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This research paper discusses professional ethics in social work, exploring key themes (core values, codes of ethics, ethical theories, ethical challenges, ethical decision making, and regulation of conduct) in current literature and practice. It considers whether dominant models of social work practice and ethics from the global North should be reconsidered in an international context.
- Professional Ethics in Social Work
- Social Work Values
- Codes of Ethics
- Ethical Theories
- Principle-Based Ethics
- Character- and Relationship-Based Approaches to Ethics
- Narrative and Case-Based Ethics
- Ethical Challenges
- Ethical Decision Making
- Regulation of Conduct
- From Professional Ethics to Ethics in Professional Life
- The Dangers of Imperialism in Ethics
Ethics is about how human beings treat each other and the ecosystem. It covers matters of rights, responsibilities, wellbeing, and harm. This research paper explores social work ethics as a discipline-specific version of professional ethics, focusing on the conduct, character, and responsibilities of professional social workers. In the global North, ‘social work ethics’ is a distinct subject area in professional education and practice, marked by a growing body of specialist literature, its inclusion as a subject area in professional education, and the development of everlonger codes of ethics. While ‘ethics’ is less prominent in social work literature and educational curricula in the global South, interest is growing, as Anglo-American and European textbooks and models of practice are translated, adopted, and adapted worldwide.
Professional Ethics in Social Work
Professional ethics has a normative focus on how people in professional roles ought to be and behave. In early social work (casework) in late nineteenth-century Europe and North America, the focus was on the morality of service users, rather than the ethical conduct of social workers (Reamer, 2006). Concern with professional ethics grew slowly from the mid-twentieth century in the global North, as social work expanded and professionalized. The traditional model of professional ethics was premised on the idea that professionals derive considerable power from their expertise and status, and have potential to exploit, harm, or unduly influence service users. Hence, a shared set of values for social work was articulated and promoted, based on respect for the dignity of service users and their rights to make their own choices as far as possible, alongside a commitment from professionals to be trustworthy and reliable in selflessly serving fellow human beings.
The range and complexity of the subject matter of professional ethics, as reflected in professional and academic literature, has developed over time. Some themes have been remarkably consistent, although the main focus of attention may have changed.
Social Work Values
In discussions of social work ethics, the term ‘values’ is generally used to refer to ethical values – that is, particular types of beliefs about what is regarded as worthy or valuable for human welfare. For Reamer (1999: p. 3), “social work is among the most value based of all professions”, grounded in “concepts such as justice and fairness” (p. 5). This relates to the purposes of social work, which in most societies include redistribution of resources and care to those in need, support for people to participate as fully as possible in society and control of people who are likely to harm themselves or others. These purposes presuppose values about human worth, people’s collective responsibilities for each other, and the importance of maintaining social order. While the particular configurations of values underpinning social work and how these are expressed vary across different sources and countries, three clusters of complex values in the current social work literature can be identified (Banks, 2012a: p. 60):
- Respect for the dignity and worth of all human beings: The obligation to respect each human being as an individual, treat all people as equally valuable, and respect and promote the human rights of individuals and groups to self-determination (particularly users of social worker services).
- Promotion of welfare or well-being: The obligation to bring about benefits for service users and for society more generally, balancing benefits against risks of harm.
- Promotion of social justice: The obligation to remove damaging inequalities between people and groups and promote the fair distribution of goods and services among people and groups.
These values may conflict, giving rise to ethical challenges for social workers. For example, respecting the rights of a 15-year-old young woman to confidentiality can conflict with the social worker’s duty to promote her well-being, if her father is violent toward her. Such situations, which require sensitive decisions to be made about how to act, feature strongly in the social work ethics literature.
Codes of Ethics
Codes of ethics are key features of professions. Although what counts as a profession is contested, it is an occupation that makes claims for status in society. Professionalizing occupations generally develop professional associations to support, guide, and protect the interests of members of the occupation and safeguard service users. Professional associations for social workers exist in the majority of countries where social work is practiced, usually membership is voluntary and most have ethical codes. These are written documents covering the core purpose of the profession, its values and ethical principles, and sometimes, rules or standards of practice. Their stated aim is to guide professionals and protect service users (by laying down expectations for ethical conduct). They also serve as ‘mission statements’ – summarizing the essence of good social work, contributing to defining occupational boundaries, and reinforcing professional identity and status. Codes of ethics may be used in disciplinary hearings considering complaints against social workers. This is increasingly common, as regulatory bodies are established to register and regulate social work according to professional codes of ethics or practice (Banks, 2012a: pp. 107–108).
