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Moral Crises in the Professional Sector

July 16th, 2006

The Washington Post is running a good intro piece on one of the critical issues of our day: to what extent does a professionals’ personal beliefs control the provision of services?

The issues listed in the article fall along the usual fault lines: abortion, birth control, euthanasia, artificial insemination. The list goes on and on. One fellow, John C. Green of the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, said all the issues are “collision[s] between a religiously inspired view of life and state regulation.” Now, that seems like an interesting comment. Yes, on one side is a “religiously inspried view of life,” I agree, but government regulation on the other? Seems to me the request of a gay women to be artificially inseminated or a women’s request for birth control are anything but government regulation… that’s just people being people, no government needed.

What I don’t understand is how these professionals like doctors, pharmacists, whatever, can get away with behavior that no lawyer can get away with? As a lawyer (okay, soon to be lawyer) I know that when I hold myself at as a licensed lawyer it comes with certain obligations. One of those obligations is that once I take a client I am bound to that client with all of his various eccentricities. Client wants to do something I would never consider, like suing little kids for tresspass, then you file the suit.

If you don’t like the behavior you can object, sure, but you can only withdraw if doing so will not materially impact the client’s legal position. If you’re in the middle of a case and suddenly the client wants to do something really crazy, so long as it’s not illegal, you have to do it. And you have to do it because, one, you held yourself out to the public as a professional, two, you were hired to do a job as a professional.

So, let’s apply that standard to other professions. Sure, a pharmacist who objects to giving birth control can refuse to do so, since it should be reasonably easy to find another provider before the client is materially injured. (cf town with one pharmacists. Same problem for lawyers though, wonder how conflicts are handled?) But, if a rape victim shows up and asks for the morning-after pill, you had better damn well provide that pill. You hold yourself out as a professional, you are obligated to provide the service. If you aren’t gonna do it, then you need to find another business.

This isn’t car repair people. Professionals go through a lot of schooling, are licensed by the state, and owe special obligations to the population in return for the right to practice. It’s time we start taking those obligations seriously and remember our place in society… helping others.

probonogeek Politics

  1. Alex Kim
    July 17th, 2006 at 04:16 | #1

    Interesting post. I like your criticism of “government regulation” in Green’s piece.

    But on your test of whether a professional can withhold servies based on personal beliefs… would you consider soldiers to be professionals? If so, should we expect that they should not let their personal beliefs interfere with their own “provision of services”? Because I’m pretty sure I can argue that a soldier refusing to deploy to Iraq, for instance, is a material injury to his/her colleauges. Even more so if the deriliction of duty occurs on the field itself!

    And yet, I am glad that soldiers display the ability to discern between that which they do believe to be just orders and that which they do not.

    In the end, I clearly agree with you – I just wonder if your “material injury” test is adequate here.

  2. Sean Kellogg
    July 17th, 2006 at 15:30 | #2

    I’m not crazy about extending the theory to soldiers, per se, since they don’t really fit within the understood definition of a professional.

    Two critical distinctions come to mind: (1) a soldier is not tested and licensed by the state in the way a lawyer or a doctor is, (2) a soldier does not hold his services out to the public. Obviously one could argue against the first distinction (even as I write this I can see an argument about basic training or ROTC), but the second one is more indisputable.

    What makes professionals unique in our world is that they stand in the marketplace and announce “I have special skills which the state denies others the right to exercise, come seek my services.” When a professional does that, they create a public reliance.

    A soldier does not offer services to the public. One could argue is services the public, but the concept of offer seems critical here. I’m not saying that a soldier who objects to deployment is wrong or right, but I think this is probably the wrong theory to support the proposition.

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