Benchmark Ethics: From Work to Vocation and Profession

In an op-ed piece, “Once We Had Professionals,” (San Francisco Chronicle, June 3, 2002), Tom Campbell, the new Dean of UC Berkeley’s Haas Business School, writes “The diminishing concept of a profession is at the heart of the recent business scandals: Enron, Arthur Andersen, Merrill Lynch, even the declining availability of quality health care.”

I have believed for many years that recovering the two historic concepts of “vocation” and “profession” would contribute something very helpful to our situation. These two powerful terms can take us far beyond conventional thinking of our jobs merely in terms of “work.”

Typically, as we grow up, based on our personal aptitudes and interests, and on the counsel and influence of teachers and mentors, we gravitate toward one specialty or another. Personal interest and financial reward drive most of our work and career choices.

A very different tradition views work as a vocation or “calling.” The historic core of this idea was that God “called” people to do one job or another. During the European Middle Ages, this notion of vocation was narrowed down to apply only to religious work like that of a priest or nun. The 16th century Protestant Reformation fought to broaden the notion once again so that bricklayers, mayors, parents, farmers, doctors, nurses and other workers could see their work as a response to God’s call. If you couldn’t view your work as a calling from God (say, because you were a prostitute or were lending money at usurious interest rates), then it could not be a true, legitimate calling.
A career “calling” might also come from other people. For example, biochemical researchers or health-care givers may choose their work as a result of hearing suffering patients crying out for help. Vocational work choices are experienced as a calling from outside the self. Most of our jobs could potentially be understood as callings. It has to do with our motivation. This shift in perspective from “doing it for me and money” to “doing it for God and the people” can make a vast difference in how we approach our work.

“Profession” is the counterpart to “vocation.” You hear a calling; you speak a profession. Being professional is about making vows and commitments, about “professing” something.

The historic, traditional, medieval professions were law, medicine, theology, and university teaching (“professor”). In a self-conscious contrast to people in business and commerce, professionals of centuries past were people with advanced, specialized, even “dangerous” knowledge who committed themselves to (1) active membership and disciplined accountability in an association of professional peers, (2) an ethos and motivation of service (rather than financial gain; the custom of receiving unspecified “honoraria” instead of salaries or specified fees for services originated here), and (3) a public profession of loyalty to a code of moral values and principles (higher than the minimal requirements of the law. The Hippocratic Oath for Physicians is the classic example of a professional code).

During the past century, the historic professions, especially law and medicine, have evolved into lucrative businesses and lost most of their old professional ethos. Attorneys now advertise their services like any other commodity. Law and medicine are seen as avenues to wealth more than to service. Meanwhile, some historic business and commercial specialties have professionalized by creating disciplined associations and vowing adherence to codes of ethics (the Certified Public Accountants, ironically, were among the first). So the old lines have been blurred between who is in the work-for-money, commerce camp and who is in the work-as-professional-calling camp.

We no longer live in the medieval cultural context which supported (if not “demanded”) professionalism of much of its educated leadership. Most of our rediscovery and practice of vocation and profession will thus be a voluntary activity. Will we use our influence and freedom to pursue and promote these ideas? Can we begin seeing our jobs (and companies) in terms of a vocation from outside ourselves? Can we recover the threefold professional experience of (1) allowing our individual performance to be supported, evaluated by, and accountable to, an association of our fellow professionals, (2) pursuing and promoting high ethical standards, even when the law or the market do not require it, and (3) making the service of others a higher priority than the service of money?

Vocational and professional thinking about our jobs are avenues to more meaningful and fulfilling careers. But I would also point out that when powerful people do not voluntarily regulate each other and hold each other accountable for sound ethics, the apparatus of government is roused from its slumber and eager to step in. “Once we had professionals,” Dean Campbell wrote. Maybe again.

David W. Gill was co-founder of IBTE and author of Benchmark Ethics, a regular article in the first 32 issues of Ethix. After eight years of writing, speaking, teaching, and consulting in the Bay Area of California, he joined the faculty of Gordon-Conwell Theological Center (South Hampton, Mass.) in 2010, where he is also Director of the Mockler Center for Faith and Ethics in the Workplace.