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Ethical Decision Making

There are five values that inform social work practice, which have underlying principles:

  • Human dignity and worth (each person has the right to well being, self fulfilment and self determination, consistent with the rights of others)
  • Social justice (basic human needs, equitable distribution of resources to  meet needs, fair access to public resources, individual/community rights, equal treatment and protection under the law, social development)
  • Service to humanity (to meet personal and social needs and enable people to develop their potential)
  • Integrity (values honesty, reliability and impartiality in practice)
  • Competence (proficiency in practice)

There are ethical behaviours which are expected of social workers.

Given the complexity of issues that social workers deal with in a variety of settings, the extent of discretion in relation to ethical behaviours may vary in certain circumstances. However, the ethical responsibilities of social workers are based on the values mentioned. The ethical responsibilities that guide social work practice fall into six categories.

  1. General ethical responsibilities
    • These ethical responsibilities very much reflect, and are guided by the above values e.g responsibilities are to respect human dignity and worth, be committed to social justice, how we provide a service, professional integrity and practice competence.
  2. Responsibilities to clients
  • Priority of clients’ interests
  • Conflicts of interest
  • Client self-determination
  • Informed consent
  • Involuntary clients (awareness about self determination limitations)
  • Cultural awareness
  • Information privacy/confidentiality
  • Records (impartially and accurate)
  • Termination/interruption of service
  • Service provision
  • Social workers in management roles
    • education, training, supervision, and evaluation, research, private practice.
  1. Responsibility to colleagues
  2. Responsibilities in the workplace
  1. Responsibilities to particular settings
  1. Responsibilities to the profession

Finally the code of ethics also provides guidance for ethical decision making.

Please take some time to read these guidelines and some of the common dilemmas that we as social workers can face in practice. For example, the code of ethics identifies these explicitly:

  • Conflict of interests (Involuntary clients, multiple clients, confidentiality, workplace)
  • Conscientious objection

Ethical decision making

Social workers often find themselves experiencing ethical dilemmas when they identify competing values and competing loyalties. For example, the values of self determination can conflict with a duty of care, competing interests from different members of a group that a social worker is working with, and conflict between welfare for the individual and welfare of the majority.

Loewenberg & Dolgoff (1996, p.12) point out that learning about ethics can sometimes hinder ethical decision making behaviour because there are no easy answers and it is easy to feel ‘stuck’. As they have stated “social work students and practitioners who spend too much time reflecting about professional ethics may find themselves in the same situation as the centipede who become incapable of moving about when it tried to understand how its legs worked.”

So in teaching about values and ethics we cannot provide you with direct answers and solutions. What we can do is provide you with:

  • knowledge about social work values and the code of ethics;
  • frameworks to help clarify conflicting values and ethical dilemmas; and
  • encourage you to develop self awareness of your own personal values through critical reflection.

It is important to focus on each one of these as a student social worker.

Firstly, read and re-read the  code of ethics to become familiar with its guidelines. Read about the ethical guidelines and dilemmas that social workers commonly face. The Code of Ethics is quite upfront about them.

Secondly, authors/practitioners have provided frameworks to help clarify conflicting values and ethical dilemmas. For example: Mattison (2000, p.206) offers a framework to analyse ethical dilemmas such as:

  1. Define and gather information: Once the social worker has identified an ethical dilemma, they begin the process of making a decision by fully exploring case details and gathers needed information to understand holistically the client’s current circumstances.
  2. It is then important for the social worker to distinguish the practice aspects of the case from the ethical considerations (so separate practice from how you have learned to think about ethical issues).
  3. Identify value tensions
  4. The social worker must refer to the professional code of ethics – to help clarify obligations and identify the principles that have a bearing on the dilemma
  5. The social worker projects, weighs, and measures the possible courses of action that seem reasonable and the potential consequences of these
  6. The social worker after weighing up options must select an action for resolving a dilemma. This involves determining which of the competing obligations are we going to honour foremost (this may mean at the expense of others).
  7. The social worker reaches the resolution stage and this means being able to justify the decision.

Thirdly, it is important for social workers to take time to reflect on their practice and own values. This is a vital point because although guides and frameworks can be developed (as above) to offer social workers a logical approach to the decision making process, to some extent, the use of discretionary judgements is evitable (Mattison, 2000). The value system and preferences of the decision maker (social worker) shape the process of working through dilemmas and so it is important for social workers to be ethically aware of their character, philosophies, attitudes and biases.

Furthermore, philosophers have argued that elements of deontological and teleological thinking operate in and influences decision making in ethical dilemmas.

A deontological thinker is grounded in the belief that actions can be determined right or wrong, good or bad, regardless of the consequences they produce and so adherence to rules is central. Once formulated, ethical rules should hold under all circumstances (Mattison, 2000). On the other hand a teleological thinker is ground in the belief of consequences and so weighing up the potential consequences of proposed actions is central to this way of thinking (Mattison, 2000). So a social worker following a deontological way of thinking will differ in their approach to ethical decision making compared with a social worker following a teleological way of thinking.

Are you more of a deontological thinker or a teleological thinker? Something to think about when trying to make ethical decisions.

In sum, there are no right or wrong ways to make a decision regarding an ethical dilemma. Guides can be provided but inevitability it is up to the social workers discretionary judgement of the circumstances. It is therefore important as a social worker to be aware of the code of ethics, and to talk, discuss, debrief and debate with colleagues and supervisors about dilemmas they may be struggling with. Finally, the onus is on social workers to be reflective about themselves and how ‘self’ influences practice and decision making.

Reference List

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 Vol.45(3), pp.201-212.

Cleak, H. & Wilson, J (2004), Making the Most of Field Placement, Thomson, Australia. Pp. 160-164


Written by tusksowk

April 7, 2010 at 2:36 pm

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