Science in Christian Perspective


Professional Responsibility and Social Issues

Geneva College Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania 15010

From: JASA 23 (June 1971): 62-64.


In dealing with the problem of social issues and their impact upon society, we have a responsibility as citizens, Christians and professional scientists. The exercising of this responsibility will depend upon the particular role in which we find ourselves at the time. While the responsibility which we have as Christians and citizens may be shared with many others with diverse backgrounds, professional responsibility is limited to a specific community and involves a unique, subtle relationship with the rest of society.

For these reasons, a professional cannot refer clearly to traditional patterns of behavior in making decisions which he faces in his daily life. The scientist who is involved in military research is both rewarded by his peers for his work and criticized by his pacifist son at the same time. As a Christian, he might regret the fact that his knowledge is being used for military purposes, but as a citizen he recognizes that he might have a contribution to make for his country. Thus, he is torn among the various options open to him.

The Question of Legitimacy

Fundamentally, the problem centers on the question of legitimacy.1 The determination of what constitutes a legitimate decision in any professional undertaking is largely in the hands of a professional complex.2 In order to structure decision-making, the complex establishes a system of norms which the professional learns to accept in his training. These norms have far-reaching effects, not only on the professional himself, but also on the value systems of society.

For one thing, basic moral questions are implied in these normative systems. The question of the maintenance of life has become one of the more incisive issues in this sphere. Indeed, the fact that segments of the medical profession have misgivings about the norm of using extreme artificial means to sustain a person's life suggests that a profession is severely limited in its ability to make final and appropriate moral judgments. Thus, the fact of mushrooming technological change suggests that normative systems advocated by a profession can no longer be taken for granted. As technology produces strain on these systems, responsibility for dealing with moral questions must be placed somewhere.

Within a professional normative system are found some of the expectations which help to produce a relationship between the layman and the professional which is unique. Unlike the relations one finds in the world of business, the professional does not relate to his client on purely economic terms. The professional is characterized as one who has expertise which is needed by the layman. The client is vulnerable and needs to put complete trust in the judgment of the professional. He must assume that a professional decision is the best one which could be made and that it is in his best interests. It is this exclusive right of the professional to exercise his judgment which is a critical element in the role of the professional.

The professional finds himself with dual responsibility: a technical responsibility and a social responsibility.

A Dual Responsibility

As a result, the professional finds himself with a dual responsibility. In his relationship with the layman, he has a technical responsibility which is based on his specialized knowledge. There are, nevertheless, social consequences. The lawyer who pleads an important case to obtain a favorable verdict for his client may lay the foundation for significant changes in the law. The decision by a doctor to use a drug in an unorthodox fashion for the purpose of saving a life may result in the eradication of a dangerous disease and the extension of the life span of the populace. Indirectly, then, the professional has a social responsibility, since his decisions affect the moral bases of society in the determination of what should be defined as good or valuable.

The individual is not left completely alone to make these decisions by himself. The profession recognizes the risk involved in abrogating responsibility in such matters. It cannot afford to jeopardize the public image of the profession by allowing an irresponsible act by one of its members to go unnoticed. Instead, each profession controls its members and their decision making processes through a system of rewards and punishments. Scientists are rewarded with prizes and grants. Teachers who do not fulfill the minimum requirements for certification may be denied some perquisite. Ultimately, the profession establishes values for society and provides for the formation of a normative system which extends to the level of the layman. In the process, the definition of what constitutes legitimate decision-making is decided as well.

The influence of the professions in the formation of the society's system of values has been heightened by the respect granted to them by the layman. Public awe over the accomplishments of science is a rather obvious example. The feverish efforts of pseudo-professional groups such as engineers and morticians to establish an image of professionalism is another. In any case, the layman has relinquished much of his perspective on such matters and has accepted the leadership offered by the professions. Quite likely, it is the traditional confidence placed in the professional by the client which is at the root of the matter. The question now is whether this confidence which is placed in the professional organization by the public is well founded.

Elements of Strain

It becomes apparent, then, that significant elements of strain are to be found in the relationship of professions with the public. For one thing, technical questions have become separated from social and moral questions. Doctors may experiment with life-saving techniques because of the challenge of the technical question and not necessarily with regard for the meaning of human life. Professional techniques acquire their own ends and are not seen as means to some social or moral end. Further, the structure of a professional clientele has been greatly altered. The trend has been for the individual client to be replaced by the organization, largely because the services of a professional become too costly. This is particularly true for science which serves the interests of complex business and governmental enterprises. In this case, social and moral consequences of immediate technical actions are, at best, quite obscure. Indeed, too often the professional is unable to perceive an apparent end for the technical means he has employed to attain an immediate objective.

