Rethinking Values & Ethics in Social Work : a book review

shutterstock_309826982 (1)Social workers who wish to explore the ethical dilemmas in achieving universal human rights would do well to watch the 2012 Steven Spielberg film, Lincoln. With the American Civil War winding to a close in 1865, President Lincoln, fearful that the courts would strike down his executive order to free all slaves, sought to guarantee the abolition of slavery via the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment into the United States Constitution.  Lincoln authorized his Secretary of State to bribe outgoing congressman with the promise of government employment, in order to induce them to vote in favor of the amendment. In compelling scenes during the debate, one congressman warns that passing the amendment could be the thin end of the wedge, leading not only to the enfranchisement of black men, but (heaven forbid) women gaining the right to vote. At this point the House of Representatives explodes into uproar and hilarity. Whilst this debate proceeded, Lincoln delayed negotiations to end the Civil War until the Amendment could be passed. To further complicate the politics, Lincoln also had to rely on racial equality advocate, Thaddeus Stevens, to moderate his radical position and to declare that the amendment represented only “equality before the law”, not actual equality.

Lincoln may be able to claim that he did the ‘right thing’ at the ‘right time’, but it was not by any stretch the ‘right way’. What is now hailed as a piece of political genius could also have the seen the President impeached, and his Secretary of State imprisoned. Yet Lincoln is portrayed in the film as a man of strong moral conscience, the courage of his convictions, great personal virtue and an abiding respect for the dignity of all the people in his orbit. And we, the observers, are inclined to believe this deeper truth.

Social workers often find themselves in the frontline of the war between those would grant human rights to all, and those who would prefer to privilege some people over others. It is a messy and complicated war. Governments weigh in, slicing and dicing people into more or less privileged categories (asylum seekers, people on the dole, the disabled and so on). The battle is engaged all over the planet between rich and poor, north and south, big city dwellers and their rural cousins, communitarians and libertarians, as well as many permutations of racial divides. Tactics shift, and all sides claim a superior ideology and a higher moral ground.

Discussions of ethics in the context of this war often revolve around tactics. Is it enough to demand equality of opportunity, or should we insist on equality of outcomes? Do ends justify means? How much weight should we give to the looming ecological disasters? What about feminism? When do we compromise and take a minor victory, and when do we choose martyrdom?

These ethical decisions are in turn are underpinned by our moral conscience. By some accounts it has taken tens of thousands of years for humans to develop a conscience. Most of us now accept the premise that a moral persons are guided in their actions by giving careful consideration to the interests of each individual affected by their decisions. And many of us now (at least in principle) aspire to the ideal of universal human rights.

This provides some context to the recently published book edited by Richard Hugman and Jan Carter, Rethinking Values and Ethics in Social Work.

For readers who want to begin by exploring notions of moral conscience, I would suggest beginning at Chapter 13. In her piece on postmodern ethics for practice, Sacha Kendall relies heavily on the insights of Zygmunt Baumann. Kendall contends that

“moral responsibility consists of individuals choosing to take unconditional responsibility for the Other. Morality cannot be grounded in ethical principles, nor can it be a means to an end. The ‘self’ is therefore central to ethics. This self is a moral self that will take responsibility for and act to address the needs of others without reason or reward. The moral self is part of the human condition; it is our moral impulse or moral conscience. Accordingly, morality has no foundation, but is rather the ‘ultimate, non-determined presence..”

It follows that to slavishly follow any moral code reduces us to replaceable machines. Kendall believes that we should continually deconstruct our notions of professional expertise, and critically reflect on our relationship with the ‘other’. This is a theme echoed by many contributors to the book.

In Chapter 1, Carter and Hugman hark back to a time

“when conscience was social and moral, indivisible and unitary. But now a moral conscience has become understood as being confined to the private sphere of life, whilst a social conscience is seen as an appropriate responder to those injustices detected as public issues, particularly those involving vulnerability, suffering and victimization for human and other species and the environment. One of the tasks of this book is to see how the moral and social aspects of conscience might be brought together again.”(my emphasis)

Although impossible to measure, it certainly does seem that the modern world offers a more fertile ground for the growth of cynicism, corruption and self regard. The times seem to suit a Trump rather than a Lincoln. Like Donald Trump, we have all become more acutely aware of our own social standing, and many of us are adept at image polishing on broadcast and social media. And of course it is easy, with one click, to ‘like’ a social justice campaign or send a donation to Get Up. In a similar vein, Hugman and Carter approvingly quote Sennett,

“Flexibility, adaptability and agility are valued ahead of stability; teamwork practices favour people good at public relations and ‘spin’ and ignore developing the deep commitments and loyalties that are fundamental to the formation of character”

