Professional Responsibilities

Goodin also defends the vulnerability model in the case of those special responsibilities found in professional relationships. We can look at the relationships between professionals, e.g., doctors, lawyers, teachers, etc., and their clients as being shaped by the relative vulnerability of those clients to the actions and choices of the persons occupying the professional role.

Professionals generally speaking have strong duties to protect the interests of their clients, and these responsibilities often entail both duties of nonmaleficence and duties of beneficence. There are three factors Goodin sees as pointing to the fact that the specific duties of this type of special relationship are governed by vulnerability. First, if the relationship were merely contractual, it could not fully explain the fact that contracts drawn between the two parties are fixed to standard form. There is very little permission to negotiate terms between the involved parties themselves alone. Second, while professionals are free to serve whomever they choose, they must respond to any request for assistance in an emergency. Third, terminating a contract is more difficult for a professional; for instance, in a therapeutic relationship significant notice must be given to client, no neglect can occur, and extended time must be given for the client to secure an alternative.

These factors point directly to the unequal relationship between professional and client. This inequality, Goodin claims, stems from the high degree of specialized knowledge possessed by the professional, and the fact that the client is attempting to secure a basic need (health, legal status, education, etc.) whereas the professional is not, Further, it is usually easier for a professional to find other clients whereas the same may not be true for the client in finding other professionals. Goodin states it most clearly in saying that "clients are and must necessarily be relying upon professionals to protect them in crucial ways" (66). This, once again, points to the vulnerability model's ability to better explain such responsibilities. Goodin states that it is trust rather than mere contract that shapes these kinds of relationships (67). In essence, the client, who is usually the weaker party to the relationship, depends upon the professional in ways that the latter does not depend on the former. The patient must trust her doctor to do what his professional responsibilities require whether or not he has given her an explicit promise to do so.

Relationships between professionals of various kinds and their patients or clients exhibit the general characteristics of the vulnerability-care relationship: they are asymmetrical in that the parties to these relationships are unequal in power to affect one another's interests; one party has special knowledge or skills that can affect the well-being of the more vulnerable party for good or for ill; and the vulnerable party is in some way specially dependent on the professionals' exercise of responsible care in order to secure some aspect of his or her interest or well-being that she cannot secure by self-help alone. In cases such as these, the VCP predicts that the dominant or stronger party to the relationship has special moral responsibilities to protect the interests of those who are vulnerable and are depending upon them for their care. This kind of moral responsibility arises because of the name of the relationship between the parties, and does not depend upon there being explicit or assumed consent.

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