A new book, Business as a Profession? (Lambert Academic 2010), by David Ardagh, argues that the case for the practice of business being a profession, made by N. Bowie, the late R. Solomon, and others, is not successful. It is worth serious consideration however, and in many ways business already comes close. As Solomon argued, “professionalism” is the rule rather than the exception in business, and what he called “business scum” are parasites on the main body.
Business is now conducted within what Shaw and Barry in Moral Issues in Business call a “State Welfare Capitalist” (SWC) system which is increasingly global. Although acceptable, SWC is not without drawbacks, including some general difficulties for, and pressures on, professionals embedded within SWC organisations. These stem from the arguably unfair global trade rules, noted by Oxfam, and more recently by Pogge; from other business practices and institutions, such as use of tax havens, noted by Comisar; from the prevalence of caveat emptor presuppositions in much business dealing; and from the fact that a professional may be trained in one country of origin but thereafter work in others, for businesses with radically different needs and rules.
The underlying ethical approach presupposed is Neo Aristotelian Virtue Ethics, of the M. Nussbaum type. By this is meant: Ethics seen as based on a “folk” Philosophical Anthropology – starting from molar human capacities end/objects, and their needs for perfecting virtues, ordered to wellbeing. Politics is seen as suspended from Ethics. A legitimate state enables its citizens to attain their well-being through attaining threshold levels of capacity perfection, in different ways and degrees, depending on the need being physical, social or personal; or basal, eudaimonic, or subjective (A. Walsh (1997)). All SWC organisations, practices, and institutions should be suspended from ethics, /politics, and social policy. The business corporation is in part the recipient of a social concession to exist and operate within the law in return for perpetuity, limited liability, and other prerogatives, as J. Dine has argued in The Governance of Corporate Groups.
A quasi-personal model of organisational moral agency is introduced to guide the comparison of business practices, institutions and corporations with their professional counterparts. In the model, it is possible to locate six features of organisational activity of quasi-persons which carry over from natural persons‘ actions to artificial quasi-persons: there is a directing entity with a joint goal; the director entity uses subordinate capacities/ role incumbents to do the work with the enabling help of other entities/ groups; a joint ethical decision procedure is used; there is a resultant action; there are other persons or quasi-persons whose wellbeing is impacted; and the action takes place in a political/legal state context. The attributes of professionals/professions and business people/businesses can be loosely compared using this template.
The application suggests twenty attributes relevant to whether a practice and its peak institution meet the more specific, normatively nuanced, sense of profession. The main missing features in business are lack of : required, tested, uniform, theoretic and practical competences; a uniform enforced code of ethical conduct targeted on meeting client need, with gazetted expulsion and fine for malpractice; and a special quasi-monopolistic grant of authority or licence to practice issued by society to practice in certain arenas. Overall, the resultant comparison suggests that the goals of both overlap but businesses are targeted on permissible wants, not just normatively warranted special needs. The latter‘s satisfaction has to be via specialisation and informational asymmetry, and fiduciary relationships governed by ethical codes. The role structures are different as to their directing goal. Monetary profit from transactions is more central as a directing, operating and enabling goal of businesses than professions. The decision methods and results need not be qualitatively different, but the relation to other players is different with respect to the prohibition of monopoly (prohibited for business; encouraged or permitted for professions). The reach of state law is theoretically comparable, but in practice business – especially large international business – gets away with ethical misconduct through many forms of unjust resource extraction and tax evasion to the tune of trillions. This in turn causes extreme harm to states, robbed of necessary funds for the creation of public infrastructure meeting basal needs.
With robust changes in global governance, corporate law, and redesign of Anglo American corporate forms, with an eye on business entities like Mondragon CC (see S. Turnbull), and the recognition of the potential of Employee Stock Option Plans (see K. Woldring), business could be democratised, brought into line at global institutional level with ethical/justice expectations, and be ethically more accountable to society. But ironically this democratising development would block further assimilation to professions, in that until professions can share their specialised expertise more widely, (e.g. with preventative health via the internet), and ―putting themselves out of business,‖ the informational asymmetry problem will remain.