Ethics and Social Welfare

Published by Taylor & Francis (Routledge)
Print ISSN: 1749-6535
This piece comprises short presentations given by contributors to a symposium organized by the journal Ethics & Social Welfare on the theme of global ethics for social work. The contributors offer their reflections on the extent to which universally accepted international statements of ethical principles in social work are possible or useful, engaging with debates about cultural diversity, relativism and the relevance of human rights in non-Western countries.
Social work students in England now have to register with the General Social Care Council and 'sign up to' the codes of practice. These specify that social workers must not 'behave in a way, in work or outside work, which would call into question [their] suitability to work in social care services'. This paper describes a small and ongoing piece of doctoral research into social work students' perceptions of professional regulation. The policy context for social work regulation is outlined, including the implications for social work educators and students. The paper discusses the ethical and methodological issues which arose when planning the study. In conclusion, regulation has benefits for service users and professionals, but its implementation involves difficult ethical decisions. When students' suitability is called into question, there are implications for their personal and professional identities: exploring these implications will be the focus of the next stage of the research.
Emerging child welfare policies promoting preventive and early intervention services present a challenge to professional ethics, raising questions about how to balance respect for service users with concern for social justice. This article explains how the UK policy involves shifting the balance of power away from families towards State and professional decision-making. The policy is predicated on sharing information between professionals to inform risk and need assessment and so poses a problem for the ethic of confidentiality in a helping relationship. This article examines the arguments for information sharing and questions whether the predicted benefits for children outweigh the cost of eroding family privacy and changing the nature of professional relationships with service users.
Human rights are a central part of a social worker’s value base in contemporary practice, but the structures by which social work services are delivered can adversely affect practitioners’ abilities to uphold service user rights. This article describes the organisational development of social work services in England and the evolution of a rights focus for the practice of social work. It uses two cases, participation by children and young people looked after by the local authority and parents with learning difficulties, to determine what prevents the delivery of rights at practice level. We argue that the structures which are the product of historical development prevent workers delivering a service that is anti-oppressive and grounded in a rights based approach to practice. This suggests that the recent changed arrangements for the delivery of social work offer the opportunity to address human rights within practice and reinvigorate the profession. The division of the profession between children’s trusts and adult social services within separate local authority departments or care trusts should make dialogue between specialist social workers, which has been suppressed by internal structures, possible. Such a dialogue could contribute to saving the profession from the disintegration that its division threatens, while advancing the human rights agenda.
This article focuses on the governance and ethical conduct of research within the domain of social work and social care. Globally, research in this domain appears less well regulated than those in the domains of health care. Within the United Kingdom, the Westminster government is implementing a Research Governance Framework for Social Care in England (RGF Social Care). This article locates this development in a broader global context and uses as an example a regionally based implementation to explore some potential issues that arise from the governance and ethical framework in social work and social care. The proposed system is located with English local authorities. Various models are emerging: single department; corporate; dual or multi-council collaborations; cross-sector collaborations. Whatever the merits of the organizational form adopted, the influence of different cultures upon the form of governance and ethical regulation adopted is significant.
