Monday, October 20, 2008

Restoring moral clarity and romance to professional practice

It’s not the market by Pratap Bhanu Mehta Indian Express > Edits & Columns > Oct 20, 2008

A political or economic crisis often unhinges many entrenched assumptions. The current economic crisis, for instance, has reopened the debate about the relationship between states and markets in unprecedented ways. It is often equally important, in responding to a crisis, to ensure that one dogma is simply not replaced by another dogma.

Both markets and states are subject to failures. The more probing question is under what conditions each is likely to succeed or fail. This is a complex question. But in recent discussions there is a striking absence of two issues that are enabling conditions for both markets and states to succeed. Both of these issues were very much part of the consciousness of all great theorists of modernisation from Adam Smith to Durkheim; and they were very much part of public discussion in the work of, say, Radhakamal Mukherjee. These two issues are as follows.

The first issue is the role of the professions (law, medicine, accountancy, management, academics etc) in providing the enabling conditions for a society to flourish. Beyond the state and market, these professional groups, with their own norms and identities, are absolutely central to the functioning of any modern society. It could be argued without too much exaggeration that these groups are the principal source of a functional and institutionalised morality in modern societies. These groups are not defined by self-sacrifice, far from it. Rather, they are in principle defined by certain activities. They participate in civic life and contribute to society, through their profession. Well-functioning groups will be driven by a respect for the norms and standards of the activity.

So, to simplify, lawyers will act as “officers of the court”, doctors will be in business of saving lives, accountants exposing fraud, etc. The existence of professional communities in which norms and standards are maintained are crucial in two respects: both states and markets rely on them, and it is largely professional communities that can create compliance to norms.

The biggest crisis we may be facing is not that of the state or market, but in the idea of professionalism. At a mundane level, the Enron debacle in the US was traced to the perfidy of accountants; and when the full history of the current crisis is written, the conflicts of interest of academics and other “professionals” will play a prominent part.

But in India, arguably, the crisis of the professions is the dirty open secret we never discuss... the bar association is hardly the purveyor of professional standards...only a miniscule of prominent lawyers thought it was their obligation to give their clients “objective” legal advice...

Indeed institutions are pretty much now reduced to incentives. But, as Adam Smith knew, there is something paradoxical about the idea that we can create integrity only by incentives. By definition, an individual who responds only (and I repeat only) to incentives, lacks integrity, because their commitments to ends and norms are entirely externally driven; it is as if they can be honest only when they are paid for it.

Societies cannot be held together only by coercion (state) or money (markets). Something more is required. In a broader sense, it requires internalisation of norms and values that set limits on what can be bought and sold. It requires the thought that not everything is merely instrumental. But in a more narrow sense, the idea of a professional identity was precisely the mechanism by which the gaps between norms and incentives could be filled...There is a lot of false lament over how the middle classes lack social and civic commitment. But this task is not well served by exalted calls for self-sacrifice: it will be better served by myriads of doctors and lawyers and accountants and journalists restoring moral clarity and romance to their professional practice. [What’s religion? 4:08 PM 3:30 AM 5:45 PM]

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