If, as it seems, courage combined with a critical commitment to ethics is in short supply, how can we nurture it within the ranks of social work? Sarah Banks, (Chapter 4) in her contribution to the book, recommends that we actively participate, and

“work through professional groups and networks. Integrity is often invoked in situations of adversity –when someone’s values are undermined or threatened. This means practitioners need courage to stand up for their beliefs and act in accordance with them. They may need to resist pressures to cover up or conform to corrupt agency norms (Preston-Shoot 2011) and to be prepared to ‘blow the whistle’ on bad practice. Solidarity with other work colleagues and through professional associations, political networks and trade unions is also important in such cases. Individual practitioners, no matter how resilient or courageous, risk victimization and disempowerment if they stand alone as isolated individuals.”

Building on Banks thoughts about the ‘right way’, Michael Reich (Chapter 3) helps us to consider the ‘right thing’, stating that a social justice framework might include:

“particular attention to the causes and consequences of inequality, oppression, marginalization and exclusion; increased recognition in practice settings of the significance of history, culture and context in the development of people’s problems and in creating ways to resolve them; an understanding of the interconnectedness between individual problems and their institutional origins and between domestic and international issues; integration of a critical perspective on the impact of race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation and ability status on people’s lives; an enhanced focus on the impact of the maldistribution of power, resources, rights, status, privilege and opportunities, and a critique of their ideological rationales; a view of society and social change that emphasizes the basic humanity and equality of all people; and a goal of not simply ameliorating people’s problems, but of transforming society through the creation of alternative values, institutions, laws and processes”

The foundation of social work in the liberal traditions of individual freedom have made it natural for the profession to gravitate towards identity politics as its main battleground, in standing up for human rights. But this kind of politics risks collapsing into culture wars that do not examine the roots causes of social injustice, or offer practical programs beyond slogans of resistance. We should not forget that the hundreds of thousands of One Nation voters in regional Queensland are by any measure, marginalised and oppressed. Their access to jobs, health, education and welfare has been seriously eroded by agribusiness, globalisation and the failures of all the political parties that claim to represent them.

Its suits the powerful to fan culture wars and promote the building of walls, either virtual, or made with concrete and steel. Social workers who would like to think about alternative futures would do well to read Paul Mason’s latest book, Post Capitalism: A Guide to our Future. He argues that the rise of robotics and the information technology revolution, with its refusal to fit with economic orthodoxies, and its privileging of networks over hierarchies offers a glimpse of real alternatives. (You can catch a recent interview with him on ABC Radio’s Late Night Live.)

To round of the book, Carter and Hugman, in the final chapter, (Chapter 14) remind us that the notion of a moral conscience applies beyond the character and actions of individuals.

“collectivities too can be understood in relation to values such as honesty, responsibility and integrity through the way in which structures, policies and procedures are formulated and create a social space for the actions of individuals.”

Many large corporations have developed sophisticated public relations strategies to promote themselves as good citizens, whilst simultaneously engaging in a range of immoral practices that adversely affect the communities within which they operate. In a similar vein trade unions and churches have betrayed the trust of their members, and worse still compounded the bad behaviours with sustained attempts to cover them up. The reflexive response of loyal individuals to hide and excuse wrongdoing is so pervasive, it must surely give us pause to consider the effect that group loyalty has on the otherwise sound moral conscience of individuals.

Our colleagues in psychology have done some significant and sobering and research in this area, particularly around the phenomenon of confirmation bias. There is sound evidence that the teaching of critical thinking skills, which is supposed to help us overcome the bias on a purely individual basis, does not seem to yield very good results. Individuals with a pre-existing opinion are likely to search for supportive arguments rather than dispassionate evaluation. The upside of course, is that people (either individually or in groups) are very good at assessing arguments and evidence in an unbiased way provided that they have no axe to grind. For a review of the research in this area, I encourage readers to look at the comprehensive review paper, Mercier, H., & Sperber, D. (2011). Why Do Humans Reason? Arguments for an Argumentative Theory. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 34 (2), 57-74. This research has profound implications for social workers exercising power in organisations, both for themselves and the groups they work with.There is a clear imperative to seek independent counsel, rather than suppress divergent views.

There are many gems in this collection, some already mentioned, but I would like to highlight a few that resonated with me.

Dorothee Hölscher (Chapter 7) gives us fresh insight into the refrain, ‘the personal is political’, turning it on its head. She reminds us that social justice and injustice are experienced, felt and recreated by each and every person in their day-to-day relationships, interactions, practices and routines. A social worker, for example, who attends to her own experience of vicarious trauma opens up an important source of understanding, “and therefore reveal crucial ways in which structural processes and contextual factors work through relationships to impact people’s sense of self, agency and so on.”