Comparison of codes of ethics for social work from professional associations in different countries shows considerable variation in length and the extent to which they include long lists of standards of practice (Banks, 2012a: pp. 112–114). However, the statements of values and ethical principles are remarkably similar. This is partly because the statement of ethical principles of the International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW) and International Association of Schools of Social Work (IASSW) (2004) is often used to develop country-level ethical codes. Furthermore, some professional associations, when newly developing their ethical codes, have drawn on codes from other countries.
Many criticisms are leveled at codes of ethics, including that their statements are too general and open to interpretation. This applies particularly to shorter codes that remain at the level of values and general principles. One response to this criticism has been to develop more specific guidance on how to act in particular situations. This can produce the opposite critique, that longer codes comprising lists of ethical standards are too prescriptive and undermine professional judgment.
In textbooks and teaching on professional ethics, an overview of theories of ethics developed by moral philosophers is common. These theories cover matters such as what counts as the good life, right and wrong conduct, and good and bad qualities of character. Many ethical theories aim to be universal (applying across all places and times) and foundational (offering a single theory that identifies what counts as ‘ethical’ and prescribes ethical being/action). Ethical theorists often espouse a particular theory or theoretical approach. However, in professional ethics textbooks, a range of ethical theories may be offered to provide different ways of looking at ethical problems. These may be regarded as complementary rather than mutually exclusive. The following overview of ethical theories is adapted from Banks (2012b: pp. 7–10).
Until recently, modern Western literature on professional ethics focused on identifying and describing general and universal principles to guide ethical conduct. These fall into two schools of thought: deontological (duty-based) ethics, associated with the eighteenth-century German philosopher, Kant (1785/1964); and teleological (consequentialist) ethics, associated with the nineteenth-century British utilitarians, Bentham and Mill (1863/1972). Deontological or Kantian ethics is based on the ultimate principle of respect for persons as rational and self-determining beings. Any action that fails to accord respect to each individual person (such as lying) is wrong, regardless of whether it produces good consequences. Utilitarian or consequentialist ethics, in contrast, judges the rightness and wrongness of actions according to whether they produce a greater or lesser balance of beneficial over harmful consequences for the greatest number of people. According to utilitarianism, lying might be regarded as morally right, if it resulted in a good outcome (saving life or producing a lot of happiness).
These two schools of thought are in opposition, if aiming to develop a comprehensive ethical theory based on a key foundational ethical principle. However, in everyday life, and professional practice, principles that promote respect for individual choices and rights are as important as principles that promote good outcomes for individuals and society. Statements of ethical principles and codes of ethics for social work contain both types of principle, as can be seen in the international statement of ethical principles for social work (IFSW and IASSW, 2004). Arguably, some of the more challenging ethical dilemmas in social work lie in deciding when to compromise respect for an individual’s right to freedom of choice and action to promote what is considered their greater good or the greater good of others or society in general.
According to principle-based approaches, ethical decision making is a rational process that involves applying general principles to particular cases. Decision makers should treat all similar cases in a like manner, as impartially and objectively as possible.
Character- and Relationship-Based Approaches to Ethics
There are alternative theoretical approaches to ethics that start with particular people and situations. Virtue ethics, for example, focuses on the qualities of character of the moral agent, and asks not “what should I do?” but “what kind of person should I be?” and “what would a good person do in this situation?” (Banks and Gallagher, 2009; Hursthouse, 1999; Swanton, 2003). A focus on the development of good qualities of character can be found in many ancient Eastern religious teachings, including the works of Confucius and Mencius, and Buddhist texts. According to Gyekye (2010), character also forms the basis of African ethics. In Western philosophy, virtue ethics is associated with the ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle (350 BCE/1954), and later developments by Christian religious philosophers, Aquinas and Augustine. After declining in popularity, virtue ethics has recently undergone a revival in Western ethics, to complement or replace more abstract, principle-based approaches to ethics.
Other situated approaches to ethics include the ethics of care (Tronto, 1993; Held, 2006), which focuses on relationships between people and particular responsibilities inherent in special relationships (like mother and child); and the ethics of proximity, based on responsibilities experienced in face-to-face encounters between one person and another (Vetlesen, 1997; Levinas, 1989). The emphasis on relationships and responsibilities brings these approaches much closer to ways of thinking prevalent in the global South, where individuals are defined in relationship with others. Here, much less emphasis is placed on the individual or relationships between individuals per se, but rather the focus is on the community (communitarian ethics), seeking solidarity, harmony, and common good.
