Professionalism, Organizationalism and Sur-moralism: Three ethical systems for physicians

Jonathan Bolton
Submitted: November, 2021

Over the last 50 years, the term professionalism has undergone a widespread expansion in its use and a semantic shift in its meaning. As a result, it is at risk of losing its descriptive and analytical value and becoming instead simply an empty evaluative label, a fate described by C. S. Lewis as ‘verbicide’ (Lewis 1967). This article attempts to rescue professionalism from this fate by down-sizing its extension and reassigning some of its work to two other ethical domains, introduced as the neologisms organizationalism and sur-moralism. Professionalism is defined as a morality based in system of obligations that are assumed by physicians over the course of their professional training and which primarily refer to two groups: patients and colleagues, including trainees. Organizationalism is also a morality, but the obligations are owed to the employing organization and on different grounds. A third ethical domain, here called sur-moralism, comprises actions that are not based in obligations. They are discretionary and potentially meritorious; they cannot be required by the profession or organization. This article presents a conceptual model of the three ethical domains and the shifting borders between them. One practical benefit of this typology is that physicians can more accurately understand the nature and sources of obligations that they are asked to accept, and when necessary prioritize them. Another is that physicians will be able to describe the potential tension between the three domains and understand how and why the borders between them can move. Both should help physicians to be more ethically oriented to their work settings.

  • Professionalism
  • Medical Ethics