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According to Gray and webb (2010:6) "eithical perspectives in social work are invariably overlapping and in tension with each other". Critically analyse this statment in relation to a current area of social work practice. Essay Example

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Ethical Perspectives in Social Work and How They Overlap and Are In Tension with Each Other When Dealing With Domestic Violence

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According to Gray and Webb (2010:6) «Ethical perspectives in social work are invariably overlapping and in tension with each other». This essay seeks to explore this statement in line with the various ethical theories viz

, Deontology, Utilitarian, Virtue, Consequential and Natural Law Theory and how they overlap in social work when dealing with issues of domestic violence, resulting in tension. It will begin by defining said theories, then go on to relate them to social work and their everyday application; specifically the tensions that emerge in situations where there is domestic violence. Social workers often experience ethical conflicts when they encounter competing ideals and allegiances. For instance, the principles of self-determination could clash with the duty of care; and the well-being of an individual may be out of congruence with that of the society. Loewenberg and Dolgoff (1996, p. 12) highlights the dilemma that learning about ethics can cause when deciding on a course of action. This is because the path is not clear cut and gray areas abound; it is easy to arrive at an impasse.

Ethical Perspectives in Social Work and How They Overlap and Are In Tension with Each Other When Dealing With Domestic Violence

In order to analyse how ethical theories function in social work, it is necessary to define exactly what they may be; Consequentialist theories generally refer to a view of morality that links actions to consequences. They are most commonly expressed as the various forms of Utilitarianism. Less widely, they can also be described evocatively as the manner in which morality is originated. Deontological or non-consequentialist theories can be said to be the polar opposite of the first theory. It holds that an action is right as long as it adheres to the parameters set by some overall standard of moral duty. The basis of action according to Deontologists is motive and the genesis of this belief is historically cited as religion. The ultimate judge of what is right or wrong is God; alternatively, natural law or human rationale may also be alluded to. Natural law theory alludes to the principles that all persons are held to which hold priority over any man-made conventions. It can be based on an idea of innate order as found for example in Greek philosophy, or else have a divine source as is found in Christian belief. Virtue is an affirmative moral /personality attribute which could include faithfulness, gratitude, discreetness, benevolence, fairness etc. they are related to duties or principles. Utilitarianism is all about the end justifying the means. The action that guarantees the best outcome for the majority is considered to be right Cushman (2006).

There is a certain standard of ethical conduct that social workers are held up to. The plethora of situations that they handle means that a certain amount of discretion and judgement is necessary in relation to the ethics attendant upon the situation. There is however, a baseline value to which social workers are held, and the responsibilities outlined lie in the following categories.

  1. Common Moral Responsibilities; these are steered by certain values including deference for personal dignity, obligation to collective justice, competent provision of service, and professional uprightness.

  2. Responsibility to clients; this includes prioritising clients’ welfare, minimising conflict of interest, allowing for client self-determination, ensuring the client gives informed consent, recognising the limits of clients’ self-determination, awareness of prevailing cultural norms, confidentiality of information, and precise and unbiased record-keeping.

  3. Accountability to colleagues.

  4. Responsibilities in the administrative centre; this includes providing services and management of social workers.

  5. Responsibilities in certain environments; for instance educational, instruction, direction and assessment. As well as research and private practice.

  6. Last but not least, responsibility to the profession.

This code of ethics is based upon five values that are the foundation of social work. They include the fact that all human beings have the right to dignity and self-worth; social justice which includes provision of basic necessities, equable dissemination of resources, as well as access to the same, human rights and equitable access to law and justice as well as to social development. There should be a desire to be of service to others and assist them to access their needs; innate integrity of the social worker; and ability to competently carry out their duties Mattison (2000).

Critical Analysis of Different Ethical Perspectives in Social Work

There is a tension in social work between the individual and society as relates to the fostering of individual welfare vs. social justice. Since the balance between these two concepts is not always stable, and the independence of social work is restricted, then social workers must build up an ability to take up moral positions and defend them as they go about their daily duties. Research which seeks to understand the role that ethics plays in social work augments the ability to find common ground. These studies also outline the related aspects impinging on the moral judgement of social workers hence enables the validation of their work Giannou (2009).

The decisions that social workers come to, often have legal implications, in addition to which, they could be required to make ethical choices. This involves issues of right vs. wrong, duty vs. obligation. They involve coming to a conclusion regarding the core values espoused by the profession, practical application of current principles of ethics, and establishing common ground when duties and obligations clash. Congress (1998), Linzer (1999), Loewenberg et.al (2000), Reamer, (1999). Although there is general agreement on the content of social workers’ core values, there may be divergence in the views of how these should be applied especially where there are legal implications. One view is that pursuit of social justice and extermination of injustice must be done within the parameters of existing legislation, while seeking amendment or addition to those laws where necessary. The opposing view holds that civil disobedience and occasional circumvention of current laws may be justified depending on the circumstances. These ethical dilemmas occur in every scenario including direct practice i.e. service delivery to clients, organisation of community, administration, policy and research.