Ethical decision-making is a core part of the work of social work and human service practitioners, who confront with regularity dilemmas of duty of care; confidentiality, privacy and disclosure; choice and autonomy; and distribution of increasingly scarce resources. This article details the development and application of the Inclusive Model of Ethical Decision making, created in response to growing awareness of the complexities of work in both public and private sectors. The model rests of four key platforms that are constructed from important foundational values and principles. These platforms are: Accountability, Consultation, Cultural Sensitivity and Critical Reflection, and underlie the dynamic five-step process that uses a reflective yet pragmatic approach to identify and analyse all relevant aspects of an ethical dilemma. The article begins by exploring the anatomy of an ethical dilemma, including the identification of competing ethical principles. It then moves on to highlight the different points in a decision-making process where difficulties typically arise for practitioners who may confront problems with interpretation of ethical codes, lack of access to needed resources and supports, or who may find themselves bound by legal or organisational restrictions. It is argued that this model has useful application for both social work education and practice. Yes Yes
This paper focuses attention on the ethical issues concerning the involvement of young service users as co-researchers. In particular the article offers an examination of the limitations of the term ‘service user’, comments on degrees of participation and explores the ethical issues prior to the start of the research, during the research and after the research has been completed. Particular emphasis is focused on the topics of: the funders of research, ethics committees, valuing contributions, informed consent, confidentiality, authorship and ending the research. The article also suggests that this is a complex area worthy of further exploration and that many of the ethical challenges identified for working with young service users also need to be considered for young service user co-researchers. Keywords Service User Research; Service User; Co-researcher; Ethics
This short piece offers some reflections on features of the traditional professional ethics literature, focusing on codes, conduct and rational decision-making in difficult cases. It is argued that this kind of approach offers a rather artificial, abstract and narrow conception of ethics. Consideration is then given to what might be the implications for learning and teaching of shifting emphasis towards a more embedded conception of ethics in professional life, with a focus on the commitment and character of professional practitioners and the specificities of the contexts in which they work.
This extended editorial takes stock of the first volume of the journal Ethics and Social Welfare, offering an overview of the types of contributions in the first four issues and suggesting future themes. A critical summary is given of the contributions so far, which have included: moral philosophical theorizing; analysis of key ethical concepts; exploration of contested areas of policy and practice; empirical studies of living conditions, perceptions, attitudes and professional interventions; accounts of ethical issues in practice; ethical issues in research; and models of professional ethical decision making. Themes identified for future consideration include: service user perspectives on aspects of social welfare practice; development of practice-based ethical theories for the social welfare professions; ideas about teaching professional and practical ethics; ethical issues in managing and distributing resources; critical analysis of the ethical implications of public policies; further contributions offering moral, political and social philosophical perspectives on issues of social justice, cultural diversity, global and local policies for tackling environmental and humanitarian crises.
This paper comprises a case study illustrating ethical and practical challenges for a Ugandan hospital-based social worker early in the COVID-19 pandemic, followed by a commentary. The hospital was under-resourced, with staff and patients experiencing lack of information and panic. The social worker, Denis Adia, recounts his responses to new and ethically challenging situations, including persuading Muslim patients to stop fasting for the good of their health; deciding to keep a baby in hospital with parents although this was against the rules; and supporting a stigmatised former patient in the face of intimidation by colleagues. He reflects on the importance of recognising each person’s unique needs and circumstances, seeing this as a vital role for social workers. The case is followed by a commentary from a UK academic (Sarah Banks), who notes the cognitive and emotional effort (‘ethics work’) undertaken by the social worker to: see the ethical aspects of particular situations; take account of patients’ specific needs; ensure they are treated with respect; promote their well-being; and perform as a good social worker. Banks draws attention to the key role of the virtue of courage in pandemic conditions, which involves working with new risks and facing fears with confidence.
This article discusses the nature of interprofessional ethics and some of the ethical issues and challenges that arise when practitioners from different professions work closely together in the fields of health and social care. The article draws on materials from a conference on this theme, covering issues of confidentiality and information sharing in practice and research with vulnerable people; challenges for teaching and learning about ethics in interprofessional settings; the potential of virtue ethics and an ethic of care for understanding and handling ethical issues in interprofessional practice; and the extent to which interprofessional working may be about surveillance and control. It concludes that the need to understand and handle ethical issues in interprofessional working is contributing to the revitalisation of professional ethics as a dynamic field of study.
This essay explores ethical issues in researching ‘intersectionality’, focusing in particular on: positionality in relation to topic and research relationships; and the relationship of intersectional positionality to ‘insider/outsider’ status. I argue that reflection on intersectional positionality is a key ethical consideration of social research, and propose some guiding questions for this purpose.
