May Reading: ‘A Meta-Ethics for Professional Role Morality’ by Benjamin Freedman

Hello everyone.
This month’s reading is ‘A Meta-Ethics for Professional Role Morality’ by Benjamin Freedman, in Ethics 89 (1) 1978, pp 1-19. I am assuming that you can access this via your academic libraries/JSTOR but let me know if otherwise.

As will be obvious already, this is an old paper. Aspects of it are conspicuously outdated, for example the claim that Freedman’s example topic of medical confidentiality has ‘been neglected even in this boom time for medical ethics’ (p.2. Nonetheless I think it’s an interesting- and fairly digestible – paper that relates to a (or the) central question of role ethics: that of role-morality’s relation to or separation from ‘ordinary’ morality. Starting from the medical and therapeutic confidentiality example, Freedman asks how it is so much more stringent in this professional context than in the ordinary moral context, and claims that ‘[c]onflict between professional and ordinary morality does not arise […] through happenstance but is an essential part of the description of the relationship of these two moralities.’ (p.10). He argues for this by considering whether this apparent conflict could be dissolved by deontological, act-utilitarian and rule-utilitarian accounts. Whilst rule-utilitarianism is the nearest theory to the alternative account he concludes with, it too is inadequate. For Freedman, professions have internal moralities by virtue of their elevating particular values (such as ‘first do no harm’ in medical practice), and the justification for this can’t be carried out in purely utilitarian terms.

I had two queries. The first was whether he would think that this kind of non-reducible moral independence only applies in the way he thinks it does to professions, and if so why? What of other social roles which revolve around certain values and have putative standards and norms, such as parent (care, devotion?), spouse (romantic love?), club-member or even friend (loyalty)? Freedman might grant this, and accept that a whole range of roles and practices are like professions in the moral sense in which he is interested. But this apparently boring concession would illuminate a second worry, that Freedman’s meta-ethic for professional morality isn’t really a meta-ethic, but rather a denial that there is any meta-ethical work to do when it comes to  certain discrete values and standards of professions or roles. And that just seems highly implausible. For the sake of this argument we could ask rhetorically: why not also allow that a role/practice we consider standardly immoral has certain values that are internal to it which thus ground its ‘internal’ morality in just this way? Mafia and Mafioso, Slavery and slave master… etc etc. The answer to this would seem obviously to be ‘because there are very strong moral values and reasons outweighing the very norms and values which are at the heart of practices and roles such as these’. That’s fine, but then just the same kind of external justification would seem apt for professions or roles that we value morally. Why do we accept and allow the internal moralities of law, medicine etc.? Presumably because we think that internal standards are conducive with promoting their respective practices and institutions, and that these practices and institutions are by and large morally acceptable or good, and worth maintaining. But pace Freedman, justification for all of this seems explicable in terms of a general moral outlook- if not a purely utilitarian one. So, medical ethical practices being built on the maxim primum non nocere does not seem to be something that is justified by medicine internally, even though the maxim may be rightly be internal – essential to or ‘at the heart of’ the practice.