We humans have problems, big problems, life-or-death problems. We often die too young — from diseases, in accidents, and as punishment for alleged crimes. Luckily, there are special people with unusual skills and training who are pledged to come to our rescue and protect us from these harms. Using the ancient sciences of biology, physics, and logic, these specialists fight the existential human problems of illness, injury, and injustice. Their devotion to the public values of health, safety, and justice give them indispensable powers to promote the survival of civilization. Resembling a kind of league of nerdy superheroes, they are the learned and licensed professionals of medicine, engineering, and law.
As even Spiderman knows, with great power comes great responsibility. That’s where professional ethics come in. Professionals have moral obligations to all four corners of their practice: to the public, to their clients, to their knowledge, and to the professionals themselves. Let’s unpack these four in reverse order.
Professionals must nurture themselves.
If they don’t, they risk decline and extinction. If professionals stopped existing, they would stop protecting us. This would amount to an unacceptable abandonment of their core public values. The ethical duty to self-service includes any action that helps sustain the profession and its ability to serve others, such as helping emerging practitioners, ensuring comfortable pay and working conditions, and cultivating talents from diverse origins.
Professionals must create knowledge.
The sciences underlying their practice are the only tools professionals have to solve society’s problems. Professionals must keep those tools sharp, which includes efforts such as conserving historical insights, experimenting with new ideas, exploring emerging technologies, creating robust internship programs, supporting academic training, examining fieldwork for possible lessons, and candidly sharing experience and knowledge with colleagues.
Professionals must privilege their clients.
The work of professions is not primarily inside the laboratory or the ivory tower but in the outside world: It is applied work rather than academic work. Clients supply the casework where professionals apply their specialized knowledge. But, by definition, this knowledge is more advanced than lay knowledge, resulting in a potentially dangerous power imbalance. To counter this danger, professionals must put their clients’ interests before their own. Only with this fiduciary relationship can clients have the faith (fide) that what they don’t understand won’t be used against them. This ethos can be traced as far back as ancient Rome, where orators who argued in court on behalf of the less literate were prohibited from taking any payment.
Professionals must serve the public.
The sum of all possible clients equals the larger public and, accordingly, the largest professional obligation is to the public. Although professionals must prefer client interests over their own, they must prefer public interests over both. This means ensuring that work for clients also promotes our human rights to a dignified, secure, fair, free, and sustainable society. Conversely, professionals must not use their skills to help clients get away with anything that runs counter to larger interests and, if necessary, must raise client values to align them with public values. In fact, the failure of a profession to uphold its defining public value (such as safety), by definition, dissolves that profession.
A building designer who managed to uphold all these ethical values would certainly qualify as a morally excellent professional and engineer but hardly as an architect. As Gropius remarked, “Architecture begins where engineering ends.” That is, to be an architect requires more than ethical excellence; it requires aesthetic excellence. In fact, maintaining a critical distance from ethics is often exactly how architects achieve aesthetic excellence. Take the example of one of the biggest ethical controversies in contemporary American architecture.
In the 1970s, the Hancock corporation boldly proposed an illegally large headquarters in Boston’s historically scaled Copley Square. The local residents and architectural community rallied to denounce the project and its unethical New York architect, I. M. Pei. Indeed, the Boston Society of Architects/AIA issued the following official statement to the Boston Board of Zoning Appeals: “Copley Square would not only suffer drastically from the intrusion of so gross a building, but worse would be the damage inflicted on the morale of the city by the spectacle of a corporation rich enough to make mockery of the law.” But as a large employer in the region, Hancock had tremendous leverage in pursuing its appetites. It threatened local government until the zoning code was changed enough to permit a somewhat unobtrusive tower located off the square at the back of a neighboring block.
Even that audacity turned out to be a bait and switch. Once Hancock had gotten the idea of a skyscraper approved, it threw out the smaller design and proposed something 50 percent larger — too big not to disfigure Copley Square. Not wanting to dirty his own hands with this corporate greed, Pei quit the project. Believing Hancock would otherwise hire lesser designers and wreck his hometown, Henry Cobb (Pei’s Boston-born partner) took the project.
In this drama, Pei put the means before the ends and Cobb, the ends before the means — classic ethical roles, which moral philosophers call “deontological” (prioritizing “duty” or “deon” in Greek) or “consequentialist” (prioritizing “consequences” or results). For his consequentialist decision, Cobb was savaged by his Boston peers, who believed he had abandoned the moral duties of his profession for the amorality of commerce.