Professional values, virtues, and emotions

In this last part of my article, I will outline a philosophical argument that purports to show that certain emotions in certain occupational roles can be authentic. I realize that the argument requires empirical evidence for its support, but since I cannot provide it here, I will refer to some recent studies of nursing. The argument begins from a philosophical account of professions as practices that are justified by their inherent commitment to distinct value-based service ideals, such as health, well-being, security, justice, and autonomy. It continues with an account of professional virtues that facilitate and support the service of professional values. Professional virtues, in turn, cannot be realised without appropriate emotions. The prima facie authenticity of professional emotions is based on the compatibility of professional service ideals with the values of any rational person. However, this is only a necessary condition of authentic emotion work, because it requires authenticity-supporting working conditions as well.

In his article in Encyclopedia of Applied Ethics, Timo Airaksinen (1998) presents an elaborate philosophical theory about professions. Building on sociological definitions of the professions, Airaksinen argues that "profession" is a normative concept that can be understood in terms of expertise, authority, and a value-based service ideal. This definition distinguishes professions from other occupations that do not qualify as professions in the normative sense.[1] The theory does not then purport to cover all occupations, nor does it purport to give an empirical definition of all occupations called professions in everyday life. Still, examples of generally undisputable professionals include physicians, nurses, teachers, lawyers, social workers, and psychologists. Science-based education provides professionals with the expertise and the social status that distinguish them from charlatans, on the hand, and from semi- or paraprofessionals who "lack the autonomy or the socially recognised depth of knowledge to become part of the established professions" (Bolton, 2005, p. 124), on the other hand. Yet expertise and social status alone are insufficient to justify the authority of professionals because both expertise and status can be abused. Professional authority can be justified only by reference to a service ideal. For instance, doctors have committed themselves to health as their service ideal and are not, therefore, supposed to require more medical tests than are necessary in order to determine our disease. Other examples of profession-specific service ideals include human growth for teachers, justice for lawyers, autonomy for psychologists, and welfare for social workers.

Unlike classic functionalists in the sociology of professions, Airaksinen does not entertain a naive picture of professionals as altruistic servants of their practice-internal values. On the contrary, he observes that the real functions of professions often diverge from their ideals. Yet the justification of professional power and authority requires that professionals aim to meet the service ideal of their profession. Everyone in the contemporary world works for money and success, but a professional should not work for mere profit and success, either private or corporate. The lack of a service ideal explains, in part, why we hesitate to qualify low-status, low-paid, poorly educated front-line service agents as professionals. However, many occupations are not so easy to classify because their service ideals are intertwined with the pursuit of corporate profit. Flight attendants provide a good example, because passenger safety and well-being are their genuine professional service ideals. Yet their friendly service is also a competitive advantage for airlines that try to prescribe and capitalize on it.

Service ideals give rise to profession-specific virtues that facilitate and support the realization of professional values. Virtues, in philosophical sense, are dispositions or traits that enable their possessor to act well in his or her position or role. Thus, a good parent is loving and supportive, a good friend is loyal and helpful, and a good superior is fair and concerned about his or her subordinates. Professional virtues differ to some extent between professions. For instance, a good police officer is courageous and resolute, whereas a good nurse is emphatic and compassionate. Likewise, enthusiasm and perseverance are a teacher's virtues, whereas honesty and uprightness are important for a civil servant.

The final step in the argument from professional values and virtues to professional emotions is founded on Aristotle's classic theory of virtues. Aristotle argued that emotional sensitivities are necessary for appropriate perception of significant events and features in one's environment. Thus, we need anger in order to perceive that we have been slighted, and fear to detect danger. Moreover, emotion motivates us to act in an appropriate manner in the situation: to seek retribution for slights and to escape danger, for instance. When the emotion is an appropriate response to a given situation, i.e. when we have been conspicuously slighted or we face a real danger, the emotion also justifies the action it elicits. This tripartite - epistemic, motivational, and justificatory- role of emotion renders it indispensable in Aristotelian moral psychology. Even if one could somehow grasp salience without emotion, this way of seeing would still be defective and imperfect; for unlike emotional perception, it would fail to motivate the person to act on his or her seeing, which implies that the person had not fully understood and embraced salience in the first place (Aristotle, 1954, 1146b30-1147a24; Sherman, 1989, pp. 45-48).

Aristotle associates virtue with both action and emotion. In modernised terms, we can perhaps characterise Aristotle's view by saying that virtue involves the capacity to regulate one's emotions so as to feel and act in an appropriate manner in the situation. Aristotle's famous general principle of appropriateness is his doctrine of the Golden Mean, which states that virtue is an intermediate position between excessive and defective emotion and action. Thus,

for instance, both fear and confidence and appetite and anger and pity and in general pleasure and pain may be felt both too much and too little, and in both cases not well; but to feel them at the right times, with reference to the right objects, towards the right people, with the right motive, and in the right way, is what is both intermediate and best, and this is characteristic of virtue (Aristotle, 1954, 1106b16-23).

An essential aspect of Aristotle's theory of virtue is its functionalism. The virtues of a being or an artefact can be derived from its function. For instance, the function of a knife is to cut well, and therefore, its virtue is sharpness. In a like manner, Aristotle thought that the general function of all humans is to live in accordance with reason, and such virtues as courage, temperance, fairness, friendliness, and generosity make this possible. However, the functional view of virtues allows their ascription to social roles as well. Thus, for instance, a virtuous soldier is courageous, whereas a virtuous merchant is fair. Since virtue is first and foremost learned through emulation and habit, the acquisition of virtue requires instructors who must be virtuous themselves. Moreover, the instruction of virtue requires time, because virtue must become internalised as a second nature, and this is not possible without a long learning process.

That fact that we moderns doubt the universalist and rationalist aspects of Aristotle's virtue theory should not prevent us from seeing the usefulness of this model in the context of professions, whose functions are tied to their service ideals. Professional virtues are dispositions that help professionals in their service work. These virtues are realised, in part, through emotions that are regulated in accordance with professional feeling rules. Thus, emotion regulation at work may be motivated and justified by standards internal to one's professional identity. Obviously, one must recognise the professional role as an important and valuable aspect of one's identity in order to feel the pressure of its professional feeling rules. However, it is important to realise that in proper professions, the process of adopting the professional role begins already during one's education and training into the profession.

The prima facie authenticity of emotions managed in accordance with professional feeling rules emerges from the compatibility of the worker's professional and private identity, or rather from the compatibility of the normative and epistemic commitments of these identities. It seems to me that professions have an edge on other occupations in this respect because they serve objective values, such as health, well-being, security, justice, and autonomy that are compatible with the values of any rational person.[2] One such profession is nursing.

  • [1] For sociological discussion on distinctions between professions and other occupations, see e.g. Freidson 1994. For a sociological account of values as constitutive of personal identities, see e.g. Gecas, 2000, who also points out that many role identities are associated with specific values, the identities of such professionals as physicians and professors among them.
  • [2] I abstract from non-normative psychological factors, such as temperament, in the consideration of compatibility between a person's different identities. For instance, my values are compatible with the service ideal of medical professions, but if seeing blood makes me feel sick, those professions are psychologically incompatible with my personality.
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