Is Strong Character Enough to Guarantee Ethical Practice in a Profession?

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Introduction

Professional ethics is a complex discipline. Professionals are expected to follow numerous laws and fulfill multiple obligations to defend and preserve their professional image. Being professional usually means being ethical, but true professionalism extends far beyond the boundaries of ethics. Professionalism is impossible without extensive specialized training. Only individuals with a considerable intellectual capacity and willingness to serve the society's needs can become a professional. Strong character does create the foundation for the development and continuous improvement of one's professional abilities and skills, but to guarantee ethical practice in a profession, an individual should possess a strong character, extensive knowledge of his (her) professional obligations, and be ethically educated to avoid the major professional and moral pitfalls.

Aristotle's Vision of Character

The meaning of professionalism today is inseparable from the meaning of strong character and virtues. Ethical professionals are expected to have personal integrity and perseverance, while pursuing their ethical and professional objectives. Aristotle provides one of the most comprehensive descriptions of personal character. His vision of morality, character, ethics, and virtues helps understand why having a strong character is not enough to be regarded as a professional. In Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle writes:

"Excellence of character […] is a state concerned with choice, lying in a mean relative to us, this being determined by reason and in the way in which the man of practical wisdom would determine it. Now it is a mean between two vices, that which depends on excess and that which depends on defect." (I.7)  

In Aristotle's view, a strong character is not the same as a tendency to make decisions or behave in certain ways. Rather, a strong character is a settled category, which describes the way, in which one's feelings and decisions are related (Aristotle I.7). Aristotle is confident that a strong character is related to professionalism, because it makes a person good and helps him do his work well (I.6).

Aristotle does not exclude the possibility of being vicious; rather, he promotes the principle of relativity. Simply stated, the meaning of virtue is defined in relation to a particular situation (Aristotle I.7). For example, a person with a virtuous character can also experience anger and disappointment about mistreatment or some forms of injustice (Aristotle I.7). Aristotle suggests that a strong virtuous character is when a person's emotional response to the situation is adequate and based on thorough reasoning about how to behave in this situation. A strong character is a harmony between the rational and non-rational parts of the human being. It is the absence of inner conflicts doubts. To a large extent, Aristotle's strong character is synonymous to the modern concept of personal integrity, which is fundamental to ethics in professional and personal settings. In all organizations and professions, it is moral integrity (or strong character) that sets a shared standard for making good decisions and judgments (Brown 3).

Michael Bayles and Professionalism

Michael Bayles is well-known for his contribution to the concept and meaning of professionalism. In 1988, he identified the three main features of a good professional. First, according to Bayles, professionalism is impossible without training (7). Most professions require the presence of an academic degree. Professionals in medicine, law, nursing, engineering, and other fields need extensive education to practice their skills. It is through education and training that the foundational knowledge of the profession, its obligations and requirements is obtained. Second, extensive training is impossible without a serious intellectual component (Bayles 8). Some occupations require only physical training and minor intellectual capabilities, but in many others, it is intellect that serves as the basis for professionalism. Professionals in law, medicine, nursing, and science cannot successfully cope with their primary obligations without being intellectually advanced. Most professions are designed to provide advice, rather than material things, which is also impossible without a strong intellectual component (Bayles 8).

Third, in Bayles' view, professionals serve the needs of society (8). Almost all professions are organized to provide the advice and services that are essential in any society. Teaching, medicine, law, and other professions are necessary, because they greatly contribute to stability and society's wellbeing. These professions are needed, because most society members either want to or must use their services. For instance, primary and secondary education is essential to any member of the given society, and the teaching profession is designed to satisfy individuals' need for knowledge, learning, and intellectual growth. Certainly, professions and professionals also display other, secondary features, which include but are not limited to credentialing, the creation of professional organizations, autonomy and expertise (Bivins 1-2). Some professionals must obtain official permissions or be licensed to practice in their occupation.

Strong Character and Professionalism: Not Enough?

Apparently, strong character is not enough to be an ethical professional in any field. Strong character is merely the starting point in the development of any good professional. Professionalism stretches far beyond the boundaries of ethics, which is impossible without having a strong character. It is with the help of a strong character that professionals can make reasonable decisions and apply to balanced judgments, when faced with ethical dilemmas in their occupations. However, a strong character does not always lead to ethically appropriate decisions. Even Aristotle writes that no strong character is possible without moral education (I.7). Individuals need to learn how to manage their emotional responses and take pleasure in the right things (I.7). They need to develop their thinking abilities and be aware of their reasoning capacities (Aristotle I.7). They also need to have extensive knowledge of their profession to be able to serve the society's needs.

Texas Administrative Code provides an excellent description of professional character, which can be readily applied in any occupation or field. "Good professional character is the integrated pattern of personal, academic and occupational behaviors, which […] indicate" that individuals can consistently comply with the fundamental standards of practice in their profession (§213.27). In other words, a good professional is always a combination of excellent character and advanced knowledge of occupational practices. Doctors and nurses cannot be good, if they simply possess a strong character; they need a well-developed intellect and sophisticated knowledge of nursing standards and medicine. Lawyers cannot be good professionals, if strong character is their only advantage; they need to have detailed knowledge and understanding of laws, regulations, and they ways in which they are applied in practice. At the same time, even the best professional knowledge is nothing without a strong character, because only through moral integrity and virtue professionals can serve the needs of their society in an ethical and moral way.

Conclusion

No ethical professional is possible without a strong character. A strong character is the foundation of ethics in any occupation. However, character alone does not make a good professional. Professionalism is more than ethics; it requires specialized education, knowledge, a remarkable intellectual capability, and willingness to serve various society needs. A good ethical professional uses his (her) strong character to make reasonable decisions and excel in his (her) occupation or field. A good professional also needs moral education and advanced knowledge of professional and ethical norms. A strong character sets the stage for obtaining and improving professional knowledge and skills, but it is never enough to guarantee ethics in any profession. 

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