It would be hyperbolic to maintain that “the ethics of roles” disappeared for almost two millennia. Yet this wider sense of responsibility was much less evident after classical times, when almost everyone was a peasant, guilds kept their practices secret and emerging states were hierarchical and authoritarian. Only as these trends were gradually overturned in the West in the last few centuries, did the role of the responsible professional re-emerge. The rise of the Fabians in England, of the progressives in the United States or of the elite professional classes in Bismarckian and Weimar Germany, to take some familiar examples, established a cohort of individuals who were given status and a comfortable livelihood in return for the license to render complex judgments and decisions in a disinterested manner. According to the historian Kenneth Lynn, writing in the early 1960s, “Everywhere in American life, the professions are triumphant.”
But even as Lynn wrote, the hegemony of the professions was breaking down. It was not only the witty George Bernard Shaw who believed that “professions are a conspiracy against the laity.” Many saw the professions as the province of the privileged — chiefly white, primarily Anglo- Saxon in lineage, largely male. Most of us today deem the democratization — or demoticization — of the professions as a healthy development. Yet, I maintain that this trend had its costs. Specifically, the very notion of professions serving the wider community has broken down, to be replaced by a growing consensus that professions are by their nature destined to serve parochial interests.
He calls for "virtual agoras" for different professions.
Virtual common spaces can allow all who have interest and knowledge in the area to weigh in — whether the topic is the protection of sources by journalists, the determination of which intellectual property can legitimately be downloaded and which not, whether studies of the creation of a deadly new strain of virus should be published....
Rules, he says, can't deal with today's complexity. So we need a return to professional judgment.
Still, by themselves “virtual agoras” are limited; they can be hijacked, trivialized, or ignored. And so I recommend the reinvigoration of the role of “trustees” — individuals afforded the privilege of maintaining the standards of an institution or profession. Traditionally, trustees were drawn from the rank of wise seniors, and such persons can offer both time and experience. But particularly in a fast changing world, trustees should reflect the range of ages and experiences
The problem with this, as I was discussing the other day, is a tendency for elites to become corrupted. Virtue is not self-sustaining.