whatever is deleterious and mischievous”, but the medical profession isn’t always completely honest in practice either. Medicine and drugs are named in Latin so that patients wouldn’t know what the drugs do, forcing them to blindly follow the doctor's orders. The opioid crisis was arguably caused by doctors taking advantage of patients and prescribing them addictive drugs to make a profit for large companies. Codes do nothing in practice, and since they aren’t used to truly discipline anyone in the field, they should not be considered a necessary trait for a profession.

Engineers fit in our definition of a professional.

Engineers fit in our definition of a professional.

An important argument to consider is integration in the project. If a goal is directly related to an individual, that individual is usually a professional. However, when the objective is related to a company instead, it’s harder to identify anyone directly related to specific aspects. For example, in the event of failure, can the cause be traced back to a person or the company? If it is to an individual, that person can usually be deemed a professional (with exceptions, obviously). However, if the failure is related to a company as a whole, those involved are usually not professionals. This description, therefore, often excludes those in business and management.

The "Noble Cause"

With these points in mind, the range of jobs that can be considered professions dwindles down. On top of business and management, our description does not include small business owners, entrepreneurs, or the growing industry of YouTubers, streamers, and gamers. This still leaves engineers, lawyers, politicians, doctors, teachers, and professional athletes/actors (as well as variants within their respective fields). Looking at these brings to mind another of Sieghart’s requirements. The idea of professions possessing a “noble cause” is extremely prominent in these examples. In the case of engineers, their cause is to advance society's technological world and make it safer. For doctors, it is to keep people healthy, while politicians and lawyers are to provide order to society. Teachers educate, athletes and actors entertain. For each profession, they provide something to society that isn’t a single product but a goal. Each goal is something that makes each and every person’s life better and safer.