His Majesty and I recently sat down with a financial planner to review His Majesty’s retirement plan.
The financial planner made the mistake of describing himself to His Majesty as a “professional financial planner.” This provoked one of His Majesty’s cackling fits, and when he was finished chortling, he looked the planner in the eye and said, “No, you’re not.”
The planner was clearly angered, but you do not snap back at His Majesty. But I understood exactly what His Majesty was saying.
“Professional” is one of those words whose popular meaning has diverged significantly from its original, far more useful meaning. Its popular usage seems to be “good enough at something to be paid for it.” This likely arose from paid sports. No good thing ever came out of paid sports, as the Greeks figured out a long time ago (and then promptly forgot.)
But we already have perfectly fine words for “good enough at something to be paid for it.”
“Professional” originally meant a member of a profession. And a profession is a guild of skilled practitioners whose practice differs from ordinary vocations in that the practitioners are answerable to a code of conduct that does not necessarily coincide with the individual client’s interest. In other words, they have a professional duty that sometimes overrides their fiduciary duty.
I suspect part of the reason that “professional” has lost this sense is that we have very few professions any more.
Financial planning is certainly not a profession. I doubt there is any legal course of action a financial planner can undertake on behalf of his client that he would shrink from doing because of some code of professional conduct. His Majesty’s financial planner is very skilled at what he does, and he is paid well for it, but he is not a professional.
Medicine used to be a profession. It ceased to be so when it became possible for a doctor to perform an elective abortion without being kicked out of the medical community. It did not help that so many doctors were giving patients antibiotics for viral infections, but the real moral barrier was abortion.
Law is still a profession — about the only profession we have left. Nifong prosecuted a rape case he knew was a house of cards because he perceived (I believe correctly) that his client was the voters of Durham, and because he also perceived (again, I believe correctly, sadly) that his client wanted the three lacrosse players convicted regardless of the facts. For this he actually managed to get disbarred, because the code of ethics of the law prohibits a lawyer from lying and cheating for his client no matter how much it’s in the client’s interest.
Oh, I’m not a naif. I know there are lawyers who lie and cheat for their clients. But there are, apparently, still meaningful professional sanctions if you’re caught at it.
Curiously, politics used to be a profession. Remember McCarthy being censured for his demagoguery? There’s not a lot of evidence his constituents had much problem with it, but the other members of Congress did. The professionalism of Congress went out the window when not a single Senator from Clinton’s party voted to convict him of perjury he had clearly committed.
The Jedi claimed to be a profession, too, of course, with the Jedi Code. But I’m having a hard time thinking of any instance where a Jedi refused to act in his client’s interest because of the Jedi Code.
Why have the professions ceased to be professional? I suggest part of it is that law has taken the place of professional codes of conduct. There used to be a moral space of actions that were not illegal, but were unprofessional. Nowadays the tendency is either to proscribe by law what was once proscribed by professional codes, or else to ignore the professional codes. Another part of it may be the distrust of elites: Shaw wrote that “Every profession is a conspiracy against the laity”, and the charge has stuck. Regardless, I think there is a place for professions, and I’m sorry to see them disappearing.