The significance of ethical decision-making has been acknowledged especially since the 1980s. Structures for assisting the practitioner make these decisions are widely available in literature, including Congress (1998), Linzer (1999), Loewenberg et.al. (2000) and Reamer (1993 & 1999). These structures are typically guidelines to the application of values, standards and theories in ethics. The major normative theories are founded upon archetypal standpoints in moral philosophy Rachels (1993) and are generally divided into deontological and teleological (or consequentialist) theories.

The former is derived from the Greek word, deontos which means “of the obligatory”and has as its philosophy the view that actions are intrinsically correct or immoral, good or bad – not taking into account whatever consequences they may bring about. In the deontological point of view, personified by Immanuel Kant, an 18th century German philosopher, social workers must always obey the law without exception or question. The ends in no way justify the means in this philosophy, especially if it involves breaking the law, a rule or violation of rights Rachels (1993). Thus if a social worker is aware of a situation where domestic violence has occurred or is likely to occur, judging from the utterances or mannerisms of the client, they will be obliged to report this. It does not signify whether the client has resolved to murder their spouse due to years of accumulated abuse resulting in miscarriage and poor health, with no other way to escape from the spouse. Whether or not they have some sympathy with the client or feel that their action may be justified by prior actions of the second party involved, they are obliged to report it.

The latter, also a Greek derivative of tele/telosi.e. “brought to its end or purpose” has a different view of ethical decisions. Personified by Jeremy Bentham (18thc.) and John Stuart Mill (19thc.), both English, the judgement of whether an action is right or not is seen by its consequences. Thus a social worker of teleological bent could argue that he or she is justified in breaking the law if the positive consequences of this outweigh the negative. In the scenario outlined above, the social worker may believe that an end to the suffering of the family may justify the killing of the spouse and so may look the other way.

These classical viewpoints on law and ethics have undergone evolution through time and emerged as extremely relevant concepts of social work today Reamer (1993). They are useful as a framework with which to measure these ethical conflicts that occur in a variety of social work scenarios, including domestic violence.

Application of Different Ethical Perspectives to Social Work Practice

The ethics of a profession are usually concerned with situational dilemmas likely to be encountered in the course of carrying out one’s duties. The departure for social workers comes when they have to contend with the existential or moral factors incumbent upon their clients’ lives. Intervening on a moral plane can take place on a variety of levels toward differing ends depending on the capacity and ambitions of the client
van den Bersselaar (2005).

Domestic abuse is rife in homes of all types. The adults involved may deceive themselves that their actions are carried out under closed doors and so will not impact on any children living in those conditions; others may relish the effect of their abusive behaviour on all parties involved. The adult victim(s) tend to pretend that all is well and the children are unaware of what is going on. This is not the case, even if they have not personally witnessed the incidents, they are aware that they are going on. This affects not only their physical, but also psychological, emotional and attitudinal development. Below we shall examine what different ethical perspectives would recommend in this situation. Full case scenario is in Appendix I.


This perspective focuses on the nature of the act itself and not its consequences. It stresses adherence to moral duties and respect for persons. Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), a German philosopher and progenitor of this approach, incepted a ‘categorical imperative’. This imperative outlined the principle that firstly one’s actions should be such that if everyone else acted the same way, that would be acceptable. Secondly, it is wrong to treat others as only a means to an end. He also differentiated perfect and imperfect duties. The former are imperative and must be done always e.g. do not hurt others, avoid abuse of all kind, etc. while the latter refer to those things that can be done as necessary e.g. teach good manners, self-improvement, etc. the advantages of this philosophy include the consistency of rules it imposes, and its treatment of humanity as the end, rather than the means to an end as well as recognition of individual rights. The rights of the child in this situation would count as just as important as the adults. Disadvantages are that it does not offer a solution when presented with obligations which are at variance. For example, if the abuser is the only support the family has; should they break up the family and condemn the victims to perpetual poverty or the possibility of further abuse in the foster system, as well as the psychological damage of losing both parents? The rigidity of perfect duties that do not permit exceptions may in itself create an ethical dilemma. Practical application in real life settings may be unrealistic (Bishop, 2008).

The emphasis here is on an individual’s personality traits, attitude and character. Deeds that are termed as morally virtuous are those that adhere to a set of parameters developed by the pertinent social grouping. The virtuosity of the act determines whether it is right or wrong and individuals are urged to develop virtuous characteristics in order to conform to what is right. Virtue ethics stresses that our characters are reflected by our actions and values. The advantages of virtue as a source of ethics are that it widens the individual’s horizons, to include not only the act, but the character behind it. In this case, clearly there is a disturbed character both the perpetrator of abuse, and the consenter to it. It also promotes the advancement of human excellence, which precedes good living. Encouragement toward excellence may be overtaken by events in this case. The children involved may be saved, or not, depending on the systems in place to take over their care. Virtue though, is also attuned to the principles of ethics. The disadvantages are that there is a lack of universal agreement as to what comprises essential virtue. In some cultures, it is a sign of love to beat your family. There is a school of thought who believes that virtue cannot be taught; that it is very personal to the person in question. It also does not well explain why a person of ‘good’ character can commit wrongdoing and vice versa (Bishop, 2008).

