Monday, March 2, 2009

A student reaction paper on social work education and ethics

I found George F. Will’s article from the Washington Post, “Code of Coercion” quite interesting. Some good points are brought up in the article such as whether or not a certain field or program of education should even come with a so called set of ideological “rules”. Sure there are codes of ethics and guidelines for conduct in most professions, but these are not absolute, and surely don’t mean the same thing to everyone.

Yes, there are four main questions I think we need to consider. 1) Are there ideological rules in the NASW code of ethics? 2) Should there be ideological rules in the NASW code of ethics? 3) If there should be ideological rules in the NASW code of ethics, does the code of ethics have the right rules, is it missing some, and does it have some that should not be included? 4) Are social work students supposed to subscribe to the NASW code of ethics, or merely be familiar with it?

The answers are: 1) yes, there are ideological rules in the NASW code of ethics. 2) Yes, there ought to be ideological rules, because professions have ideologies (or at least they ought to have ideologies). For example, in medical ethics doctors must subscribe to an ideology that they will do no harm to a patient. That is why ethical physicians will not assist in administering the poisons in lethal injection executions, although they will certify that a condemned prisoner has died. This is an ideology that doctors must preserve and protect the life and health of their patients, because by definition, that is what doctors do. Social workers should also have an ideology that defines what it is that social workers do, or ought to do. 3) The question of whether the NASW code of ethics includes the correct rules is one that is debatable, and is in fact debated within social work. I personally don’t object to any specific ideological rules in the present form of the code of ethics, but I think in certain places emphasis is misplaced, and I would change it in some ways, because I think it could be improved. There could be a substantial discussion of which values or ideologies in the code of ethics are in fact objectionable or wrong. George Will did not engage in such a discussion, so his contribution is not useful on that score. As I read it, the NASW code of ethics is not especially objectionable, and I struggle to understand how a fair-minded person familiar with the role of social work in society could object to the ideology enshrined in the code of ethics. 4) Social work students must be familiar with the code of ethics. They must be familiar with it in part because if they violate certain points of the code of ethics they could be punished or disciplined.

I have intimate familiarity with three schools of social work, and at none of these three were students required to subscribe to the code of ethics or make any sort of statement of belief or values in which they endorsed the NASW code of ethics. In fact, I had a Catholic field supervisor in my own MSW training who emphasized ethics as one of his top priorities, but told me he was not a member of NASW and would not become a member because he did not agree with 100% of the NASW code of ethics, and so he instead belonged to other professional social worker associations. The ideologically controversial portions of the NASW code of ethics are not the points that would be brought up and used against a social worker in a disciplinary setting. That is, no one objects to the ideology around duties to clients and professional responsibilities to clients, and that is the part of the ethical code where violations can land you in trouble. It is in the more broadly-worded exhortations for social workers to believe in and advocate for certain types of things that some people take issue, and these are not the sort of ethical rules where violations do direct harm to clients. At least that is how it appears to me.

A major point in Will’s article is that the National Association of Scholars did their research on ten major public universities and found that social work students are encouraged to be as liberal as possible for the most part. Their examples could be extreme cases, but they do make a good argument anyway. I personally believe that to some extent people seeking a degree in social work must have an open mind and a true desire to help everyone, no matter what they may have done, or what walk of life they are from. Some people may call that liberal, but I just call it what I truly believe is right, and it is what I desire to do.

Their examples are not merely extreme cases. In fact, their examples are false. That is, some of their examples just didn’t happen, and are in essence, lies.

I wonder whether a good argument can be based on falsehoods and false propositions. I often engage in mind-experiments to create hypothetical situations, and then suggest that if we faced a situation such as the one I have imagined, we would then need to make certain decisions. In fact, these hypothetical situations may be far from realistic; they aren’t based on actual facts, so the situations I ask people to consider might be unlikely. But at least I make it clear I’m engaging in hypothetical mind-experiments and explain the degree to which my imagined situations are based on my suppositions or knowledge about actual facts. Anyway, my purposes are mainly to get people to think about things and reach their own conclusions. The National Association of Scholars is not merely trying to make people think about social work education: they are actively attacking the Council on Social Work Education and the National Association of Social Workers, and trying to change education policies related to social work.