Narrative and Case-Based Ethics
Approaches to ethics that give primacy to character, relationships, and communities often use stories as a methodology. According to Nelson (1997), these stories: heighten moral perception and sensitivity; promote moral education; provide ethical justification; define one’s moral identity; and make ethical evaluations through comparing stories. The term ‘narrative ethics’ refers to a cluster of methodologies that use stories, rather than a theoretical approach to ethics.
‘Casuistry’ or case-based ethical reasoning (Jonsen and Toulmin, 1988), sometimes grouped under the heading of ‘narrative ethics,’ is also a distinctive approach in its own right (a revival of a medieval Christian practice of providing moral guidance in particular situations). Rather than starting with ethical theory, casuistry begins with particular cases, taking into account the specific circumstances of each case in deciding what an ethically correct response might be. It works by taking a paradigm case, which is relatively straightforward and about which most people would agree in their ethical evaluations, and then compares the case at hand with the paradigm case to determine differences and similarities. This is analogous to the approach taken in legal reasoning, and requires skills in determining the morally relevant features of cases and creating taxonomies of types of cases and issues. Casuistry is not a normative theory (prescribing what is good or bad), but more like a method for making ethical assessments and decisions. In case-based ethics, ‘moral reasoning’ plays a crucial role. ‘Reasoning’ in this sense includes the use of moral intuition and practical wisdom and is not the same as rationality based on abstract principles.
If seeking an internationally relevant approach to social work ethics, this approach to ethical evaluation is helpful in that it starts with the case and advocates pursuing a detailed and careful analysis (Banks, 2012b). Sometimes people who espouse very different ethical and religious values may agree about what should be done in a particular case, by focusing on its details. Their differences emerge when they justify their ethical evaluations with reference to different values or theories.
Social workers often play a role within welfare systems designed to care for, control, educate, or empower people. This inevitably leads to contradictory imperatives and ethical challenges (Dominelli, 2004, 2010). The key values and principles identified earlier may conflict and social workers have to make difficult choices regarding how to act and what roles to play. The literature frequently refers to ethical dilemmas and problems – difficult choices with no easy solution, where the rights, needs, and interests of different parties conflict. Yet it is also important to see social work as an occupation that has ethical issues embedded within everyday practice (not just when difficult choices have to be made). In considering the form of ethical challenges, a distinction can be made among ethical issues, problems, and dilemmas (adapted from Banks, 2012a: p. 20):
- Ethical issues – pervade social work (including what appear to be ‘legal’ or ‘technical’ matters) in that practice frequently takes place in the context of state systems of welfare premised on principles of social justice and public good and social workers have professional power in the relationship with service users. For example, deciding whether to recommend home care services for a person with a disability in a straightforward case may not involve a social worker in agonizing over an ethical dilemma, but it is not devoid of ethical content (the service is premised on principles of care and distributive justice).
- Ethical problems – arise when a social worker sees a situation as involving a difficult ethical decision, but is clear about the right course of action. For example, the worker may decide to reject the application of a very needy person for home care services because this person does not fit the criteria.
- Ethical dilemmas – occur when a social worker sees himself or herself as facing a choice between two equally unwelcome alternatives,whichmay involve a conflict of ethical values, and it is not clear which choice will be the right one. For example, should the practitioner bend the rules for allocating home care services to help a very needy person, or follow the criteria and refuse the application? The worker is faced with a conflict between the interests of this individual and the public interest in having rules and criteria that apply to everyone.
Ethical Decision Making
Textbooks on social work ethics often include significant sections on deciding how to act in difficult situations (e.g., Bowles et al., 2006; Dolgoff et el., 2012; Reamer, 2006). The social worker is presented as an active moral agent, guided by ethical principles and making a critical interpretation of relevant ethical codes. The focus is on professionals and their internal reasoning processes, or on the reasoning processes of members of a professional team. Ethical difficulties are frequently framed as ‘ethical dilemmas’ and presented as cases, with readers invited to consider what decision they would make in such a situation, as the following short invented case illustrates:
Case 1: Deciding whether to accept a donation
The staff team running a domestic violence shelter has to decide whether to accept or refuse urgently needed funding from a private company. Accepting the money would contribute immediately to promoting and supporting the shelter’s work on women’s safety and welfare in a very violent neighborhood. Arguments for refusal include the fact that the company runs lap-dancing clubs (erotic dancing) and may gain credibility from being associated with the shelter. These links may undermine the shelter’s values and integrity in the longer term.
To help students analyze cases and develop skills in ethical decision making, it is common to offer models, often leading the reader through a series of questions. There are numerous examples, ranging from those comprising a linear, stepwise process to more holistic, circular models (for a useful review, see McAuliffe and Chenoweth, 2007).
