Philosophy 318: Professional Ethics
Theodore Gracyk

Outline of Ellin Essay

Professional life is governed by one of two approaches.

  • Priority View: Ordinary moral obligations take priority. There is nothing special about professional life; no special moral complications.

  • Parallel View: Some professional obligations do not arise from ordinary ones. Some professional obligations are parallel with (and different from) what we'd see for a non-professional. Therefore professional life creates moral complications.

On the priority view, both lies and deception are wrong, but lies are worse. (Lies are statements made by a speaker that the speaker believes to be false at that time, made to "plant" a false belief in someone else. Deceptions are either encouragements to draw a false conclusion, or failures to provide information that encourage the uninformed person to draw a false conclusion.)

On the parallel view, lying to a client is seriously wrong, and deception is not morally wrong.

So either professional standards on lying are wrong, or the parallel view is wrong.

Starts with question of WHY lying is wrong.

  • Could focus on the harm of having a false belief;

  • Or focus on the lack of respect shown to someone else (because we are attempting to manipulate, showing lack of respect for autonomy). Either of these would seem to equate lying and deception;

  • Or we could appeal to rights: We have a right to be given true information when others tell us things, and so to be knowingly told false things (lies) is a violation of our right to the truth. But we (usually) have no right to information, so not being given it is not a violation, so deception is (usually) not the same a lying. But that seems to make deception not wrong at all.

So, what story makes lying worse, but both of them wrong?

  1. Since lies make it more likely to draw a false conclusion than silence or other deception, because it's harder to avoid drawing a false inference, then tell a lie is to intentionally exploit the weaker position of the audience in this case, so it's worse.

  2. Liars are responsible for any false belief created, but a deception makes the person a co-agent in the deception, so there's less responsibility.

  3. Implicit contract view: Exchanges of idea require a social contract that presupposes no deception, and the implicit promise to tell the truth is more clearly attendant on speaking than on other social interaction. So lying is worse than deception, because language use falls apart without truth.

Based on these three arguments, lies are worse, in ordinary life. (And will be worse in professional life if the priority view is correct.)

HOW IS PROFESSIONAL LIFE DIFFERENT? (Shifting to the parallel view)

Take the five models of professional-client interaction (where P is the professional and C is the client):

  • Adversary -- Equals bargain with each other and determine the relationship. Always includes some level of mistrust.

  • Cooperative -- This is the friendship/affinity model. It has trust, but the trust is not necessarily merited by anything.

  • Agency -- P works for C's goals as defined entirely by C.  P needs to be competent, but C does not need to put much trust in P.

  • Exploitation -- Some professionals exploit their clients, which requires trust in P, but the trust will not be merited.

  • Fiduciary -- P works for C's TRUE best interests, not just those defined by C. THIS REQUIRES TRUST AT VERY HIGH LEVELS, and P must earn that trust by P's actions.

The fiduciary relationship involves a special promise: P will look out for C's interests to the degree that those interests fall within the scope of P's area of expertise. (NOT as selected by C, which might be a wider range, nor according to the wider scope of interests that would be required in a cooperative model (e.g., in a friendship).)

P knows more than C, and cannot tell C everything; therefore there is no wrong when P withholds (or deceives by false inference) if doing so is not contrary to C's interests as they fall within the scope of the professional relationship. AND there may be cases where withholding does more to ADVANCE C's interests than does full disclosure of the truth.

  • The case of failed surgery. If failure to inform won't harm the patient, but disclosure will, then deception is justified.

  • The case of failing business: Suppose C's absence from work is ruining C's business, but C's health requires that absence (for surgery & recovery). The doctor advises the family to withhold the truth. Here, ordinary moral rules are overridden by the professional's duties. (And, since the topic is not medical, the doctor has no duty to inform the patient.)

BUT, since trust is more important in professional life than ordinary dealings, LYING must never be tolerated. AND this gets us the result that lying is much worse in the professional setting. Asked a straight question, the professional must answer the client, unless doing so would destroy the client. But THAT is almost never going to happen, so lying is almost always wrong between P and C.


Return to Course
Home Page
Return to Theodore Gracyk's Home Page 

            Last updated June 1, 2015