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The Ideal of Professional Knowledge

Professional knowledge is, among other things, a form of power. It gives advantages to those who have it and disadvantages to those who lack it. For example, it can be used to minimize or maximize suffering. It can serve selfish human desires or meet basic human needs. It can be used to create conditions for conflict or those that contribute to peace and understanding. It can be used to destroy or preserve the environment and the lifeforms that inhabit it. It can contribute to a less just or a more just world. It can advance irrational or rational ends.

To the extent that we are committed to fair-mindedness, we are committed to professional knowledge being acquired and used to minimize human suffering, to meet basic human needs, to preserve rather than destroy the environment, to contribute to a more just world, and to serve rational rather than irrational ends. In providing justification for the public funding of instruction in the various professions, spokespersons argue that their professions serve ends in the public interest.

Ideally, professionals acquire knowledge not to benefit a selected few but, rather, to distribute benefits in the broadest and most just way. Even those who argue that the pursuit of professional knowledge should be free and untrammeled support that argument with the view that the free-wheeling search for professional knowledge will confer, in the long run, the greatest benefit on the largest number. But to what extent are professions serving these higher ends? To what extent are they fulfilling the promises made on their behalf when they seek funding for public instruction and for research? How can we learn to think about professions, and within our own, in the most powerful and rational way? These are the questions that lie behind the critique of professional thinking.

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