The Ethical Foundations of Social Work

The Ethical Foundations of Social Work

The Ethical Foundations of Social Work

The Ethical Foundations of Social Work


The Ethical Foundations of Social Workprovides an engaging, theoretically rigorous and practice-based grounding in social work ethics. The authors examine when, how and why principles and debates historically emerged, and then explicitly map them onto everyday ethical challenges and situations in social work practice. As such, the book promotes an ethically 'conscious' approach whereby principles can be applied flexibly and confidently as tools for critically responding to problems.

Key features:
• 'Real life' case studies illustrate contemporary ethical dilemmas and help explore the process of critically analysing a situation.
• Demonstrates the relationship between ethical theory and practice.
• Shows how contemporary Codes of Practice have emerged from debates.
• Looks at how individuals and groups relate to each other as well as to social institutions.
• Boxed material focuses on key issues and summary points, and further reading supports and extends the reader.

The Ethical Foundations of Social Workis essential reading for social work students and practitioners looking for a thorough grounding in ethical issues and practice. It will also be of interest more widely in social care and the social sciences.


In 2006, the two of us began developing a year one module for social work students at Coventry University in the area of ethics and values. What we wanted to do was something that was both accessible and practice based, but which also sought to expose students to theoretical complexity. We felt this was necessary as much of the teaching we had encountered in this area tended to give students overly condensed versions of ethical theories with an over-reliance on the teaching of the existing codes of practice. While the latter certainly need to be taught, we felt that this approach needed to be turned on its head – in other words, that the starting point should be to teach ethical theories in their originary form. We felt that by explaining the way these emerged historically, what it was they were trying to address at the time they were originally articulated and how these debates developed over time, students and practitioners would be better equipped to use these ideas in practical situations. We also felt that this allowed students and practitioners to understand where our contemporary codes of practice came from. While there is no doubt that contemporary codes of practice are important and valuable within social work practice, they are in no sense a substitute for social work professionals who can think critically and independently. So rather than seeing codes of practice as the limit upon the horizon of debate in social work ethics, we wanted students and practitioners to see them as something which themselves were a product of a particular historical moment and which also needed to be critically examined and discussed. We wanted social workers to see ethical theories as ways of thinking through and around a problem, rather than as prescriptive guidelines. We also incorporated into our approach insights from sociology and social theory, again with a view to seeing these not as providing technical expertise or empirical justification, but as tools which sought to give students a better grasp of the complexities of moral concepts. It was on this basis that we developed a module based on this idea – that it is necessary to critically understand the ethical foundations of social work as a means of being equipped to apply those theories and concepts to everyday situations which were encountered in social work practice.

Of central importance within all this is the relationship between theory and practice; in particular, the capacity to understand the way situations in social work practice, as well as in life in general, represent practical embodiments of the concerns addressed by ethical theories. As a means of facilitating this within our module we used “Socratic dialogue” groups – a form of pedagogical activity which has been used to promote the development of practical reasoning.

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