Participatory action research always operates in the tension of extending the voice of people who are marginalised and unheard in the society. A workshop, ‘Extending Voice and Autonomy through Participatory Action Research: Ethical and Practical Issues’, was therefore organised to look at the issues arising from this tension. The workshop aimed to examine critically the potential of participatory action research to enable people whose voices are seldom heard and choices are often restricted to be seen, heard and to influence practice and policy relevant to their lives. The paper first outlines the rationale for the workshop and then demonstrates how ‘co-impact’ of participatory action research projects can be achieved through having conversations and reflecting on the ideas of ‘voice and autonomy’, ‘knowledge’, ‘vulnerability’, ‘user involvement and participation’. Through reflecting on the experience of preparing for and delivering the workshop, we seek ways to transform the relationship(s) between service users/community partners and academic and service professionals in the hope of generating practical knowledge ethically.
Influenced by critical disability studies, feminist thought and participatory and emancipatory approaches to research, this paper explores new ways of thinking about the ethics of developing a literature review during doctoral study. It questions what kind of knowledge the literature review values, whose lens is upheld and more importantly whose is ignored. It is argued that reimagining the literature review as a ‘community of knowledge’ and drawing on a variety of sources and voices, not only contributes to the overall transparency and integrity of the thesis, but enables the literature review to become a space in which dominant discourses can be challenged and unequal relations of power disrupted.
The Anishinaabe people understand Ago’idiwin (treaty) is about relationships. The spirit and intent of treaty were about two nations culminating in a shared sense of humanity and dignity. One must understand the pipe ceremony and its seven sacred cardinal directions as demonstrated by whoever conducts the ceremony. These also represent seven sacred principles of Anishinaabe laws, nationhood and sovereignty. Aanikoobijiginan is the same word for great grandparents, and great grandchildren. To me this describes a process of tying the seven generations together through Sasquatch Earth Laws, sacred story. A story both new and old because it is connected to our origin stories.
This paper addresses the role of listening in dialog with a particular focus on discourse in democratic societies and communities where conflict has recently occurred. I provide a critical assessment of civil dialog by examining the complications that restrictions on content and language create by forcing the speaker to express him or herself inauthentically. Using the French philosopher Jacques Derrida’s notion of ‘absolute hospitality’ as a model, I construct a form of listening I term ‘absolute listening’ which seeks to overcome many of the limitations of rule-guided discourse. Absolute listening removes restrictions on speech and, in the process, allows the listener to recognize the speaker as a unique and uncategorizable individual. This, in turn, creates the necessary intersubjectivity and personal transformation among dialog participants for successful intracommunal reconciliation to occur. The research for this project builds on existing criticisms of civil dialog and relies on contemporary literatures in phenomenology and post-conflict reconciliation. The paper also highlights efforts at implementing absolute listening by a nonprofit organization in Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
Allegations of sexual abuse made against the former BBC entertainer, Jimmy Savile by former pupils of a girls’ residential school attracted worldwide publicity when they were reported in a TV programme in 2012. The Savile case has had major political and cultural reverberations, with the establishment of official inquiries across the countries of the UK to investigate claims of historical abuse. Responses reinforce what has become a default position in respect of allegations of historical abuse—that we should believe those telling such stories. This article presents a case study, which introduces some caution in that regard. Accounts of the past are constructed in particular social and cultural contexts and cannot be regarded as necessarily reflecting any wider, objective reality. Moreover, unquestioning ‘belief’, while it may be posited as giving voice to former care home residents, may mask another politics of voice, within which these views are appropriated by more powerful cultural elites. This situation has implications for those who claim abuse, those accused of such abuse and for natural and social justice. The article begins to address some of the ethical issues raised when professionals encounter stories of historical abuse.