Being open to all ideas and arguments, and then thinking critically about the ideas and arguments, weighing them, and reaching conclusions based on reason, evidence, values, and so forth is in fact the only “ethical value” of liberal education (take a look at various official defining statements about liberal education made by professional associations of university administrators or faculty, and you’ll confirm this is true). That is, we are supposed to be open-minded, and that “liberal” aspect of education is about being broadly informed and willing to listen to alternative points of view, and isn’t very closely connected to the idea of “liberal” as in liberal political ideologies. Libertarians, for example, are usually good advocates for a liberal education and open-mindedness, but when it comes to economic and social welfare policies, Libertarians are the opposite of the political liberals. I think you’re correct that the National Association of Scholars was conflating the two meanings of liberal. Social work has traditionally been built upon a base of liberal education, and the ideals of liberal education related to open-mindedness and liberty (client autonomy) are certainly enshrined within the spirit and ideology of the social work profession.

However, I do not think it was right that Emily Brooker, a social work major from Missouri State University, was penalized because she objected to advocating for homosexual foster homes and adoption based on her religious beliefs. What happened to accepting everyone, religious affiliations included? Ms. Brooker may very well have no qualms with homosexuality, and be ready and willing to help those who cross her path. This particular subject just happened to be something she was not comfortable advocating for.

I agree with you. But I don't trust the N.A.S. presentation of the facts in this case. I personally would oppose any decision by the social work department or any school of social work to force students to advocate for policies that the students personally oppose. There are so many important issues where social work is speaking out for justice and improved policies, and I reckon it should be easy to find something else a student could advocate for. Acceptance of sexual orientations that differ from the mainstream is an important aspect of social work, but we draw the line at some forms of sexual desire (social workers don’t advocate for laws allowing incest, or sex with minors). If some members of our profession haven’t come as far as the profession as a whole in accepting homosexuality, I see no reason to make that one issue a point of contention and punishing the individual social work student or social worker.

If a student doesn’t want to advocate for same-sex couples being allowed to adopt children, then let the student advocate for better training for foster parents, larger stipends for foster parents, bigger tax breaks for domestic adoptions, or greater generosity for adoptive parents who accept a child with chronic health problems or disabilities into their families. These are other important issues, and if we lose a social worker who could advocate for these worthy causes merely because she or he doesn’t want to advocate for some aspect of gay rights, we’ve wasted an opportunity. At least, that is how I see it. (Incidentally, I personally do advocate for gay rights, and have spoken out in favor of same-sex couples being allowed to adopt children.)

I think it is possible to be a good but imperfect social worker if one is racist, homophobic, sexist, nationalistic, chauvinistic, sexually libertine, or prejudiced against persons with disabilities. These are all faults and weaknesses, but it is possible to do some forms of social work where such weaknesses will not destroy one’s ability to provide excellent services and behave according to the code of ethics.

As a social work student thus far I have been taught that it is necessary to set our own values and beliefs aside in order to fully and effectively help our clients. In Ms. Brooker’s case, advocating for this subject was forced upon her, and in any respect I don’t believe that is how the future social workers of the world should be brought up. No one should be forced to do anything they are not comfortable with. We wouldn’t expect or want our clients to feel as if our beliefs are being forced on them so it is only fair not to force social work’s “liberal” beliefs on those that are not yet ready or willing.

You make a good point about our professional duties to set our personal values aside. Perhaps this means that it would be a useful and appropriate exercise to ask a social work student to do something that went against their personal beliefs.

3 comments:

Centennial College said...

Nice Post !

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Good work !

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vishal said...
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