Consequentialist / Utilitarian

The act that takes moral precedent is one that maximises the result that brings the most good to the majority. In its most simplified and classic form, Utilitarianism recognizes ‘pleasure’ as the end that would give the greatest number greater good and ‘pain’ as the converse evil that must be avoided at all costs. More modern definitions of the greater good have expanded to include friendship, knowledge, etc. in this case; minimisation of pain would entail removing the children from that situation on the one hand. On the other, this could cause pain in the separation from their parents. The fact that there is abuse does not negate the possibility of love in the relationships, however skewed. The advantages of utilitarianism include the fact that it takes into account the interests of all persons equitably. It also highlights the importance of consequences and offers a guideline to reason; one which considers the consequences of each action. Consequentialism can also be used to lay down public policy. Disadvantages of consequentialist theories are that acts of evil nature which may produce good ends are permissible, theoretically; it disregards the personal relationships that form the bedrock of human lives with the attendant significance of duty. The rights of the minority might be overlooked. It burdens the individual with too much responsibility; the necessity of consideration of every person and consequence. It is a subjective judgement as to what constitutes a gain or hurt (Bishop, 2008).


The Code of Ethics as found in NASW (1999) is designed with an inbuilt flexibility to allow for situational adjustments. This is because no code of ethics can be functional if it seeks to exclude the judgement of the professional. Adams (2009), states that there is an alarming trend of substituting evidence for ideology to the detriment of the social worker in training. When dealing with social sciences, the separation of knowledge and values is a false dichotomy. To attempt to separate them denies that knowledge is gained on the basis of the values held by the researcher. This situation adds to the challenges of dealing with practical situations which are already complicated. The choices made on site are frequently founded on the personal values that every social worker brings to the table regardless of what research may be found of contradictory nature. Social workers should therefore attempt to base decisions upon the Code of Ethics rather than their own beliefs and values (Spano and Koenig, 2010).


Adams, P. (2009). Ethics with character: Virtues and the ethical social worker. Journal of Sociology and Social Welfare, 36(3), p. 83- 105

Bishop, L. (2008). Ethics Background. Kennedy Institute of Ethics, Georgetown University

Congress, E. P. (1998). Social work values and ethics. Chicago: Nelson-Hall.

Cushman, R. (2006). Ethics Terms and Terminology; A Brief Glossary and Guide to the Ethical «ISMs».

Giannou, D. (2009). The Meaning of Ethics and Ethical Dilemmas in Social Work Practice: A Qualitative Study of Greek Social Workers. School of Health Sciences and Social Care,Brunel University

Linzer, N. (1999). Resolving ethical dilemmas in social work practice. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Loewenberg, F., Dolgoff, R., and Harrington, D. (2000). Ethical decisions for social work practice(6th Ed.). Itasca, IL: F. E. Peacock.

Loewenberg, F. and Dolgoff, R. (1996). Ethical Choices in the Helping Professions in Loewenberg, F. and Dolgoff, R. Ethical Decisions for Social Work Practice, 5th ed., Peacock Publishers, Illinois.

Mattison, M. (2000). Ethical Decision Making: The Person in the Process. Social Work, 45 (3): 201-212

National Association of Social Workers. (1999). NASW code of ethics. Washington, DC

Rachels, J. (1993). The elements of moral philosophy(2nd Ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.

Reamer, F. G. (1993). The philosophical foundations of social work. New York: Columbia University Press.

Reamer, F. G. (1998). Ethical standards in social work: A review of the NASW code of ethics.Washington, DC: NASW Press.

Reamer, F. G. (1999). Social work values and ethics(2nd Ed.). New York: Columbia University Press.

Spano, R. & Koenig, T.L. (2010). A Reply to Adams: The Delicate Balance between Private Viewpoints and Professional Duties. Journal of Social Work Values and Ethics, Volume 7, Number 1

Van den Bersselaar, D.V. (2005). Virtue-ethics as a device for narratives in Social Work: The possibility of empowerment by moralising. In: Journal Européen
Sociale, 7, 22-33.

Appendix I

A social worker in a mother and child health program associated with a women’s hospital works in a department that administers to young mothers and their children. One client was in a situation where she had a three year old daughter and was living with the father. On one home visit, the social worker noted that the child looked malnourished and on inquiry, found out that the mother was using drugs again – she had been treated for drug abuse previously – and so was not consistent with the child’s feeding. The mother told the social worker that she had been having a ‘rough time’ with her significant other due to some abusive behaviour, both physical and emotional, but she was better now. The mother begged the social worker not to report them to the state child welfare department as is a legal requirement as she said that they were going to change. The social worker noted the mother’s sincerity and concern for her child as well as her commitment to get better. She felt that reporting her to child welfare could destabilise the relationship she had built with the mother. Therefore, the social worker had to make a decision; either to preserve her standing with the client or to report her as the law required. This was her ethical dilemma.