This paper explores the application of ethical thinking from the perspective of someone with the dual role of social worker and PhD researcher. The focus of the research was family secrets and their influence upon child-to-parent violence and abuse (CPVA). The participants were children and their parents, who, at the time of the research, were experiencing family violence and abuse. This paper was developed from a conversation between Lee-Ann and Louise. Lee-Ann was Louise’s PhD supervisor and was therefore involved in supporting Louise in gaining ethics approval, as well as holding continued reflexive conversations about the ethical questions and dilemmas that arose throughout this study. This paper has shown the importance of hearing the voices of children within research about CPVA. Children can offer a rich layer of information that is seldom heard. It also shows that there may be a different lens through which ethics can be considered during research, not only the purely objective or academic, but also from a practitioner-researcher in a social care setting position.
This paper reflects on a three-year research project involving academics and public, private and third sector partners in the UK and India. The team engaged with innovative international outreach research methods to question how listening to ‘voices of experience’ can inform and ‘outrage’ academic and community perspectives on human rights to create and promote local to international access to justice strategies. During the project Keele University, UK, the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai and Hyderabad, India, hosted field visits and reflective workshops involving academic, legal and third sector colleagues, to consider the comparative engagement and response to contemporary social welfare and social justice issues. The paper reflects on the learning experience, from which the contrasting India and UK perspectives on sexual violence asserts that academic and community partnerships have a significant role to play in understanding and engaging with contemporary issues; to spark outrage, challenge mainstream responses and promote alternative community legal outreach approaches.
Jonathan Wolff supports retribution as a justification for punishment in his book Ethics and Public Policy: A Philosophical Enquiry, arguing that the victim’s status and self-respect has been undermined by a crime committed. Punishment responds to these ‘social violations’, with the criminal justice system acting as a ‘communicative mechanism’ to the offender and victim, restoring the status of the victim by punishing the offender. Consistent with Wolff’s ‘bottom-up’ methodological approach to applied ethics, this paper defends his conclusions supporting retribution, for certain crimes at least, but his position needs qualifying and supplementing. We mount a defence of retribution which, contrary to popular views, seeks to accommodate both individual and social accounts of responsibility. This accommodation is achieved by holding the individual offender responsible via retributive justifications of punishment, while also acknowledging the social responsibility of restoring the status of the offender given the social injustice experienced by many offenders, prior to their offending. Following this analysis, and a consideration of empirical studies concerning probation practice, we recommend the practice of desistance as most likely to help reduce re-offending, alongside the social responsibility of other state representatives and social institutions for building socio-economic capital for the offender.
This paper explores the relevance of Jurgen Habermas’ ‘post-secular’ perspective in fostering inclusive conditions for a reasonable accommodation between the secular state and a Catholic facility in the provision of health care. It discusses the ethical merits and contradictions represented by the merger of a public psychiatric hospital with a Catholic rehabilitative hospital. The paper recognizes merits in the Catholic approach to health care, particularly its emphasis on social justice and the common good. However, it argues that from a post-secular perspective, the ‘official’ status given by this merged organization to Catholic healthcare ethics is wrong. That formally identifying the ethical priorities of a publicly funded hospital with a particular belief system limits possibilities for the reasonable accommodation of normative differences. Thus, the paper argues that re-framing Catholic health ethics within a more inclusive, non-denominational, post-secular approach toward the interpretation of health care, more fairly represents the public good.
Conceptual framework for social work ethics on the matter of statelessness
Statelessness and displacement represent nothing short of a loss of place, the violation of rights and international norms, threat to safety and belonging, and severely limits access to law and citizenship. Social work must leverage and sustain an ethical standpoint as a critical counterpoint to the increasing moral and political urgency of statelessness. However, traditional and normative social work ethics operate at a level of abstraction that do not engage sufficiently with the realpolitik of statelessness. This paper critically engages with moral questions concerning displacement and statelessness by engaging the philosophy of James Tully and Christine Korsgaard. This engagement enables connections between agency and notions of democratic constitutionalism where people have the right to call into and contest relations of governance that oppress them, through various means such as advocacy and activism. We present a reconsideration of established ethical understandings by arguing for the place of public philosophy and the constitution of the self as key to social work theory and practice in response to statelessness and displacement. Korsgaard’s work on normativity and agency, and Tully’s notion of democratic constitutionalism provide a rich and original contribution to social work ethics that will be articulated for social work theory and practice.