One commonly quoted linear approach is the five-step ETHIC model proposed by Congress (1999):
- Examine personal, cultural, societal, client, agency, and professional values;
- Think about the various UN declarations on rights and related covenants, codes of ethics, laws and agency regulations;
- Hypothesize different courses of action based on varied decisions;
- Identify who is most vulnerable, who will be harmed or helped; and
- Consult with supervisors and colleagues.
These steps can encourage analysis of the issues at stake, although their simple structure masks the complexity of the range of different perspectives and factors, including emotional dimensions, and how to negotiate between them. It also does not take account of the importance of an iterative cycle of reflection and learning.
To counteract such limitations, McAuliffe and Chenoweth (2007) propose an ‘inclusive’ circular model, taking account of core social work values, based on four interlinked ‘platforms’ for good decision making (accountability, consultation, cultural sensitivity, and critical reflection), which includes the following steps:
- defining the ethical dilemma;
- mapping legitimacy (who has a legitimate stake in the decision-making process);
- gathering information;
- assessing alternative approaches and actions; and
- critical analysis and evaluation.
Decision-making models encourage systematic, comprehensive, and analytical thinking about the range of factors to be considered in making difficult ethical decisions and can be helpful in teaching and learning about ethical reasoning. However, in everyday practice, the many moment-to-moment small ‘decisions’ that are made about how to proceed may be quite intuitive and hardly recognized as decisions unless social workers are asked to justify or explain afterwards what they did and why. Hence, the focus of textbooks and teaching in professional ethics needs to extend beyond dilemmas and decision making.
Regulation of Conduct
The traditional emphasis in professional ethics on ethical decision making assumes that social workers are active moral agents engaged in making considered decisions based not only on regulations, laws, and codes, but also on their appraisal of the relevant professional values at stake and evaluations of people’s rights, needs, and interests. In a climate of new managerialism and economic austerity, social workers are required to be more accountable for their actions and demonstrate effectiveness and value for money, as well as ethical conduct. In many countries, especially in the global North, tighter regulations have been introduced to ensure efficiency and ethical conduct (Banks, 2011; Harris, 2003). In several countries, statutory regulatory bodies have been established for social work, the functions of which include maintaining a register of qualified professionals – with the power to remove people from the register if incompetence or unethical behavior is proven (Orme and Rennie, 2006). Regulatory bodies may protect the title, ‘social worker’ (only those registered can practice as social workers) and play a major role in licensing social workers and disciplining them on grounds of professional misconduct.
There is a slow trend toward statutory regulation of social work as an occupation with a protected title. Many in the profession welcome regulation as a contribution toward gaining occupational recognition and status. Others are skeptical of the benefits, recognizing that these carry the price of increasing state control and prescribing the conduct of individual social workers. The autonomy of the profession, and of professional associations, is reduced in the interests of maintaining and developing the credibility of the profession and standardizing practice. ‘Ethics’ comes to be associated with following predetermined rules or standards, rather than considered decision making and reflection (Banks, 2004, 2013a).
From Professional Ethics to Ethics in Professional Life
This research paper has focused largely on normative professional ethics – how social workers should be and act in work contexts. It is impossible to separate theoretical and practical prescriptions of what practitioners ought to do from accounts of what social workers actually do and say. While textbooks focus on normative professional ethics, there is an increasing research interest in ‘empirical ethics’ – studies of what people do and say in practice in relation to matters of rights, responsibilities, harms, and benefits. This may take the form of surveys to find out what people think about certain types of behavior (e.g., whether it is right to lend money to service users) and reports of actions they have taken (e.g., whether they have ever lent money to service users) or qualitative research studies involving interviews and/or observations relating to everyday practice. In ethnographic research, the ethical dimensions of social work are embedded in everyday practice and have to be identified and ‘extracted’ by research participants and/or researchers. This can lead to a different conception of ethics than found in normative textbook ethics, encouraging a view of ethics as involving emotion and rationality (e.g., empathy, fear, anger). It also encourages a view of ethics as embodied (a physical side to ethical being and acting); embedded (ethical norms are deeply contextualized in communities, organizations, and wider cultures and responsibilities relating to particular relationships); and evolving (created through dialog and relationships with others).
