Monday, October 15, 2007

Professionalism and the Military

. . . . by the 20th century a profession’s status depended more on the work done then on social standing of the worker. To ensure that the quality of a professional work remained high, people in certain relatively high status occupations organized into associations that trained and tested their members. They also, through mechanisms that varied in time and place, protected their right to practice in a certain domain by excluding outsiders who they considered unqualified. Intrinsic to this concept was the idea of service, in other words professionals were doing important work in society and put the needs of their clients above their own needs. By the mid-20th century many scholars accepted the idea that professions enjoyed high status because they met important social needs and had risen above the self-serving motives of those, like merchants and businessmen, in non-professional occupations.

This ideal was captured in texts widely used in courses on military ethics and professionalism at Canadian military colleges and American military academies. In one representative essay [Jacques Barzun, “The Professions Under Siege,” in Malham M. Wakin, ed., War, Morality, and the Military Profession (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1986), 124-5, 128, 130, 132. ], Barzun sketches an outline of history of professions as groups with a monopoly on certain skills for a “distinct practical purpose.” He reminds us that because of this focus on practical outcomes, professions are vulnerable institutions, because, while the role of professions in society may be eternal, a particular profession may disappear or change radically over time, for example the priest-physician and barber-surgeon. Barzun observes that the “tendency of an egalitarian age to turn every occupation into a profession” has complicated the subject of professional ethics. He uses the example of the “profession” of journalism to illustrate this point: there is no body of peers to tell if practitioners are competent, the “professional” has a distant relationship with his/her clients, and there are no specific professional credentials required to become a journalist.

This trend is parallelled by the gradual demoting of professions to the level of ordinary trades and businesses. His message for professions is that their one hope for survival is the recovery of their mental and moral force. It is not enough to have codes of conduct that are policed by professional oversight bodies; professions must also exercise “moral and intellectual leadership” that communicates the message that ethical behaviour is “desirable, widely practiced, approved and admired.” Or as [Max] Lerner puts it [in “The Shame of the Professions”]: all professions need to “recapture the sense of vocation or calling.” Barzun’s essay was written in 1978 and Lerner’s in 1975, but the points they made then are still highly relevant today.

— Allan English, Professionalism and the Military — Past, Present, and Future: A Canadian Perspective, a paper prepared for the Canadian Forces Leadership Institute, May 2002.

See also: Regain Trust, by Don Kirk and Dr. Ira Williams, A Tribute to Jacques Barzun