This article reflects on the ethical dilemmas involved in undertaking research on the history of institutional and community intellectual disability services between 1966 and 2009 in a tight-knit community in Scotland, through the In Our Own Voices: Leaving New Craigs hospitals' story project. The accounts collected include painful memories of oppressive practice as well as fond recollections of community spirit, kindness and ‘good’ staff. However, the research stirred up sensitive issues amongst the community that left the researcher facing a number of challenges. In this article the authors will reflect on the ethics of investigating, confronting and disseminating difficult histories.
In this paper I introduce the capability approach (Nussbaum, Sen) for a social welfare practice audience. The approach is described as a normative theory underpinned by the proposal that social welfare actions should be evaluated on the basis of how capable people are of living lives they have reason to value. By summarising Martha Nussbaum’s capabilities account and describing the practical logic of capability theory, I propose potential benefits in applying the approach to strengthen practice-values alignment in neo-liberal social welfare contexts. Firstly, the approach might reinvigorate the normative foundations of social welfare education. Secondly, in articulating 10 central capabilities necessary for every person’s well-being, Nussbaum’s framework has the potential to challenge preference-based welfare provision and ignite stronger advocacy efforts that defend basic capabilities that all individuals have good reason to value. Thirdly, a capability-informed approach to social welfare programmes evaluation has the potential to improve unity, for example, in assisting evaluation efforts to focus on what is common and sustainable in human well-being. Interdisciplinary criticisms of the approach are engaged, concluding with an invitation for welfare scholars and practitioners to consider further applications of the capability approach.
The Mental Capacity Act (MCA) has been in force in England and Wales for over a decade. Although often considered in relation to health and social care, the MCA also governs the inclusion of people with cognitive impairment in research. This includes procedures for establishing whether prospective participants are able to consent to participation. Despite its importance in research, there is little literature detailing accounts of researcher’s experiences of working with the MCA’s decision-making capacity procedures when conducting research. To address this deficit, we present our experiences when conducting three separate studies involving people with dementia and therefore falling within the MCA’s research provisions. Study A (data collected between September 2016 and April 2017) discusses the subjectivity of capacity assessment; Study B (data collected between July and November 2017) details the negotiation of different opinions on capacity; and Study C (data collected between January and October 2013) considers tensions between legality and the principle of non-maleficence. Each of these experiences indicates a problematic degree of uncertainty within the MCA’s decision-making capacity provisions. We suggest two solutions. First, more detailed guidance is required, responding to uncertainties emerging in practice. Second, researchers should be encouraged to publish their experiences of working with the MCA. In outlining our own experiences, we hope to initiate such a body of work.
Starting from the idea that many social work professors exceed the traditionally defined ‘service’ requirements of their university and are actively involved in social change and justice initiatives, this article aims at critically reflecting upon our own experiences as three social work educators. In the article, we address the question of how social engagement may influence the development of our social work ethical consciousness. If a growing body of literature is available around social work education, teaching and ethical learning and decision-making of social work students, little is yet known about how educators articulate those processes in the context of their work. To achieve this task, we have each undertaken an autoethnographic reflection where we describe one of the most significant situations in the development of our ethical consciousness and examine how they contributed to challenging our pre-existing ethical frameworks in social work. We conclude by discussing how to develop adaptive and pluralistic anti-oppressive ethical frameworks for social work research, teaching, practice and activism.
Margaret Urban Walker’s essay ‘Getting out of line’ questions gendered assumptions about moral agency in old age and its assumed links to the concept of a ‘career self.’ In this article I develop and apply her critique to consider what forms ageing activism might take. This focuses on recognising and remembering the value of connections with people and with struggles that may both pre-date and outlive the individual. I suggest that we need to think of remembering as future as well as past oriented and as political as well as personal. In developing my argument I draw from experience of working with old people in initiatives focussed on achieving change in health and social care services, on accounts of feminist activists of different generations and on personal reflections of contacts that embody both awareness of different vulnerabilities and of shared struggles for change.