Approaching ethics as a situated practice resonates with theoretical approaches that focus on character, care, communities, and narratives, and is encapsulated in Margaret Urban Walker’s (2007) ‘expressive-collaborative’ model of ethics. On this view, ethics is “a socially embodied medium of understanding and adjustment in which people account to each other for the identities, relationships, and values that define their responsibilities” (Walker, 2007: pp. 67–68). According to Walker, ethical life is a continuing negotiation among people. This contrasts with the dominant type of ethical theory, which presents a ‘theoretical-juridical’ model of ethics as a codifiable set of moral formulae to be applied by any agent in making a specific, justified action-guiding judgment (Walker, 2007: pp. 58–59). In the context of social work ethics, this implies a broadening of traditional normative professional ethics (focusing on abstract ethical principles, ethical dilemmas, ethical decision making, and, increasingly, ethical regulation) to what I have called elsewhere ‘ethics in professional life’ – seeing professional life as an ethical practice and ethical issues as embedded and embodied in everyday being and doing (Banks, 2010).
The Dangers of Imperialism in Ethics
In many countries in the Southern world, the ‘expressive-collaborative’ approach to ethics makes more sense than the ‘theoretical-juridical’ approach. The identification and abstraction of a dimension of practice that can be labeled ‘ethical’ may be quite challenging in some cultural contexts, especially if there is no specific word easily translatable as ‘ethics’ (as seems the case in many African languages). The growth of the ‘ethics industry’ in the North, including the production of textbooks, international codes of ethics, and specialized teaching modules, may entail exporting decontextualized models of ethics and sets of principles and rules that do not necessarily fit comfortably everywhere (Hugman, 2008; Ife, 2008). While the formulation of international principles that promotes respect for human dignity, human rights, and social justice is important and welcomed by social work practitioners in many countries, the theoretical-juridical model is just one approach to ethics. This presents a challenge, as it requires academics and practitioners to be alert to imperialism in ethics (transferring Northern values and approaches to the Southern world), while avoiding ethical and cultural relativism (uncritically accepting practices based on local norms). This challenge is exemplified in case 2 (summarized from Banks and Nohr, 2012: pp. 91–94).
Case 2: A Dutch student in Vietnam
A Dutch social work student was undertaking fieldwork practice in a rehabilitation hospital in Vietnam. She accompanied two physiotherapists on a home visit to an 8-year-old boy, Trung, who had Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy (DMD, a severe form of muscular dystrophy characterised by rapid muscle degeneration). Trung was in a wheelchair, writing on a small table attached to the chair. His mother proudly talked about the school prize he had won for his handwriting and Trung talked about his favorite activities. His mother asked when there would be an improvement in Trung’s physical condition. One of the physiotherapists said he did not know, and that Trung should keep doing his exercises.
On returning to the hospital the student asked the staff if any improvement was possible with DMD. They replied ‘no’. Therewas a possibility that Trung did not have a long life ahead. However, it was better that Trung and his parents did not know this, otherwise they would feel sad.
The student entered into a discussion, explaining that this was contrary to her social work ethics and that in the Netherlands professionals try to be open and honest about a patient’s medical situation. By not telling the family the truth, the family did not have the chance to overcome the pain that comes with the prognosis. She recognized that this approach was culturally linked, but wondered if it was based on lack of knowledge, including not knowing how to deliver bad news. The physiotherapists were interested in the Dutch way of handling such situations, just as the student was interested in the physiotherapists’ explanation that in Vietnam discussing a terminal illness with patients and families causes unnecessary misery.
For the Dutch student and Vietnamese physiotherapists (and all health and social care professionals) ‘ethics’ is an ongoing project. Referring to European ethical codes and textbooks may offer conceptual frameworks and point to issues to consider. However, these frameworks must be critically interpreted and located in the political and cultural context of specific countries and in relation to the aims, purposes, and ways of working of the relevant agencies. Being ethical in this case is not just about making decisions according to principles or following rules, but requires practitioners to engage in ongoing dialogs with themselves, their colleagues, and broader society – an ‘expressive-collaborative’ practice.
Social work ethics is about challenges and contradictions in everyday practice. There are no easy formulae for tackling challenges or resolving contradictions, although ethical codes and decision-making models may provide some guidance. Acting ethically and being ethical is an ongoing project that entails a process of critical reflexivity (being aware of the social and political contexts in which one is working and recognizing one’s own position, role, and power). This can be described as ‘ethics work’ (Banks, 2013a). It involves emotions as well as reason; the development of qualities of character as well as decision-making skills; and an ability to live with and negotiate the inevitable ethical tensions in the work. Given social workers’ roles at the interface of state welfare and social control, it requires moral courage for social workers to speak out against injustices and to resist becoming highly regulated administrators of evertighter welfare budgets. Social work is also inherently political (Banks, 2013b; Dominelli, 2010; Ferguson, 2008). The political dimensions of social work are inseparable from the ethical. This entails a collective commitment to working for human rights and social justice, and a conceptualization of social work as not only a socially useful and value-based profession, but also a worldwide social movement concerned to advocate alongside and for service users, and those who need services but are excluded.
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