In working life — or more correctly, in life itself — we occasionally have to balance two sets of values. We have to decide between applying the values that we are taught to live by, and the values that we are told, drive the profession. Much of the time, there is no real problem; most professional roles call for the same kinds of standards that we might ideally apply to our personal lives — honesty, integrity, application, among others. It is another matter that these days we are surprised when we encounter these values, which is in some ways reflective of our own low expectations.
Clear codes of conduct
I don’t want to sing that old dirge of erosion of values in public life, but instead, think a little about why we see this divide between personal and the professional values as inevitable, and even necessary. Doctors, lawyers, bureaucrats, journalists, even teachers, are told to build a distance between their professional and personal selves, as a way of ensuring that the two roles do not come into conflict, and when they do, there is clarity on which set of values must apply. This is why such professions have a clearly articulated code of conduct that sets out how one must act. When you sign up to join a profession, you are also accepting that code, which has, in most cases, evolved as a result of collective brainstorming and deliberation. Medical ethics, for instance, keeps as its central focus, the needs and dignity of the patient, while legal ethics balances the rights of the individual and that of the collective (the state, society or the community). Unfortunately, few of us take the trouble to think through these codes and see how they align with our personal values.
Usually, the trouble lies not so much with the values themselves — for instance, none of us would argue that honesty is something we need to practise, whenever, wherever. But situations can arise where it is not so simple, and where the consequences of being honest may actually lead to harm. When you are acting in your personal capacity, your only loyalty is to your own values, and however difficult the decision, you need to justify your actions only to yourself and to those you have a personal responsibility to. But if you are acting as a professional, an entire framework of rules and expectations apply — and your responsibility is to the role you signed up to perform. This is why, for instance, the code of medical ethics begins with the reminder that doctors must make decisions that “do no harm”. A simple way of thinking about this is that a personal value system is inward-focused, while a professional value system is outward focused, on the task with which you have been entrusted.
There are whole treatises on ethics and values and the ways in which they work across professional and personal spaces. My point here is more limited. We struggle to integrate different aspects of our lives and feel confused and unhappy when there seems to be a conflict at a basic level in the terms of engagement across various spheres. One way of resolving this confusion early on, even as you enter a profession, is to think about it in relation to responsibility —as a private individual, and as a professional — to understand what the gaps (if any) may be, and to try to resolve those gaps for yourself, before it becomes a crisis.
The author teaches at the University of Hyderabad and edits Teacher Plus. firstname.lastname@example.org