The professions have a responsibility to define and defend the public interest in an age of popular dissatisfaction with elites and post-truth political discourse.
Of the many charges levelled against political and business elites, perhaps the most damning is that they have abandoned the public interest. Its tattered flag hangs limply over the deserted ruins of western politics. We can only hope that a new generation of responsible leaders will emerge from the ashes.
This is particularly resonant for those who would advise government, or have dedicated their careers to safeguarding our economy and constitution. In the rush to depose Saddam, Blair resisted sound legal advice and well-founded diplomatic doubts. Throughout 2016, Eurosceptics preferred to rubbish the considered advice of Carney and Lagarde than to proffer reasoned rebuttals. More recently, members of the Privy Council signally failed to defend our most senior judges against a craven press, which wanted to “take back control” but only if the judges gave the “right” answer.
Such behaviour has become the norm. When earnest experts speak an inconvenient truth, they are denigrated. Trump may yet turn his back on the Paris Climate Agreement because he knows that faced with a mountain of scientific evidence, the merest pile of sand is enough for anti-scientists to bury their heads. This is not just irresponsible: it is profoundly reckless.
During The Enlightenment, populations challenged traditional authority with a simple idea: that reason trumped religious orthodoxy as a route towards human progress. In the era of dizzyingly rapid and disruptive change, we need the rational instincts of the Age of Reason more than ever. And yet, western populations are challenging authority not with reason, but with blatant untruths. Welcome to the new and dangerous Anti-Enlightenment.
If you still believe that progress rests on evidence-based policies and actions, then don’t expect much from politicians, at least for now. Their greatest contribution ought to be to set us on course for a sustainable future. Instead, as a collective, they look no further than the next election. As individuals, too many politicians have their sights lowered on the latest Twitterstorm.
We must instead look to professionals to safeguard the public interest. Most, if not all, professions have a code of ethics that goes beyond mere compliance with the law. Many have a Royal Charter, obliging professionals to act in the public interest; something beyond the profit motive and broader than individual client needs.
What can professionals do?
First and foremost, they must stick to their established values of integrity and expertise, thereby rejecting a race to the bottom.
Second, the professions should take the long-term view, so that our actions today do not prejudice public health, the social fabric, and built and natural environments of future generations.
Third, the professions need to come together and boldly plant a flag on the moral high ground. They must re-define the public interest in a way that the public understands and values. And they should take pride in doing so.
Fourth, the professions must find their voice. Too often the narrative of self-interested trade bodies dominates the debate and reinforces the divide between elites and a disillusioned public. As the voice of public good, the professions must remain apolitical. But this does not oblige silence on politically sensitive matters. On the contrary, where politics is undermining society’s wider interests, the professions have a duty to speak out most loudly.
Finally, the professions should do more than reflect market forces. In the built environment this might include actively finding ways to place higher value on low-carbon developments, insisting on resource efficient building techniques, and turning down contracts for work on environmentally harmful projects. Modest steps, but a start nonetheless.
Now is the moment for the professions to stand tall in the face of un-reason, to proudly march beneath the banner of public interest. A powerful signal of intent would demonstrate professionals’ renewed relevance and could set us on course for rational progress in a turbulent 140-character world. Ethical leadership from professionals has the opportunity to (re-) inspire responsible politics and responsible business and become a force for good.
John Kraus is a former career diplomat and physicist. He believes that governments, business and civil society must adopt a determined and collaborative approach to global challenges.