Academic journal article Social Work

The Evolution of Social Work Ethics

Academic journal article Social Work

The Evolution of Social Work Ethics

Article excerpt

Ethical issues have always been a central feature in social work. Throughout the profession's history social workers have been concerned with matters of right and wrong and matters of duty and obligation. The National Association of Social Workers' (NASW) recent ratification of a new code of ethics (NASW, 1996) signals social workers' remarkable progress in the identification and understanding of ethical issues in the profession. The 1996 code - the first major revision in nearly two decades and only the third code of ethics ratified in NASW's history - reflects the impressive growth in social workers' grasp of complex ethical issues in practice.

The celebration of social work's 100th anniversary provides a particularly auspicious moment to reflect on the evolution of social work ethics. Social workers' core values and ethical beliefs are the profession's linchpin. Social workers' concern with ethics has matured considerably during the past century, moving from frequently moralistic preoccupation with clients' values to concern about complex ethical dilemmas faced by practitioners and strategies for dealing with these dilemmas. Social work's concern with ethics spans four major, sometimes overlapping, periods: (1) the morality period, (2) the values period, (3) the ethical theory and decision-making period, and (4) the ethical standards and risk management period.

The Morality Period

In the late 20th century, when social work was formally inaugurated as a profession, there was much more concern about the morality of the client than about the morality or ethics of the profession or its practitioners (Leiby, 1978; Lubove, 1965; Reamer, 1995a). Social workers' earliest practitioners focused on organized relief and responding to the "curse of pauperism" (Paine, 1880). Often this preoccupation took the form of paternalistic efforts to bolster poor people's morality and the rectitude of those who had succumbed to "shiftless" or "wayward" habits.

Social workers' focus on the morality of poor people waned significantly during the settlement house movement in the early 20th century, when many social workers turned their attention to structural and environmental causes of individual and social problems, particularly social workers' ethical obligation to promote social justice and social reform. As has been well documented in the profession's literature, many social workers were concerned with "cause" rather than, or in addition to, "case." This was evident in social workers' social reform efforts designed to address the toxic environmental determinants of problems related to poverty, inadequate housing and health care, mental illness, alcoholism, and violence (Brieland, 1995; Lee, 1930).

Emphasis on clients' morality continued to weaken during the next several decades as social workers created and refined various intervention theories and strategies, training programs, and educational models. During this phase, many social workers were more concerned about cultivating perspectives and methods that would be indigenous to social work, partly in an effort to distinguish social work's approach to helping from those of allied professions, such as psychology and psychiatry.

Exploration of Values

Although a critical mass of serious scholarship on social work ethics did not appear until the 1950s, there were several efforts earlier in the 20th century to explore social work values and ethics (Frankel, 1959). As early as 1919 there were attempts to draft professional codes of ethics (Elliott, 1931). In 1922 the Family Welfare Association of America appointed an ethics committee in response to questions about ethical problems in social work (Elliott, 1931; Joseph, 1989). In addition, there is evidence that at least some schools of social work were teaching discrete courses on values and ethics in the 1920s (Elliott, 1931; Johnson, 1955). These efforts were consistent with Flexner's (1915) widely respected assertion that a full-fledged profession should have a clearly articulated, values-based ethical foundation. …

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