BPD Update Online, Winter 2004
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Frederic Reamer

Not a problem. Philosophy and ethics don't necessarily resolve practice dilemmas in the way that a well-written agency policy does. What's the use of studying ethics?

Good question. Why study ethics? There are a number of reasons:

First, I think we need to enhance the likelihood that practicing social workers will recognize situations that are saturated with, or otherwise complicated by, ethical issues, situations that have an ethical dimension. Some ethical issues are blatant, although many are subtle. We should especially help social work students and practitioners enhance their ability to recognize subtle ethical situations. Students pretty much understand that we shouldn't have sexual relationships with our clients, lie to clients, or charge for services we didn't provide. But the more subtle issues require a great deal of difficult conceptual thought and analysis, and the exploration of personal and professional values. Handling the "hard cases" is precisely where principled, smart, dedicated social workers might disagree. For example, students may need help recognizing subtle issues involving professional boundaries, conflicts of interest, and the limits of clients' right to self-determination and privacy, issues that aren't always addressed explicitly in agency policy. They need to learn how to think through these ethical dilemmas.

Second - and this is related to the first reason - we need to help students learn concepts, tools, and frameworks that can help them analyze ethical dilemmas. We need to teach about basic ethical theory and we need to help students understand that often there are no easy answers or simple, formulaic responses to these dilemmas. As educators, one of our jobs is to introduce students to conceptual frameworks - for example, related to theories of normative ethics and virtue ethics - that can help us organize and discipline our thinking.

Third, we need to help students wrestle with own values. We need to facilitate students' recognition of their own values and those instances when there is conflict between their values and social work's traditional, time-honored values. For example, we need to work honestly with a social work student who has fundamentalist religious beliefs related to sexual orientation that conflict with traditional social work values. Also, we need to bring up and talk about conflicts between social work's values and broader societal values. For example, how do we talk to clients and social workers about participating in illegal protests against social injustices?

Finally, we need to teach our students in a practical way how to minimize the risk of ethics-related lawsuits and ethics complaints filed against them with state licensing boards. We need to know and teach about what I call "ethics risk management," and help our students identify and anticipate the legal consequences of their actions.

You've suggested that the study of philosophy and ethics didn't exist in most schools of social work when many of us now teaching were in graduate school. I know that was the case in my MSW and Ph.D. work. Where should we as social work educators go to begin our study of philosophy? I'm assuming we can start with some of your books.

Well, I'm a great fan of the "Golden Books approach" to learning the rudiments of just about any complex topic. Before tackling the advanced texts, I'm always inclined to read introductory material written for the novice. So, I'd recommend that social work educators who are embarking on new intellectual territory related to philosophy and ethics look around for an undergraduate text used in an intro philosophy course.

I agree. That's where I picked up Rachels...

That's what I'm talking about: James Rachels, The Elements of Moral Philosophy. Another one I suggest is Perry and Bratman's Introduction to Philosophy: Classical and Contemporary Readings. I'm all in favor of basic, introductory philosophy texts when you want to get a quick overview, learn the vocabulary and jargon, and gain some initial bearings.

What about specific topics in philosophy?

After social work educators master some foundation level concepts of philosophy in general, they can choose some particular branch germane to their area particular of social work education. For example, I think policy instructors should acquaint themselves with some of the core ideas in political philosophy, especially the debates on the role and responsibility of government in the life of the individual and community, and debates about distributive justice, the public interest, and the common good. We need to acquaint our students with arguments about and theories related to capitalism, socialism, and communism as practice contexts, helping them realize that the practice of social work in the U.S. is shaped by our capitalist economic philosophy, and that this orientation is very different from the orientation of social workers practicing in, say, Norway or Sweden. By exploring these issues we can help students understand the connection between practical challenges in social welfare (funding and legislative issues, for example) and core issues in political philosophy.

With regard to moral philosophy we need to help students understand the nature of ethical dilemmas, and give them a rudimentary understanding of ethical theory, for example, meta-ethics, normative ethics, deontological theory, teleological theory, utilitarianism, and virtue ethics. This is the sort of content they would receive in an introduction to moral philosophy course.

Next, we should consider logic. All social work educators - whether they teach direct practice, policy practice, research, or community organizing - can draw on core concepts related to principles of deductive and inductive logic, valid argumentation, logical fallacies, and syllogisms. I think all social work faculty should be teaching critical thinking concepts and skills, most of which take the form of applied logic.

In addition, research and practice instructors may want to study epistemology, or the philosophy of science. Practice instructors can use epistemology to help students better understand the nature of empirically-based practice, and research faculty can draw on these ideas to shed light on the relationship between qualitative and quantitative research methods, the nature of positivism and proof in social work, and so on. And finally ...

Aesthetics, right?

Yeah, right. This is, perhaps, the least obvious area of philosophical inquiry for social workers. But, in my mind aesthetic judgments - for example, assessing whether a work of art or music, or a poem, is beautiful or ugly, appealing or unappealing - are a lot like the judgments social workers make about clients: we say, "this family is functioning well," "this organization has major problems," or "this therapy is effective" almost as if we are making judgments about a work of art, literature, or music. Even the meta-debates going on in aesthetics - whether one can objectively judge art, literature, or music - have their counterpart in social work debate about assessing individual clients, families, groups, organizations, and communities.

Continued on the next page...

Spiral, Horizontal Line Spinning

BPD Update Online, Volume 26, No. 1, Winter 2004

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