“The standards that govern professional practice are becoming meaningless. These conditions are central to the level of disengagement among professionals from the public, which marks the virtue gap between the professions and the people they are meant to serve”
(ResPublica: In Professions We Trust, 2015).
The professions hold a unique place in the public eye, being expected to morally serve the best interests of individuals (e.g. clients, patients, customers) as well as society as a whole. In this respect, the professions occupy a position at the very heart of society. In situations where a practitioner’s personal moral judgement may conflict with expected professional procedures, it is often assumed that the practitioner will act in a virtuous and none self-serving way. Unfortunately, evidence suggests this is not always the case. Whilst one might recall various crises of malpractice across medicine, finance and other professions, ongoing allegations regarding the misconduct of MPs towards female colleagues provides a particularly egregious current example of unprofessionalism in the public sphere.
The Jubilee Centre has conducted a wealth of research into the field of professional ethics in order to explore the role of character and virtue in professional practice. This research has included a range of pre– and in-service professionals, such as teachers, doctors, lawyers, business, nurses and army officers. Across these professions, practitioners were found to consistently report virtues in themselves that were moral (e.g. honesty, fairness, kindness, humour) and performance (e.g. teamwork, perseverance) in nature. In contrast, virtues such as judgement and leadership were indicated as important for professional practice but were typically rated lower by professionals in their personal character, most notably by pre-service university students. The reports illustrate that whilst professionals may attempt to respond virtuously to ethical dilemmas, they often revert to duty- or rule-based reasoning when placed in professional situations. Professionals also expressed a sense of stress and conflict which may be associated with workplace conditions such as audit and assessment pressures in teaching, over-regulation and commercialisation in business and law, and a lack of time and staff in medical professions.
Although these findings paint an encouraging picture of the moral intentions of practitioners, it is evident that more needs to be done to support their moral development within the workplace. The Jubilee Centre findings to date show there is clear scope to develop targeted CPD programmes that educate and train practitioners how to be virtuous in their practise, especially given the morally testing situations that many practitioners will face daily. Equally important is that workplaces embed an ethos and culture that encourage morally sound practise from their employees. This ethos should also extend into pre-service institutions, such as universities, to provide future professionals with space for critical moral and ethical reflection during their training. For example, the Jubilee Centre found that established business professionals conveyed honesty as the most important virtue to business practise but this was not replicated by university students. One could question the utility of pre-service training if it does not equip students with the virtues deemed essential for moral professional practise in the field.
The current project Practical Wisdom and Professional Practice: Integration and Intervention involves integration of existing Jubilee Centre data to conduct advanced analysis across the professions. This secondary analysis will explore common trends or differences in character that may emerge across professions and by gender, stage of career, or other demographic factors. For instance, are there similarities or distinct differences in self-reported and perceived ideal character strengths between professions? How do professionals’ evaluations of their own character strengths associate with their responses to ethical dilemmas and perceptions of their workplace conditions? Do these associations differ if a professional’s dominant character strengths are moral, performance or intellectual in nature? By conducting such analyses, the project seeks to offer new conceptual insights and practical recommendations that may inform both the pre– and in-service ethical training of professionals, be it specific to certain professions or more generic for all good professional practice.
The project will look to use the findings from the secondary analysis to open discussions with professional educators, regulators and other stakeholders over the implications for professional education. This will include examining the materials and practises that are currently used within in-service professions regarding ethics and character, such as mission statements, codes of practise and induction or training procedures. The Jubilee Centre has already made in-roads into designing interventions within professional education, with the pilot of an online intervention which introduces the concepts of character, virtue and practical wisdom to pre-service teachers, doctors and lawyers (see Character in the Professions). This programme provided promising initial findings that character-based interventions can positively influence the ethical practise of professionals who take part. Building on this work, the current project will form the basis for developing intervention programmes to enhance virtuous practice in UK-based professions and pre-service training. Given the growing influences of individualism, consumerism and legalism in the modern world, the project intends to help bridge the virtue gap between the working professions and the people they serve.
Dr Stephen Earl (Research Fellow), Joseph Ward (Research Associate/ Impact Officer), Aidan Thompson (Director of Strategy and Integration), Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues.