Philosophy 318: Professional Ethics
Theodore Gracyk

Outline of Smith Essay

Smith examines the SEPARATIST Thesis, the proposal that some ethical standards for practicing professionals require justification that is SEPARATED from appeals to ordinary prescriptive norms.

Professionals might be exempt from some moral rules that we apply to others (e.g., we say that people shouldn't kill, but we may allow police officers and soldiers to kill). 

WHO are we talking about? (What conduct counts as professional?)

Three general criteria:

  1. The person has special intellectual expertise and they are operating in a situation that calls on that expertise.

  2. The situation involves a valuable service other than production of a consumable product.

  3. Society "as we know it" could not function without this type of service.


Two further issues: WHY do we exempt them? WHEN should we exempt them?

The thesis has two versions, which disagree about where we should look to find these "separate" or special standards.

  • WEAK version: The special standards are justified by appeal to general social benefits of making these rules for these people. In other words, it is right because society as a whole benefits.
  • STRONG version: Some of the special standards derive from norms that define the profession (i.e., it could not be that profession if we did not allow the exemption). In other words, it is right because the profession could not function otherwise. This version links the exceptions directly to the function of that profession.

TWO ALTERNATIVES to separatism:

Relativism: there are no universal prescriptive norms to worry about, so it's a non-issue. Any rules are as good as any others, provided our society endorses them.

Specificationism: The differences are due to variables within the ordinary prescriptive norms. (We don't have to do anything but apply standard principles to the special case.) For example, the police officer can kill in self-defense because we believe that anyone can do so.


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            Last updated July 7, 2009