“Acknowledging this may help to judge less and attend more to the need to create safe spaces for people to engage critically with themselves and one another so as to better meet their responsibilities in relation to the social injustices within which they are implicated. Knowing this, practitioners may feel encouraged to pursue social justice as a practice that is political and personal at once.”

Hilary Weaver (Chapter 9) outlines Indigenous and First Nations people’s experience of social work both as a product of colonization and as a potential ally in struggles for decolonization. If we accept that  human rights do no exist outside culture, there are crucial implications. Western culture privileges an individualist ethos legally, morally and ethically. Consequently the collectivist, holistic value systems and aspirations of Indigenous societies struggle to gain a proper footing within an individualist framework. This casts sharp relief on just how central Indigenous self- determination is within a human rights context, and why “settler” societies fight so hard against it.

Sarah Todd (chapter 11), specifically addresses ethics in community practice. She makes important points about the humility and level of tact required to work in the space of provisional uncertainty, invoking Levinasian ethics to acknowledge the impossibility of truly ‘knowing’ a community. Whilst it is possible to work in the space of culture and social inclusion, working to transform power relations or tackling injustice is rarely within the scope of the possible.

Mark Hughes (Chapter 12) in his piece on ethics in organizations gives us a timely reminder that there is plenty of room to move before a social worker needs to ‘blow the whistle’. Most organisations share many of the values that are found in the AASW Code of Ethics. This provides fertile ground for strategic collaboration; points well illustrated in Hughes practice vignettes.

There were also some contributions that left me disappointed.

Kam-shing Yip (Chapter 8) suggests that the ideas embodied in the international social work organizations’ ethical statements are culturally specific to ‘Western’ society. Using the example of Chinese cultural values, the author gives a couple of clinical examples that would seem to be within the bounds of good clinical practice in both Western and Chinese social work. Given the real and significant difference between these cultures, I was left wanting sharper illustrations.

Elisabeth Reichert (Chapter 2), notes (not unreasonably) that the use of human rights frameworks that are not legally enforceable seriously weakens the capacity of social workers to implement human rights. But her prescriptive exhortations are jarring and unhelpful within the critical, provisional and tentative tone of the rest of the book.

“There can be many reasons for a state’s non-adoption of a human rights document, some of which have no relevance to social work ethics. Certainly, though, if the ethical consideration violates local laws then the social worker may have to yield to those laws. Generally, though, the social worker should always follow ethical guidelines regardless of whether a state has adopted a human rights document.”

Fred Besthorn, Terry Koenig, Richard Spano and Sherry Warren (Chapter 10) champion the notion of ‘ecological justice’, repudiating the notion that ‘environmental justice’ can “effectively and collaboratively to mediate the extractive and exploitative contours of capitalist excess”.

The distinction appeared to me to be simply a matter of degree . With over seven billion people on the planet some extraction will continue to occur! Let us take a local example. The Coorong Wetlands are in danger of dying. Overuse of water along the Murray River is a principle cause. Whether the Coorong is saved by joined up movements of ‘environmental’ justice initiated by many communities along the Murray, or by ‘ecological’ justice imposed in a single stroke by an enlightened Federal Government, will be a product of campaign tactics informed by local circumstances.

For a better understanding of capitalism and its relationship to the ecological destruction of the planet, readers should have a look at Naomi Klein’s bestseller, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate. It documents the efforts of environmental activists around the world, who are fighting extractive industries that threaten to ruin their homelands.

As a whole, this collection will, I believe, become a very important text within its genre, and the profession will be thankful that Jan Carter and Richard Hugman took the time to both contribute and put it together.

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6 Responses to Rethinking Values & Ethics in Social Work : a book review

  1. Roslyn Giles says:

    Thanks Vittorio for the review. This sounds like a “must-read”

  2. Elizabeth McEntyre says:

    Thank you Vittorio for such a comprehensive review.

  3. David Gould says:

    A must buy book for me. The barometer of ethics is critical to our integrity of practice and to how we work. It is easy to think we are ethical and moral if we attach ourselves to causes. Reflection, deep questioning and self critique are needed as everyday tools.

  4. Claire Jones says:

    Thank you for an exceptional article. Great reading.

  5. Teresah Ndawana says:

    Fantastic document. Thanks a lot.

  6. Dawn Vincent says:

    Thank you Vittorio. Very interesting article and I appreciated the review of the book. The subject of ethics and how to apply these in our personal and broader community life is more relevant than ever today.

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