Frederic Reamer is one of our most highly respected writers on social work ethics. I spent a morning recently on the
phone with him, talking about his background, his views on the evolving world of ethics, and social work ethics in particular.
Here is an edited version of that conversation. - ed.
Many thanks for taking the time to answer my questions.
No problem. I am delighted to have the opportunity to explore these complex and challenging philosophical and ethical issues.
I wish these opportunities arose more often. Just be careful; I can talk your ear off about this stuff.
Fair warning. You spent your early practice years in the criminal justice system. How did that experience influence you?
My early experience in the criminal justice system had a direct, albeit unintended, impact on my interest in ethical and philosophical
issues. I'd say the connection is more intense and closer than one might imagine. In the 1970s I was part of a large project
focused on the use of community-based care for juvenile offenders. This was during the peak period in the deinstitutionalization
movement in the corrections field. In retrospect, the process was quite inductive, in that my interest in the larger abstract
issues - punishment, justice, freedom, and liberty - emanated from my efforts to grapple with the everyday issues involved
in placing offenders in the community. The more experience I had in the field, the more I realized that pragmatic decisions
about the use of community-based and institutional care were often rooted in difficult philosophical judgments about matters
related to justice, fairness, retribution, freedom, and so on. Over time I've tried hard to maintain my connections with
both real-world social work and more abstruse issues pertaining to philosophy and ethics. I've become more and more convinced
that compelling abstract ideas have profound implications for practice.
Sounds like you were doing generalist practice when you started working in the profession.
My work in the criminal justice has certainly reinforced my commitment to generalist social work practice. I found, for example,
that my early work in criminal justice necessarily involved policy practice: in the late 1970s there were profound legislative
debates about the use of community-based care for offenders, and lots of policy-related literature on the debate. Community
practice was a key element in the field, particularly with respect to fairly widespread resistance to community-based services
for offenders, most notably the NIMBY ("not in my backyard") phenomenon. In addition, there were complex organizational
issues: the interplay between public and private organizations and the delivery of services to offenders, and the interplay
between federal and state agencies around responsibility for care. Also, I had to draw on my HBSE and direct practice knowledge,
particularly with respect to issues of diversity, family dynamics, intervention approaches, the concept of "deviance,"
and individual growth and development. I didn't fully appreciate it at the time, but I was also beginning to wrestle with
the ethical issues I mentioned earlier.
How about the years you worked on your doctorate at the University of Chicago? That period in your life was a real catalyst
for your thinking, right?
I entered the doctoral program at the School of Social Administration, University of Chicago, with a typical empirical orientation.
Like many of my colleagues, I expected to work on a credible research design and write up an acceptable dissertation. But
the more I thought about what I wanted to research the more I understood the relevance of ethical and philosophical issues.
Ultimately I completed a very quantitative, empirically-based dissertation, but during that time I began my earnest exploration
of qualitative, philosophically-oriented issues. At the time - in the mid 1970s - ambitious exploration of philosophical
and ethical issues in social work was rather unusual. Before my student stipend ran out (yes, in those days there was actually
a fairly generous amount of money available to support doctoral students), I enrolled in a number of graduate courses in the
philosophy department at the University of Chicago in an effort to absorb as much as I could and push the boundaries of my
own thinking about philosophical issues in social work.
Not a lot of company in that field.
Right - I felt a bit like the Lone Ranger. Several faculty members at the School of Social Administration politely supported
my efforts, but I'm not sure my ideas were widely understood. I think it's fair to say I wasn't surrounded by wild enthusiasm
- supportive encouragement would be a better description, I think. Interestingly, outside of social work the applied and
professional ethics movement was beginning to flourish, and that's where I had more opportunity to engage in rich, intense
After completing my Ph.D., I had the opportunity to stay at the University of Chicago, teaching among other things a course
on ethics in the School of Social Administration. At about that time (late 1970s) the Hastings Center in New York - one of
the lodestars in the applied ethics field - received a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of America to pull together people
thinking about the teaching of professional ethics and create a series of monographs on ethics education in the professions.
There were about a dozen professions included, including social work. The Hastings Center staff looked around the country
for a social work educator who was thinking about these issues and invited me to be a part of the project. The time I spent
at the Hastings Center was incredible; my mind started to explode with ideas. I was having conversations with scholars in
other professions that were just not readily available in academic social work at the time, and I went back to Chicago inspired
to explore philosophical issues in social work practice. For example, I began formulating ideas about teaching moral philosophy
and ethics in social work practice: ethical dilemmas in social service, ethical theory (for example, the teachings of Kant,
Bentham, Mill, Rawls, and so on), ethical decision-making, that sort of thing, all wrapped around real-life, practice-based
situations in social work. In 1982 I wrote the Hastings Center monograph on teaching ethics in social work (along with Marcia
Abramson). I warned you - I can talk about these issues endlessly.