Teaching Ethical Decision Making Using Dual Relationship Principles as a Case Example

Article excerpt

THE RATIFICATION AND SUBSEQUENT REVISION of the National Association of Social Workers' (1999) Code of Ethics signaled another stage in the profession's perspective on ethical practice. Since the ratification, continuing education materials and publications have been offered that more clearly establish ethical standards for practice and education. In addition, the National Association of Social Workers has developed training modules on ethics that are offered throughout the country. It published the first casebook that identifies how ethical violations are interpreted under the new code (NASW, 1998), which is a vital tool in ethics education. The Council on Social Work Education, which had been criticized for providing little guidance about how to meet accreditation standards on the infusion of ethics content throughout the curriculum (Goldstein, 1998), published a curriculum resource guide (Black, Congress, & Strom-Gottfried, 2002). While progress has been made in social work education and training on ethics, more effort is needed. According to Reamer (2001a), ethics education is "delivered unevenly.., one might argue that over time the proportion of social work education programs devoting explicit attention to this content area has shrunk" (p. 3).

The profession has an opportunity to critique the underlying assumptions of these expanded ethics principles and to discuss their use in teaching ethical decision making. This article discusses a number of different curriculum-related issues: selection of approaches for infusing ethics into the curriculum, ethical decision-making models (both general and dual relationship specific), expansion of the ethics vocabulary, and information for classroom discussion of the controversial topic of dual relationships. This article is built on the assumption that there is a continuum of viewpoints on many difficult ethical decisions; that is, that there are often reasonable arguments for and against different courses of action. This perspective can be lost in the trend toward more rigid ethical rules that attempt to simplify relationships through legislating the avoidance of dual relationships. Although these regulations may alleviate some anxiety around risk management issues, they do not solve the wide variety of messy dilemmas faced regularly by practitioners (Coale, 1998-1999). Students, like seasoned practitioners, often do not reach consensus on complicated ethical issues. What is important is that they have the opportunity to learn the profession's values, become aware of their own values, think about those that are conflicting, thoroughly critique the NASW code of ethics, debate hypothetical cases, and present case examples from their field experiences. The code's standards on boundary issues and dual relationships will be used to illustrate this classroom process.

Formats for Teaching Ethics

One challenge for social work educators is how best to teach students effective ethical problem-solving skills. Two different approaches have been articulated for teaching social work ethics. One perspective, which could be referred to as the process method, deals with clinical and ethical issues as inseparable (Kugelman, 1997). A second perspective views ethics as technical and complex, therefore requiring specific training on how to recognize and solve ethical dilemmas inherent in social work practice (Reamer, 1997). The latter model will be referred to as the technical method. The difference between these approaches can be seen in how each might be used in teaching the NASW ethics code. In the process method, ethics issues would be discussed in a broad sense based on core values and basic ethics principles. Students would be expected to develop mastery over the broad ethics principles and social work values. This approach would blend ethics issues with discussions of personal and cultural values.

The technical ethics model of teaching would also have the ethics code as part of the required reading or an expected part of prior learning. …