One can explain this separation of technical means from social and moral ends by attributing it to the secularization of professions.3 This process develops with an extensive and complicated social change which has its origins in a unified environment. From the earliest times, the professional was in harmony with this environment until the development of secularizing trends. One need not take too much of a backward glance at medicine, for example, to find a time when general practitioners dominated the field. Generally speaking, the doctor was less specialized and more totally involved with his patient than he is today. Tracing the development of medicine from an even earlier period, one notes the broader involvement of the doctor in the affairs of the community. This process was merely a continuation of the earlier religious-medical unity of the doctor's role in society. Ultimately, one finds the religious basis of the medical profession as fundamental. As a result of social change, which produced a need for greater expertise, secularization developed and weakened the religious and unifying relationship of the doctor with his patient and society.

It would he naive to assume that one could correct the problems one finds as a result of weak professional responsibility by a return to a professional role which is less specialized. While it would be proper to suggest that professional organizations, as well as individuals, must be sensitive to the problems they create and attempt to prevent them, it must be recognized that their means for dealing with these problems are limited. An historic analysis of the development of

Two major areas of concern are unique to the Christian: professional stewardship of gifts, and stewardship of the created world.

professions would probably show that the demand for expert services comes from the public. Even though professional organizations have made a significant contribution to the secularization of professions, in the final analysis, the bulk of the responsibility should probably be borne by the public.

Determining Responsibility

Once again, the delicate and unstable relationship which exists between the layman and the professional can be seen. Now, however, it is not a question of confidence in professional competence but a matter of determining responsibility in social matters. There is no question but that the professional must continue to exercise control over technical questions relevant to the profession. Increasingly, however, it will be necessary for the public to have a stronger voice in the establishment of normative and moral positions on social questions, due to the limited influence of the profession in dealing with such matters. Not only must the traditional professional-layman relationship be maintained, but it must be expanded in some fashion to allow it to deal effectively with the social consequences of professionalized action. This can not be accomplished, however, while it remains unrecognized that professionals do make a definite contribution to the development of social issues.

The Christian Professional

For the Christian, the problems are even greater. There are two major areas of concern which are unique to the Christian professional. One is in the matter of proper stewardship of gifts which he has, and the other is concerned with the stewardship of the created world. In his work, the Christian professional must exercise care that he faithfully responds to the "call" to use his gifts. Too often, professional demands imposed upon him will result in a movement away from his call. Further, he must recognize his responsibility in caring for the earth and its contents in a fashion which is consistent with God's provision that the earth should be replenished. This close relationship of man with the earth is no longer clearly recognized by secularized professions which ignore the fundamental unity of the world and its parts.

It is critical, then, that the Christian professional understand that many of his decisions are influenced by a secularized profession. He cannot assume that absence from the world of business with its connotations of avarice and irresponsibility produces an inherent tendency toward the performance of important and moral services in the professions. Nor can it be assumed that the public can provide a check on professions which is acceptable to the Christian. It is clearly apparent that normative systems which may be acceptable to society as legitimate may not be defined in this way by the Christian.

In the final analysis, one can readily discern the strain which exists among the professions, the public and the Christian professional. Finding himself in the middle, the Christian has a unique opportunity and responsibility to locate those values which are common to all three systems. Such values undoubtedly exist at the root of many professions but have been obfuscated by the process of social change. Extension of these values will produce tension as the normative systems of these three groups come into conflict. It is at this point that the Christian needs to understand the moral and normative positions which should be asserted. Ideally, these will be traced from the creative act of God which provides us with the clearest understanding of the relationship of man with the social and physical environments. Since the professions do not have the perspective to deal with the problem and the public has been traditionally submissive to the professions, leadership can be assumed most readily by the Christian professional. Lacking such leadership, the uneasy liaison which exists between professionals and the public will remain and social issues will probably not be dealt with effectively.


1Support for some of these comments comes from an article by Talent Parsons, "Research with Human Subjects and the 'Professional Complex'", Daedalus 98 (Spring, 1969) pp. 325-360.
2The definition of a professional complex offered by Parsons is "a complex of occupational groups which performs specialized functions for laymen p. 331.
3By the secularization of professions, I mean the development of specialization in a profession which has resulted from the need to deal with the increase in knowledge. A consequence of this specialization is the separation of the technical aspects of knowledge from their moral and religious bases.