3 Social work values and ethics
Values in social work practice relate to beliefs about what is considered worthy and valuable. Ethics are concerned with conduct, the ‘good and bad qualities of character and responsibilities attached to relationships’ (BASW, 2014, p. 17). Pasini (2016) suggests that social work is intrinsically ethical because social workers have the responsibility ‘to act intentionally in difficult situations to pursue a “good” aim’ (p. 377). This is not easy though, and ethical practice will always incorporate balancing personal values with employer and professional requirements and with the values of others, including the values of other professionals (Shardlow, 2013). It is common in the literature about social work values and ethics (Johns, 2016; Akhtar, 2013; Banks, 2012) to review essential elements of moral philosophy at an early point when learning about ethical practice, considering issues such as reason, duty, consequences and virtue. These elements are intimately woven into the psychology and personalities of every individual worker and service user, and they continually influence the perceptions, choices and responses of all concerned.
Professional codes of ethics and statements of required behaviours (BASW, 2014, for example) are mechanisms for translating and codifying professional philosophies into practical guidance for deployment and use. Calder (2015) argues that the hallmarks of ethical competence incorporate a knowledge of ethical codes, principles and rules, combined with a capacity to engage in dynamic reflection of the implications of each situation, with confidence, resilience, and with a sensitivity to context. Ethical competence, suggests Calder, includes understanding the rubrics of ethical principles, combined with having ‘the orientation-based skills involved in satisfactory negotiation of real-life ethical challenges’ (p. 310). Social work practice rarely includes unequivocal formulaic templates for ethical action. On the contrary, it is likely that ‘[ethical] problem solving is an interactional or dialogical process wherein discoveries are made’ (Gray and Gibbons, 2007, p. 223). This approach is summarised by Lynch and Forde (2016) as preparing for moral distress in practice, by learning to recognise risks, by acknowledging moral dissonance, and by appreciating that all social work takes place in a policy context.
Banks (2012) draws a distinction between principles-based, and character and relationship-based approaches to the practice of social work ethics. In this context, principles are represented by over-arching commitments to act in ways congruent with human welfare, dignity and social justice; and character and relationship approaches highlight the qualities of the people involved, rather than their actions. Both aspects are necessary for effective ethical practice in social work.
Banks’ (2016) concept of ‘ethics work’ provides a helpful framework for conceptualising the task of ethical development for social workers, indicating seven features that may be attended to by practitioners developing as moral agents. Banks argues that ethics work is ‘an important antidote to the rules-based managerialism of much contemporary practice’ (p. 35).
- Framing the ethical elements of situations
- Taking an ethical role
- Building trust and responding to emotions
- Working on one’s ethical identity
- Making and being able to justify moral decisions
- Developing relationship skills
- Making aspects of this work visible and accountable to others.
It can be contested whether social work values are uniformly shared and experienced. Clark, cited in Wilson and Ruch (2011), questions the notion that values can be fixed and captured in a set of rules to be applied in a universally interpreted and consistent way. Indeed, a diverse range of substantive beliefs, theories, religious outlooks, moral values, political principles and general world views can be found among social workers overall. Furthermore, social work values and political commitments have evolved over time to reflect wider changes in society. An example of this is the move away, in both social policy and in direct practice from universalist approaches, in favour of more personalised approaches towards service user need. However, while social work undoubtedly evolves and develops over time, on occasions reflecting and at other times challenging the surrounding social context, the profession embodies core ethical principles that social workers must own and promote, even though in practice the interpretation of some of those principles can be hard to unequivocally define. For example, what exactly is ‘risk’, ‘need’ or ‘vulnerability’?