Social Work Ethics
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Social Work Ethics

Eileen Gambrill, Eileen Gambrill

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eBook - ePub

Social Work Ethics

Eileen Gambrill, Eileen Gambrill

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This collection of essays highlights ethical issues in social work which are often overlooked as well as recurring clashes that influence how they play out, for example among different values and related moral judgements. A wide range of ethical issues are addressed such as the types of technologies incorporated into social work; issues raised by the common position of social workers as 'double agents' required to carry out state mandates while also honoring obligations to clients; and issues concerning the distribution of scarce resources. These topics are integrally related to other often neglected concerns such as harming in the name of helping; the ethics of claims making regarding what is true and what is not, and related concerns regarding empowerment and social justice. This collection, which includes essays from an array of professions and disciplines, is designed to bring these neglected topics to the attention of readers and to offer suggestions for addressing them in a manner that is faithful to obligations described in social work codes of ethics.

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Part I
Ethical Obligations and RelatedValues
The Reality Principle: Realism as an Ethical Obligation
Chris Beckett
Chris Beckett is a Senior Lecturer in Social Work, Anglia Ruskin University, UK, and Review Editor of Ethics and Social Welfare. Correspondence to: Chris Beckett, Anglia Ruskin University, Webb Building, East Road, Cambridge CB1 IPT, UK; E-mail: [email protected]
Although a ‘realist’ stance is sometimes contrasted with a ‘principled’ one, this article argues that realism is, of itself, an important ethical principle. Acknowledging the problems that exist in defining ‘reality’, and the fact that the nature of reality is contested, the article nevertheless insists on an ‘out there’ reality. It asserts that the existence of this external reality is, in practice, generally accepted, and indeed must be accepted if we are to make the important distinction between truth and falsehood. The article proposes that discourse which is not grounded in the concrete reality of the specific situations in which social work is practised is potentially harmful because it results in a decoupling of language from what it is supposed to represent and creates a potential for language to be used to deceive. The article then discusses ‘Realism about Outcomes’ and ‘Realism about Context’ as two out of a number of different areas in which realism is important in practice and policy making. It concludes that genuinely ethical social work practice and policy making require that we attempt to engage with the world as it actually is.
Keywords Realism; Reality Principle; Social Work Ethics; Ethical Principles; Pragmatism
1. The attitude or practice of accepting a situation as it is and being prepared to deal with it accordingly 

