This paper looks beyond recent financial reporting ‘scandals’ to consider the ‘standing challenge’ that ethics represents for accountants and the professional bodies that represent them. It examines the notion of a profession and argues for a position that recognises both the potential benefits of professionalisation and the self‐serving tendencies to which professions can be prone. Such a position entails a view that the outcome of professionalisation for society is a contingent matter rather than an inevitability (whether positive or negative) and therefore something that is worth attempting to influence. In developing the argument, two major areas from the business ethics/corporate social responsibility literature, oriented towards business enterprises but also of relevance to professional bodies, are reviewed: whether being ethical ‘pays’ in financial terms; and whether formal codes are useful in promoting ethical behaviour. The paper concludes by positing three models of the professional body and contending for a renewed notion of membership if professional bodies are to function as effective ‘moral communities’.