Social work deals with individual and social problems, and situations that are, by definition, difficult and complex, hence the application of ethical theory is of great importance to social work because Social workers have a duty to rationalise their actions to ensure the best outcomes for the service users (Banks 1995 and Clark 2000). Social workers encounter a wide variety of ethical dilemmas in practice (Reamer 1983: 31) as they are working with an array of complex human issues, consisting of many variables with a variety of different possible outcomes. It is, therefore, of great importance that social workers know the different ethical philosophies to aid the decision-making process and guide the social worker in making the best possible decisions for the benefit of the service users. Hence, it is essential that social work students have a notable understanding of the different ethical perspectives because once qualified they will be required to formulate sound moral judgments and make ethical decisions as an essential part of their social work practice once in the field. Therefore, this essay will discuss a personal count of a time where I have had to make an ethical decision whilst working in an older persons safeguarding team, by utilising the three primary ethical perspectives in social work; Kants deontological ethics, Utilitarianism and Aristotle virtue ethics.
The moral dilemma I have identified in the following question: Should I challenge a senior social workers decision on a possible safeguarding issue? To clarify, a young woman had just presented herself to a district nurse, the young woman disclosed she had just left a verbally, physically and emotionally violent relationship and was returning home to her parents with her sister. The nurse advised that this was not the young womans first abusive relationship and she felt a pattern was evolving. The nurse explained, the young woman had already given birth to 2 children, one that had been taken into care a few years ago, and the other child was taken away at birth. The nurse stated the young woman had missed a custody hearing the day before and felt this was due to her partner not allowing her to attend. The nurse advised the young woman has a learning disability and felt this might constitute safeguarding.
The nurse and I had the same dilemma, was this a safeguarding or not? The general rules of safeguarding dictate domestic violence would only constitute safeguarding if the person at risk does not have the capacity to remove themselves from the situation. Hence I consulted with a senior social worker, who decided this was not safeguarding as the young woman was in a place of safety.
The fact that this young woman was not at immediate risk led the senior social workers decision in stating this was not safeguarding. However, I had a feeling of unease regarding this decision, because I have learnt through experience that if someone has a learning disability, they may not consider the risk appropriately. Hence, after much reflection, I decided to challenge the senior social workers decision. The following morning I went in to work early to discuss the case and my concerns with another senior social worker. This could have led to two different outcomes: me being disciplined for challenging a senior social workers decision or the young womans situation being highlighted to the community safeguarding team.
The first ethical perspective to be applied to this case is Kantian ethics; Kants work on ethics (deontological ethics) is the study of duty. Kants concept is formulated through the belief that people act through the principles that actions establish law, as he believed that people are rational beings that are bound by moral law and their own will. Due to this belief Kant stated moral law would become the duty and rules for all. Furthermore, Kant emphasised the duty and rules should be of benefit for the majority, and this duty should bring about the greatest happiness for the majority (Johnson and Cureton 2018). To clarify ONeill (1994:178-185) stated Kant focused on the character, moral life, duty, and the freedom to make choices. Kant believed that in overall people act ethically which he referred to as conditional imperative (rule of self) and because we are all moral beings this moral action will be led to a categorical imperative (rule of all) which can be turned into law. He sets out the principles of moral behaviour based on his account of rational agency, and then on that basis defines virtue as a kind of power and resolve to act on those principles despite any temptations. The theory, established as a product of Enlightenment rationalism, is based on the view that the only inherently good thing is goodwill; an action can only be good if the objective behind it is a duty to the moral law. Therefore, Kants ethical vision placed emphases is on the ethics of actions and not outcomes (ONeill 1994).
In applying Kants deontological ethics, the action out of duty means following the code of ethics that all social workers must abide by. The British Association of Social Workers (BASW) has formulated a code of ethics regarding the different duties that are relevant to the profession of social work. Therefore as the social worker that took the call and documented the conversation; the professional accountability was mine to bear. Being professionally accountable Social workers should be prepared to account for and justify their judgements and actions to people who use services, to employers and the general public(BASW 2014: 2).
Further justification for my actions from the Kantian perspective is in line with the categorical imperative. The nature of social work is unpredictable as social workers are human beings working with human beings, therefore capable of human error regardless of education and experience, so challenging decisions from a place of reason should be embraced to ensure the best outcome for the service user. Webb and McBeath (1989) argued that Kants account of the human capacity for reason makes us individual and equal; therefore, under Kantian ethics challenging or pointing out poor practice is ethically just as long as the challenger has a sound rational and respectfully approaches the topic.
The second ethical perspective to apply the case study to is Utilitarianism. According to Vardy & Grosch (1999), Utilitarianism dominates the moral philosophy of our time because Utilitarianism focuses on the results and outcomes. This focus on the consequences of action relies upon the theory of intrinsic value as a means to an end. Bentham and Mill stated that an action is right if it tends to promote happiness. Therefore, whether actions should be classified as ethically right or wrong is dependent on the consequences, and the notion of the outcome should compel rather than persuade the service users to proceed favourably.
Reamer (1983) advised Utilitarianism also assumes that it is possible to compare the inherent values that can be produced by two alternative actions to estimate which action would lead to the best outcome. Utilitarianism is an attempt to provide answers to the practical question of what should we do to ensure the best consequences/outcome possible whilst calculating the greater happiness/greater good, produced by the action that leads to the outcome.
In applying the case study Reamer (1983), advises bad practice and whistleblowing dilemmas can arise during the course of a social workers career, amongst both internal and external relationships. BASW state social workers have an obligation to or wrongdoing of professionals and colleagues, Social workers should be prepared to report bad practice using all available channels including complaints procedures and if necessary use public interest disclosure legislation and whistleblowing guideline (BASW 2014:9). Therefore, the utilitarian perspective would focus on the outcome of challenging bad practice. Reamer (1995) advised the act that creates the most amount of happiness for the majority should be treated as the ethical action required. Therefore, challenging bad practice should be considered as a duty when it is known that the consequences of non-disclosure will result in a negative impact.
Hence, by challenging the senior social worker, I ensured the best outcome for the service user and her family. Whereas, if I had chosen not to challenge the senior social worker the service user would have been left at risk of returning to her abusive partner which would have left her family in distress and also put my job at risk. Moreover, Reamer (1995) advised utilitarians highlights challenging bad practice as a social workers duty. Mills utilitarian principle of do no harm supports the idea that it is a duty; if non-disclosure of poor practice could cause harm, this principle determines that our actions should prevent harm to others. Therefore my action is challenging the senior social workers decision was ethical correct from the utilitarian perspective because I followed the rules set by the BASW and my actions led to the greatest happiness for the majority.