Modern professional ethics has a history. It arose in the 1970s. It superseded traditional professional ethics, the various sets of ethical values and attitudes that each profession cultivated amongst its members. In the 1970s this unsystematic approach to ethics was seen as outdated, uncritical and too easily abused. A search went out for a more rigorous and intellectually coherent way of proceeding. The call was answered by a number of moral philosophers, most of them academics working in American universities. Within a very short time the new approach to professional ethics had been born.

The new ethics announced itself in university courses, academic conferences, professional meetings, new journals, and new or revised codes of ethics. A key moment was the publication of the Belmont Report in 1978, a report that set the ethical standards for research involving human subjects. Its main author was Tom Beauchamp. Most of all, however, the new ethics arrived in a raft of new textbooks. The most famous of these was Principles of Biomedical Ethics by Beauchamp and James Childress, which first appeared in 1985 and is now in its 6th edition. Principles has been used in thousands of courses taken by innumerable medical and biomedical students. It was one amongst many new textbooks, written for each of the professions (law, engineering, accountancy, nursing, teaching, and so on) and included in the academic curriculum.

This seems like a fortunate conjunction. The professions were in need of ethical clarity and rigour. Philosophers specialise in systematic thinking. Moral philosophers are experts in the various ethical theories inherited from the great thinkers of the discipline. Seemingly, all that was needed was to apply those theories to the professional situation. And that, in essence, is what was done.

Of course, it was not all smooth sailing. Controversies abounded, as is to be expected amongst philosophers. But in many ways it was a success story. The single most important contribution made by the philosophers to the professions is the idea of informed consent, or, more exactly, what lies behind that idea, the principle of respect for persons as autonomous decision makers.

In broad terms this was a “Kantian” contribution, even though it is very different from what Kant understood by the idea of autonomy. It is generally accepted today that professionals must seek the informed consent of their clients, or of their proxies if the client is incapable of giving consent. This was not widely accepted under the paternalist dispensation of traditional professional ethics, when the professionals ran their own show.

However, there seems to be one good reason to question whether philosophy has really helped the professions. Professionals are required to operate according to standards higher than those that apply in the general community. How then can the application of general community standards to the professions succeed in capturing and articulating that higher obligation? If the philosophers are merely applying general ethics to the professions, this would seem to lower the standards. If, on the other hand, the philosophers are applying some higher-than-common standard, why does that higher standard apply especially to the professions and not to anyone and everyone?

There is a dilemma here. Either the professions have a special ethics, in which case it can’t be derived straightforwardly from general ethics, or the professions simply operate according to general standards, in which case professional ethics is no more demanding than everyday ethics.

As we see it, this problem has not yet been solved. In fact we doubt that it has been properly recognised. In a forthcoming paper, we have tried to formulate the problem as lucidly as we can. We first tried to state our point at the AAPAE Conference in Goulburn in 2009. Five years later, and after many revisions, our argument will appear in a newish journal, Theoretical and Applied Ethics , under the title “Is professional ethics grounded in general ethical principles?”

If the answer to our question is “no”, then we need to rethink the basis of professional ethics. In our view this will take us back to the question of what the social role of the professions is. But that is another story.

Incidentally, we are both philosophers.