2. The quality or fact of representing a person, thing, or situation accurately or in a way that is true to life 
 (From definition of ‘realism’, New Oxford Dictionary of English (NODE) 2001)
That truth is a good 
 is not only a condition of moral discourse, it is a condition of any discourse at all. (Bhaskar, 1989, p. 63)
In life a ‘realist’ (or ‘pragmatic’) approach is sometimes contrasted with a ‘principled’ one, as if they were in some way opposites. However, in this article I will suggest that, on the contrary, realism (being prepared to deal with the world as it is) is an important ethical principle in itself, and one which social work practice and discourse quite often fail to meet. (In doing so I will develop an argument previously offered in Beckett & Maynard 2005, pp. 97–100, and Beckett 2006, pp. 27, 171ff.) I will suggest two ways in particular in which realism as an ethical principle should be applied by social workers and policy makers, but is sometimes not. I will call these (1) Realism about Outcomes and (2) Realism about Context. In both cases what I want to highlight is the fact that talk or actions are likely to be useless or even harmful, whatever the motive behind them, if they do not take into account the known or knowable facts about the specific circumstances to which the talk or action is applied.
Reality and Social Work
‘Realism’, both in general parlance and in its philosophical sense, refers to a stance which assumes the existence of an external reality and attempts to engage with that reality. The idea of an objective external reality—the novelist Philip Dick once called it ‘that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t cease to exist’ (Dick 1991, p. 77)—is not, however, a very fashionable one. Many academic disciplines have for some time been preoccupied with arguing that what we call ‘real’ is dependent on viewpoint and social context (Michel Foucault spoke of a ‘regime of truth’ which each society ‘makes function as real’; 1980, p. 131) and is a by-product of language and of power. What seems ‘real’ may be in fact a temporary social construction which does not even represent a consensus view in any sort of democratic sense, but rather reflects what is convenient for the powerful to portray as unchangeable.
It is not my intention in this article to deny these important insights. I do not want to suggest that ‘reality’ is unproblematic or to claim that any one of us is somehow able to be in direct contact with it. My own position is akin to the ‘minimal’ or ‘subtle’ realism (as opposed to ‘naïve’ realism) described by Parton and O’Byrne (2000, p. 173, drawing on Hammersley 1992), and to Roy Bhaskar’s ‘critical realism’ (1989). Nigel Parton and Patrick O’Byrne offer the following formulation of a subtle realist position which I would endorse: ‘The way reality is constructed and reconstructed is an active process and reality is itself actively involved’ (2000, p. 174; my emphasis). We are word-weaving creatures, we live within nations, communities and systems of social relations that are ultimately ‘imagined’ (Anderson 1991) in the sense that they only exist because we choose to believe in them. But there is also an ‘out there’ reality which we cannot afford to ignore. Thus, as David Hume observed 200 years ago, regardless of our philosophical position, we all in practice accept the fact that when we leave a room we must go out through the door:
Whether your scepticism be as absolute and sincere as you pretend, we shall learn by and by, when the company breaks up: we shall then see, whether you go out at the door or the window; and whether you really doubt if your body has gravity, or can be injured by its fall; according to popular opinion, derived from our fallacious senses, and more fallacious experience. (Hume 1970 [1779], p. 132)
Just as we exit rooms via doors rather than windows, so in countless other ways we all acknowledge by our actions the existence of the constraints imposed on us by the world ‘out there’, regardless of our theoretical (or ‘pretended’) level of scepticism about the existence of objective reality. In particular we all accept in everyday life that there is an important distinction to be made between truth and falsehood, thereby implicitly acknowledging the existence of an external reality against which the truth claims of statements can be judged. It is difficult to see how the distinction between truth and falsehood could be accommodated if it were actually the case that there was no reality at all other than that which ‘emerges from the linguistic acts of persons’ (Parton & O’Byrne 2000, p. 22). But it is a distinction we need to make, and part of the case for realism as an ethical principle is that to deny reality is to deny the truth.
If we make no distinction at all between discourse and external reality, we are in danger of losing sight not only of the distinction between truth and falsehood but of the difference between aspiration and outcome. It is certainly important to have aspirations and to be alive to the possibility of changing things for the better, but aspirational talk per se is not a valid moral substitute for engagement with practical reality. In social work we are not always good at recognizing this. Our profession, and possibly particularly the academic branch of it, has a weakness for what Mark Doel and Peter Marsh call ‘the Grand Statement 
 unaccompanied by much in the way of practical advice’ (1992, p. 7). But once we decouple our talk about what we do from consideration of what we might actually be able to do in specific, concrete situations, then the way is open for language to become a means not of communication but of concealment: a mask with which we deceive others and/or a blindfold with which we deceive ourselves. Leslie Margolin goes so far as to suggest that concealment is in fact the primary purpose served in social work by our elemented aspirations and our emancipatory rhetoric:
the more intense the belief [on the part of social workers] in social work’s essential goodness, the more immune it is to criticism, and the less clients are able to resist its ministrations. That is why social workers are continuously engaged in providing proof for themselves and their clients of the honorableness, sacredness, and utter veracity of their actions. (Margolin 1997, pp. 6–7)
