Column on Obama & Professional Ethics

Barack Obama and Professional Ethics
Tibor R. Machan
President elect Obama told us, during his appointment of several
financial regulators, that even while the best regulators are being
selected, “everybody from CEOs to shareholders to investors are going have
to be asking themselves not only is this profitable, not only whether this
will boost my bonus but is it right.” This remark is quite revealing. It
pits the professional responsibility of CEOs, for example, against their
responsibility to consider what is right.
When a professional such as a teacher or doctor or, yes, a financial
manager sets out to do his or her job, it’s assumed that that job is a
morally justified undertaking. So doctors who set out to cure patients,
teachers who try to educate their students, and financial managers who
attempt to make money for their clients are supposedly doing what is
right. It isn’t that they do what their profession requires and in
addition they must also do what is right. There is no such “in addition”
except in so far as they have other responsibilities, as parents, friends,
citizens, and so forth. But in their capacity as the professionals they
are, what is right amounts to performing well at work.
Imagine if it were not like that. Imagine that what is the right thing to
do is something other than fulfilling their professional obligations. What
would that additional right thing be? Would it be something that conflicts
with their professional responsibilities? Should a doctor care for his or
her patients and then do what is right? What would that be? Should a CEO
work hard to make the firm he or she manages succeed in the market place
and then take time out to do what is right? What would such extra “doing
what is right” amount to?
Actually, professional ethics guides the CEO–and the doctor and teacher
and plumber and farmer–to act properly and that amounts to nothing else
than fulfilling the proper tasks of their profession. That is what doing
the right thing means for professionals. Sadly, when it comes to CEOs and
other professionals in the financial industry–and indeed in any other
profit making endeavor–many people believe that there is a conflict
between doing what the profession requires and doing what is right. For
example, many attorneys hold that when they do their work on the job
that’s one thing but when they do pro bono work, that’s doing what is
right. But why would this be the case?
The problem is that many people see ethics or morality in terms of
sacrifice, of unselfishness, and of course all professionals carry out
their work as a matter of their self-interest, their self-expression even.
No one embarks upon a career (unless perhaps if they are monks) for
unselfish reasons. Parents, too, send their children to college so they
can develop themselves and find a line of work that will be
In teaching or medicine this is fine enough since those professions
appear to require service from the professionals. As if doctors or
teachers did their work purely as a matter of serving others. The pay they
receive, the living they make from that work, tends to be overlooked. Of
course, the pay is rarely all that such professionals seek from doing
their work–they tend, also, to gain other rewards (often called in-kind
compensation), such as the joy of the work, the satisfaction that comes
from what they accomplish, and so forth. Even those involved in what seem
to be service professions–nurses, fire fighters, and so on–seek to find
satisfaction from the work they do. It is often indirect
satisfaction–they find the work they do worthwhile and that gives them
The point is that few professionals are doing their work from altruistic
motives even when they benefit others with what they do.
In the financial industries, in markets, it is mostly quite obvious that
professionals are after financial or economic success. And there is
nothing wrong with that except that many moralists, folks who advance
ideas about how people ought to act in their lives, do not see what such
professionals do as moral or ethical. Quite the contrary. So they are
viewed as professionals who must not only heed their professional
responsibilities but also what is right, something mysteriously different
and even more important.
What people who go corrupt in various professions do is to violate either
ordinary human morality or their professional ethics. But if they do not
do violence to either, then they are doing what is right. Their
professional tasks are what is the right thing for them to do. In other
words, there is no conflict between seeking success in the market place
and doing what is right, not unless one is violating the ethics of one’s

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