Becoming an Ethical Professional
What does it mean to be a good professional, and what is the role that ethics should play in the life of every worker in society today?
Dr. Howard Gardner, co-founder of The Good Project and Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, reflected on these questions and more in an interview for the September-October 2016 edition of Spanish-language magazine Profesiones (see pages 40-41 of the linked PDF).
The original English text has been reproduced below for our readers.
Q: As the creator of the theory of multiple intelligences, could you please briefly explain its major message?
Gardner: Our ordinary language and our field of psychology suggest that there is only a single intelligence. If that were true, then a person smart in one area (e.g. music) would have to be smart in other areas, like language or understanding other persons. But in fact intelligence is multiple: a person can be smart in one area, average in a second area, and not very good in a third area. This theory is well-supported by evidence from many different fields of study, and it also is consistent with common sense.
Q: How could personal intelligence affect professional performance?
Gardner: According to “MI theory,” human beings have two kinds of intelligence dealing with persons. Interpersonal intelligence is the understanding of other persons; intrapersonal intelligence is the understanding of one self.
A professional needs to have, or to develop, both kinds of personal intelligence. A professional serves clients and needs to understand their needs and their motivation. A professional encounters difficult challenges—especially ethical ones—and needs to understand biases, motivations, and aspirations. If a professional is weak in the personal intelligences, he or she has to develop those intelligences or collaborate with individuals who have the needed intelligence. Often psychotherapy can enhance one’s understanding of self or of other.
Q: The ethics of each of the intelligences is not part of the theory. Could you comment on this?
Gardner: That’s correct. Any intelligence can be used benignly or malignantly. Both Nelson Mandela and Slobodan Milosevic had considerable interpersonal intelligence. Mandela used his intelligence to bring warring parties together, while Milosevic used his interpersonal intelligence to incite hatred and genocide. Osama bin Laden also had plenty of intelligences; he lacked any kind of moral or ethical compass. We need to yoke or link our intelligences to positive, ethical ends.
Q: You once stated in an interview, “Bad people can’t be excellent professionals.” What is your reasoning for the close connection between ethics and professionalism?
Gardner: I probably should have said, “Unethical persons cannot be excellent professionals.” And that is because the professional is faced all the time with challenging dilemmas and quandaries—and if individuals do not have a strong compass, a strong set of guiding principles, and access to colleagues with an ethical core, they are likely to make decisions and initiate actions that are troubling and perhaps disastrous. Our novels and movies are filled with stories about doctors, lawyers, and other professionals who either do or do not do the right thing under conditions of uncertainty.
Q: Professional bodies ensure and control appropriate professional behavior, many times through codes of ethics. How can professional associations contribute to “good” futures for young people by guiding them towards professional excellence?
Gardner: I don’t think that professional associations can make a big difference in promoting ethical behavior. Our ethical (or non-ethical) behavior is strongly influenced by our family values (including religious ones), the environment of our educational institutions, our personal mentors (if we are fortunate enough to have them), and the atmosphere at our first jobs. If that atmosphere has high standards, and there are consequences for those who do not abide by them, then one may develop an ethical compass. And if one is unfortunate enough to find oneself in an unethical working environment, they are well advised to leave as quickly as possible.
Professional associations can monitor these situations and pull the alarm when necessary—but they almost never do, unfortunately. That is because they focus on protecting the profession per se and not on the quality of its practitioners.
Q: Would you consider ethics a luxury which is only reachable by professionals who have their essential basic needs already met?
Gardner: No, not at all. Ethics has little tie to affluence or status. There are all sorts of wealthy, high-power individuals who lack an ethical core—look at the American election! And there are many persons who have neither money nor status who are highly ethical. We often look to religious leaders for ethical guidance and are particularly disappointed when they themselves behave in immoral or unethical ways.
Q: What are the advantages and disadvantages of becoming an ethical professional?
Gardner: If you are an ethical professional, you can live with yourself; you can sleep well at night, and you are appreciated by clients and colleagues. If you are unethical, you may get away with misdeeds for a while—but sooner or later, other individuals or institutions (including legal ones) catch on to your misbehavior, and you may not only lay awake at night but end up in prison.
Q: Could we refer to philanthropy as a profession in itself? Or would it be more appropriate to say that professionals should be philanthropic at their jobs?
Gardner: I have written extensively about philanthropy. It is not a profession, though it often looks and sounds like one. And that is because there are no standards for becoming a philanthropist, and no way of expelling or de-certifying individuals who call themselves professionals but behave in unethical ways. But of course, philanthropists—like many of us—can behave in ethical ways, whether or not we are “card-carrying” professionals. And many philanthropists do.
Q: In 2006, you published the book Responsibility at Work: How Leading Professionals Act (Or Don’t Act) Responsibly. The book reveals how motivations, culture, and professional rules can intersect to produce personally, socially, and economically beneficial work. What can each of us do to connect these elements?
Gardner: It is not easy to turn a sector into a profession (like law) or to de-legitimize it (as might have happened to auditing after the financial meltdowns of 2001 and 2008). Becoming a profession is a long and arduous process, and there are occupations, like journalism, that are quasi-professions.
As your question implies, lots of pieces have to fall into place to have a healthy profession and a healthy professional environment. I worry that, in societies dominated by market-place thinking and values, there is decreasing respect and place for professional conduct. I would be happier if the role of markets were reduced in becoming and evaluating professions and professionals. We need standards of behavior and conduct, as well as neutral parties that can apply those standards. Current examples are found chiefly in northern Europe (for example, in the Netherlands and Denmark). The United States and England are environments that are not currently friendly to a professional ethos… alas.
Q: You have launched a blog called The Professional Ethicist. What is the purpose of this blog?
Gardner: My colleagues and I have worked for twenty years to understand the nature of good work and the means of fostering it in all kinds of populations, ranging from schoolchildren to professionals in midlife. We have written much on this topic, and you can learn both about our findings by visiting The Good Project’s website.
I launched the blog both to share some of our findings with a broader public and to discuss issues that arise regularly in professional life—for example, how should journalists behave when a political candidate lies all the time? Or what does one do when an ethical dilemma arises and it is not possible to consult with other persons? I invite people to visit the blog and also to comment on my postings or to contribute their own blog.
Q: Do you think that ethics is the key for understanding the professional of the future?
Gardner: I think ethical behavior and standards are core to the whole idea of being a professional. That is why I worry about the pressures of marketplace thinking (as mentioned) and about the turning over of professional judgment to computer-based algorithms. Perhaps one day a robot or computer program can be as ethical as the best physicians, lawyers, and teachers—but we are very far from that day. And of course, who programs the computer program?
Q: Finally, could you provide us with some tips for being a good professional?
Gardner: In addition to what we’ve already discussed, it’s important to surround yourself with colleagues whom you respect and on whom you can count to give you honest and critical feedback. And when you make mistakes—as we all do—admit them, try to make amends, and collect lessons for the future, so that you don’t repeat these misjudgments.