Both the rhetoric of ‘helping’ and the more radical-sounding rhetoric of ‘empowerment’ are, according to Margolin, simply smokescreens for social control and the containment of deviancy (rather in the way that the Ministry of Peace, in Orwell’s 1984, was responsible in fact for waging perpetual war). Margolin’s is an unnecessarily negative and one-dimensional view—it is not that difficult to find instances where social workers really have helped and empowered the recipients of their services—but I suggest we should take from him the important point that aspirations and noble-sounding rhetoric, unless continuously grounded and re-grounded in reality, can end up concealing something that is more or less opposite to what the aspirational words might seem to represent. Merely to sprinkle our discourse with words and phrases such as ‘working in partnership’, ‘user-led’, ‘anti-oppressive’ and ‘empowerment’ is in itself meaningless, and may actually make things worse rather than better if we are unable to spell out in concrete terms how such concepts might actually be applied to the specific practice context we are writing or speaking about.
So, for instance, if social work students write in essays that they ‘work in partnership with’ service users, I suggest that their teachers should challenge them to explain what is added to the meaning of the phrase ‘work with’ by the insertion of the phrase ‘in partnership’. Otherwise two things will tend to happen. Firstly, the word ‘partnership’, unchallenged, simply becomes decoration, a purely formal addition to the word ‘work’, rather in the way that the meaningless phrase ‘yours sincerely’ is a purely formal addition to a polite letter. Secondly, the word ‘partnership’ becomes a deception, a fig leaf used to conceal something which is actually the opposite of partnership. I have heard social workers say they took family cases to court because the parents were ‘unable to work in partnership’. I suggest that, while it is sometimes perfectly appropriate to take cases to court when children are at risk, it is an abuse of the word ‘partnership’ to apply it to a working relationship in which, if one party does not go along with the wishes of the other, they will be compelled by force to do so. To use the word ‘partnership’ in this context obscures the reality and degrades the word itself.
Similarly if their teachers make sweeping statements in lectures about the importance of, for instance, always respecting ‘service user choice’, I suggest that students should challenge them to spell out what this actually means when working, say, in a context of limited resources where demand far exceeds supply, or in a context (such as child protection or youth justice) where most service users are involuntary ones. By establishing the limits of a principle—the caveats, the competing principles, the practical constraints—we do not weaken it (as we might perhaps fear) but rather make it real and robust. (An analogy might be made with the string of a kite, which seems to hold the kite back, but in fact provides it with the necessary rigidity to hold it aloft.)
Realism in Practice
I now want to develop my argument by referring with examples to just two specific ways in which lack of realism, whether on the part of practitioners, policy makers or commentators, may in fact result in harm. Firstly, under the heading of ‘Realism about Outcomes’ I will consider the harm that might be done to a child by a practitioner who is overly optimistic about the likely consequences of a course of action and will consider what ethical, realistic practice would entail in this practice context. (Although the example is from practice, it would be perfectly possible to think of examples where lack of realism about outcomes was a problem at the policy-making level.) Secondly, under the heading of ‘Realism about Context’, I will consider the harm that can be done by policy recommendations that take no account of the specific resource context in which the recommendation would be carried out. (This example is not from practice, but lack of realism about context can and does occur at the practice level too.) These are only two ways in which lack of realism can be a problem. I could have referred also to ‘Realism about Competence’, which is actually the one form of realism that is explicitly acknowledged in both British (BASW 2002) and American social work codes of conduct:
1.04 (a) Social workers should provide services and represent themselves as competent only within the boundaries of their education, training, license, certification, consultation received, supervised experience, or other relevant professional experience.
(b) Social workers should provide services in substantive areas or use intervention techniques or approaches that are new to them only after engaging in appropriate study, training, consultation, and supervision from people who are competent in those interventions or techniques 
 (NASW 1999)
I could also have discussed ‘Realism about Mandate’, which would involve recognizing that social workers are usually employed and legally mandated to perform certain specific functions, or ‘Realism about Complexity’, which would involve recognizing that real-world situations are messy and normally involve trying to balance different ethical principles which pull in different directions, rather than remorselessly applying one ethical principle without consideration for any other. I hope, however, that my two examples will suffice to illustrate what realism as an ethical principle might mean in a practice and policy context, and how current practice and policy might be described as falling short of it.
Realism about Outcomes
An 11-year-old child, neglected and abused in his family of origin, has been in public care for a year and has experienced several moves between foster-homes. His social worker has identified a new placement with a couple who are interested in offering long-term care. The social worker tells this child that this new home will be his ‘forever family’. The social worker doubtless fervently hopes that this will indeed turn out to be true, and that the child will not have to endure further rejection, but my suggestion is that it is dishonest to describe a foster-home under such circumstances as a ‘forever family’, just as it would be dishonest of a surgeon to describe a procedure as a certain cure if in fact it carried a 50 per cent chance of failure. Research evidence suggests that the risk of breakdown is something in the region of 40 per cent for a child of this age (see PIU 2000, for instance) and a responsible social worker should take account of the likelihood of placement breakdown when choosing how to represent that placement to a child. She needs to think about what harm will be done to the child’s capacity to trust adults and believe in what he is told if a placement is confidently presented as being for ever, but then breaks down.
This example illustrates the difficulties involved in talking about external reality as if it was something fixed and static because there is an important complicating factor in this situation: the fact that what the social worker says may well in itself make a difference to what actually transpires. (To use Roy Bhaskar’s language (1989), the relationship between social worker and child is a subject-subject relationship, not a subject-object relationship such as exists between physical sci...

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