Profession, Ethics and Culture

What is a profession?

The defining characteristics of a profession include:

  1. Mastery of a body of knowledge: a professional must go through a period of formal intensive training to gain the knowledge that is not accessible to a lay-person.
  2. Licensed monopoly: after achieving some pre-set required level of expertise they are entitled to provide the service within the monopoly owned by the profession.
  3. Being a Fee-based service provider: professionals charge a fee to supply their service to the public. Because they have a monopoly over the market the fee is determined by negotiation between the professional bodies and the society at large.
  4. Belonging to a Professional society: a professional belongs to a society that determines the qualification criteria, issues licences and regulates the discipline.

Professional code of conduct

The privilege of such a monopoly imposes a number of obligations on the professional to society.

  1. To be a master of the relevant skill and knowledge; ie: ensure they are qualified to provide an adequate service
  2. To support the competency of the profession; to ensure others are qualified and providing adequate services
  3. To provide ethical client service; this imposes ethical obligations on the professionals part
  4. To provide ethical self-service; that is, members should provide each other with professional support (impartial advice, sharing of knowledge, etc)
  5. To provide ethical public service; the professionals have an obligation to the members of society (ie: those who can not afford their services)

Why are 'codes-of-conduct' required?

  1. Society is technically vulnerable; in that a lay-person does not possess the technical knowledge to judge the quality of a professional service
  2. Society is ethically vulnerable; because a lay-person does not possess the necessary knowledge to judge whether a professional is acting ethically or not.
  3. Society has an epistemic vulnerability; because a lay-person does not possess the knowledge to adequately judge the quality of a professional service's

Complex systems and professional ethics

As the complexity of technology increases, often values are added to the 'list' of desirable conduct. A profession therefore changes over time:

  • Responsibilities and skills
  • Status and activities


Medical professional
Professional responsibility Skill requirement
Past Medical services Medical knowledge & skills
Today Medical services, designing healthy lifestyles & environments Medical knowledge & skills; system design and management knowledge & skills


Professional responsibility Skill requirement
Past Technical design of solutions Technical design knowledge & skills
Today System-coherent project plans/designs; Technical design of solutions System and design management; Technical design

Professional transformation

There are two aspects to the underlying positive feedback mechanism of increasing information and increasing technological system complexity:

  1. Increasing information density: free-to-air and pay TV, radio, internet, newspapers, etc, …
  2. Increasing capacity to intervene and control natural and artificial processes: the capacity to exploit this information to intervene and control natural/artificial processes also increases.

Although there are a number of complex systems for which it is not possible to accurately predict or control behaviour, we can intervene and steer some of these complex systems to 'more desirable' states using our understanding of the dynamics and behaviours of such systems.
To effectively intervene/control such a complex system, designers need to assure two types of coherence;

  • Sufficient internal (subsystem) coherence that the system's components can operate within their working range
  • Sufficient behavioural coherence that the system can understand the consequences of its behaviour and regulate itself

New definition of a professional: "a person who takes responsibility for the design and management of engineering systems."

New responsibilities of a professional

  • To design and manage a complex, dynamic and adaptive sub-system
  • Engineered system values:
    • Productivity, stability, sustainability, equiability, autonomy

Dynamic values

  • Stability: bounded perturbation response (internal/external)
  • Adaptation: performance relevant system-environment correlation
  • Adaptability: performance relevant adaptation of adaptation
  • Creativity: capacity to search adaptive design space
  • Self-organisation: capacity to create new system order from perturbation

Organisational values

  • Ethicalness: respect, care for sub-systems and the environment
  • Equity: fair treatment of sub-systems and the environment
  • Autonomy: self-regulation of system processes
  • Integration: synergy of sub-systems and with environment
  • Openness: self-directed interaction with environment

Output values

  • Productivity: maximal useful outputs
  • Quality: maximal intrinsic usefulness of outputs
  • Safety: minimal negative health impacts of system outputs
  • Efficiency: maximal productive output/input ratio
  • Sustainability: input stability

Traditional ethics

  • Utilitarianism: if an action has the greatest benefit to the largest numbers of people with the smallest cost, it is the ethical action.
  • Deontological ethics: states that an action is ethical if it conforms to a set of externally imposed principles (be them religious, socially-accepted, etc)

However, these are not sufficient to guide complex system design. These focus on the individuals within the system, but do not take into consideration the systematic properties of the underlying system.
Some of the values that are good for the individual will also be good for the community; for example, justice, peace, tolerance…
There are other relevant ethics though. For the system to be self-organising we need resilience and creativity. These suggest culture.

T.S. Elliot described the preconditions of culture:

  1. A growing and developing structure which will foster the hereditary transmission of the culture within itself
  2. A culture should have detailed regional variations which fit it intimately to local conditions
  3. The culture's institution should show a richness of diversity within unity

From the perspective of a complex system:
To have a culture is for a group of people in an identifiable environment to have -

  1. A collection of beliefs / values as well as cognitive and emotional attitudes / processes
  2. A collection of technologies of all kinds across the categories of tools, systematic practices and institutional arrangements
  3. A way of life which creates a human ecology with a specific set of characteristics…

Dynamic characteristics of culture

Human ecology will allow:

  1. Sufficient stability for its members to adapt to the human created ecology
  2. Sufficient richness to support individuality and create variation and adaptation to local conditions
  3. Sufficient adaptability to accommodate environment and internally generated changes
  4. Sufficient self-organisation to continue to develop in complexity
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