They call themselves non-profit professional societies, but they often act as enabling trade associations for the companies and businesspeople who fund them. At their worst, they serve their paymasters and remain in the shadows, avoiding publicity and visibility. When guided by their better angels, professional societies can be authoritative tribunes for a more healthy and safe society.
I am referring to the organizations that stand for their respective professions – automotive, electrical, chemical and mechanical engineers; physicians; architects; scientists; and accountants. The people working in these occupations all want to be members of a “professional” association, not a “trade” association.
So let’s start by distinguishing how a “profession” is supposed to differ from a “trade.” First, profit is not to be the end-all of a profession and its practitioners. Moral and public interest codes of ethics are supposed to be paramount when they conflict with maximizing sales and income.
The National Society of Professional Engineers’ code of ethics stipulates that an engineer has a professional duty to go to the appropriate authorities should the engineer be rebuffed by employer or client who was notified of a dangerous situation or product.
Physicians have a duty to prevent the trauma or disease which they are trained to treat. A half-dozen physicians in the 1960s aggressively pressed the auto industry to build more crash-protective…