This paper discusses a short piece of activist social work practice against an austerity measure designed to remove the right of undocumented sans papiers or unaccompanied children at the age of 16 to remain with their out-of-home foster carers. The local authority’s elected representatives voted on a proposal to meet a £1.2 million financial budget shortfall by ‘encouraging’ young people to move out of foster care into less supported, less secure, and ultimately less costly accommodation. The ‘revised service model’ was an overtly discriminatory policy as it explicitly proposed a differential and less favourable treatment for unaccompanied children in its care compared to, what it termed, its ‘local citizen’ children who could remain in foster care until they reached the age of 18—or indeed longer in certain more specific circumstances. The paper explores a response taken by a small group of social workers working in a triple alliance with a service user advocacy organisation and a trade union that successfully challenged the policy, whilst reflecting on some of its difficulties and limitations.
This article draws attention to the ethical complexity researchers may be confronted with during fieldwork should an adult participant with intellectual disabilities disclose that harm or an illegal activity is occurring or has occurred in the past. The need to gain ethical approval and the positioning of people with intellectual disabilities as vulnerable within ethics review procedures can result in the adoption of paternalistic approaches as researchers are encouraged to break confidentiality to report concerns to other professionals. Whilst this may fulfil a researcher’s duty to ensure no harm occurs to participants, if it takes place against the participant’s wishes it may also violate participant autonomy, reinforce unequal relations of power, and may unwittingly contribute to subsequent harm occurring. Whilst the article begins from our experience as two UK-based researchers working with people with intellectual disabilities, it draws on existing literature and guidelines to expose the ethical tensions which may be encountered. It is intended that the paper acts as a starting point for researchers wishing to reflect on their practice and ethical decision-making, whilst contributing to wider debates on the position of people with intellectual disabilities within society.
There has been a marked increase in the active involvement of children and young people in social research. This move is underpinned by rights based arguments that children and young people should have a voice, and that this voice should be listened to. However, concerns have been raised about the appropriateness of children’s and young people’s rights and participation in research. This is primarily due to queries over whether they have enough capacity to enact the individual agency required to be rights holders and participate in research. In addition, a focus on their inherent vulnerability continues to be a key feature of research ethics protocols. In this paper I argue that both capacity and vulnerability should be seen as socially produced, meaning that the scope for capacity to be increased and vulnerability decreased also lies within the social. I draw from notions of relational autonomy or ‘associational presence’ to argue that what children and young people need to be active participants in research is the creation of spaces within which relational agency can be nurtured and sustained. Such techniques and values are found in participatory research approaches and can be used to create such emancipatory environments.
The acute health care system in Australia, as in the global north, has been increasingly dominated by neoliberal market principles prioritising efficiency and cost reduction. This has occurred in conjunction with a shift towards ‘personalised care’ models in health and social services. Personalised care models are intended to support the provision of holistic health care and consumer choice. Yet, the bureaucratic context of acute health care produces constrained applications of person-centred care that can undermine patient participation. Personalised care models have been criticised for diminishing the choices available to socioeconomically disadvantaged groups. There has been scant attention to these equity issues and ethical implications of the model for older people transferring from acute hospital settings to residential aged care. This is significant, as this major life event is associated with social- and identity-related losses; can produce poor health outcomes; and is affecting an increasing population of older people. The aim of this paper is to address this gap in the debate through a critical literature review applying Tronto’s critical ethics of care. We highlight the current Australian context for this patient group and the transferability of palliative care models as an example for change in practice and resource allocation.
Top-cited authors
Joan Tronto
  • University of Minnesota Twin Cities
Sarah Jane Banks
  • Durham University
Erika Goble
  • NorQuest College
Brendan Leier
  • University of Alberta and Alberta Health Services
Paul Byrne
  • University of Alberta