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Picking up the Pieces


No one will get everything right every time: it is not humanly possible. Ronald Dworkin remarks that the enormity of our human responsibilities is such that none of us is likely to fulfill them, even to our own satisfaction. Try as he or she might, the professional will make mistakes. Notwithstanding diligent attention to detail, he or she will from time to time let down the client, betray the profession, and/or fail the employer. And this is quite apart from the vocation to freely serve the well-being of society at large. Most professionals find themselves in these predicaments as a result of what they have or have not done. So what are they to do?

Knowing What to Do

Of course, one could always try to argue it out and hope to persuade the client that one was right, but it would be unwise to do so. Perhaps we could try to be indifferent to the consequences, simply shrug our shoulders, and say to ourselves, “These things happen!” There are such people, but not many, and in any case, it doesn’t work.

In fact, upon realizing what he or she has done, the true professional will be mortified, knowing that he or she could and should have done better. Moreover, this is not simply because of the damage that may accrue to the client’s interests but because of what we might have done to the reputation of our profession, our amour propre, and the well-being of society at large. We will feel ashamed and want to do something about it. That is the point: the professional will recognize that it is not simply that “things” have gone wrong; there is more to it. We know we are in error and that we are willing—and want—to take responsibility for it. Therefore, if we are serious, we will be trying to do something to put things right by reestablishing a good relationship with the client and our conscience.

Constant sniping in the media makes this difficult in the face of incontestable malpractice on the part of some professionals. Some professional organizations (for example, Financial Services, the police, and the National Health Service of the United Kingdom) have acknowledged the problem and taken steps in an attempt to restore public confidence. Yet public opinion surveys suggest mistrust is growing, though that is easily exaggerated. Any failure is a disaster for those who suffer the consequences, but the implication that most professionals are incompetent, self-serving, or indifferent to their vocation is simply untrue. Hence, when asked for our personal experience, we are inclined to agree that we trust our general practitioner and our child’s teacher.

So what is the professional person to do? Many ways have been tried: I shall examine rules and regulation, apology, resorting to law, confession, and reconciliation all in the context of the theological framework with which, by now, we have become familiar.

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