Ethical limits for professionals serve to preserve trust

SINGAPORE - In his letter ("The problem with ethical limits"; last Friday), Mr Tang Li raised the question of "what are ethical limits and who decides what is ethical". He then suggested that competition and market forces, rather than ethical limits, should regulate how much a professional can earn.

However, his argument overlooked two important reasons why ethical limits are necessary for certain professions.

First, professions are different from businesses because a professional is supposed to know more about his field of expertise than the layman.

Sociologist Everett Hughes suggests that professions go by the motto of "credat emptor" (let the buyer have trust), rather than "caveat emptor" (let the buyer beware).

This trust is fostered by an arduous process of education and licensing before a person can become a member of a profession, and the fact that he has to abide by an ethical code of conduct.

Trust is therefore key to the relationship between a professional and his client. Without an ethical limit, there can be little trust.

Second, an ethical limit on fees not only restricts the upper limit of how much can be charged, but also the lower limit.

For example, the competitive undercutting of fees exists in certain professions. An ethical limit regulating what can and cannot be charged, according to the services rendered, can ensure the sustainable existence of any profession.

Finally, in answer to Mr Tang's questions, the problem is not with ethical limits but where and how we set them.

Ethical limits serve to preserve the trust necessary for the functioning of professions in any society.

The question of who decides what is ethical is more tricky but not impossible to answer.

Traditionally, the professional body is best positioned to evaluate the ethical behaviour of its members.

But social issues are becoming more complex today, and the public and the judiciary should now weigh in on matters pertaining to the professions.

After all, professions exist only in the triangle formed through the support of the public, the protection afforded by the judicial system and the regulation by the professional body.

All three must consider what is ethical and what is not.

- Jeffrey Chan Kok Hui


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