Summary of My Article: NASW Code of Ethics, Part I

This post summarizes Preamble, Purpose, and Ethical Principles Sections of the NASW Code of Ethics: A Preliminary Analysis, published in Families in Society in 2008 (vol. 89, no. 4, pp. 578-586).

Abstract: The first three, brief sections of the Code of Ethics (here referred to as simply the Code) of the National Association of Social Workers (NASW, 1999) display striking inconsistency of content and uncertainty of purpose. The decision to incorporate those sections into a single code document along with the lengthy fourth section (Ethical Standards) appears to have contributed to their imperfection. The mission statement and the ethical principles, in particular, may develop better if they are divided into separate documents, each with its own distinct purpose. Such a development might help reduce the extent to which social workers must rely upon individualistic rather than shared wisdom in responding to common ethical issues.

My article (CoE I) was later joined by a second article, also published in Families in Society (CoE II). That second article examines the part of the Code that this first article could not get to, namely, the long Ethical Standards section that accounts for about 75% of the entire Code. Another post summarizes CoE II.

The first sentence of the Code, at the very start of its Preamble, states that the social work profession pays “particular attention to the needs and empowerment of people who are vulnerable, oppressed, and living in poverty.” It’s a nice sentiment. Unfortunately, the Code proceeds to say absolutely nothing about empowerment. For that matter, it is not clear that NASW has the right to speak for the whole profession, as distinct from just that subset of social workers who are its members.

The Code claims to serve six purposes. Those six, broken out, are actually eight. Whatever the number, the Code makes a hash of them. For example, it says, “The Code is designed to help social workers identify relevant considerations when professional obligations conflict or ethical uncertainties arise.” But in what sense is that true? The Code proceeds, almost immediately, to disavow any incisive role, stating that it “does not specify which values, principles, and standards are most important and ought to outweigh others in instances when they conflict.”

That list of purposes claims that the Code exists to help the public hold social workers accountable; but the Code is not really designed to facilitate that, and in fact almost nobody uses it for that purpose. Complaints against social workers are overwhelmingly filed in other, more effective venues. (Here, and elsewhere, this summary does not repeat all of the examples offered in the article. There are multiple problems with the list of six or eight alleged purposes that the Code claims to serve.)

After listing those six purposes, the Code proceeds to list six so-called “core values” of the social work profession. Once again, unfortunately, the Code makes claims that are simply false. It says, for instance, that those alleged core values have been “embraced by social workers throughout the profession’s history.” But if that were so, why did the value of “social justice,” second in the Code’s list, not even appear in the 1960 version of the Code? Conversely, why does the current Code not carry forward a number of key values appearing in the 1960 version (e.g., “democratic ideals,” “dedication to truth,” “compassion”)? Why do commentators disagree on whether the profession’s key values are solid and unchanging or, instead, are flexible and adaptive to the times?

That part of the Preamble goes on to claim that the so-called core values “are the foundation of social work’s unique purpose and perspective.” But these values are not unique to social work; they appear in ethical codes of other professions. What seems most likely to be unique about social work – that is, its mediating role – is unfortunately not emphasized in the Code. For that matter, why does the Code even bother with the pointless effort of claiming that social work is unique? Everyone can see that nursing is unique. If the specialness of social work is not obvious, a claim in a code of ethics (which other professions’ codes do not make) is hardly going to persuade anyone.

The Code falsely claims that its Ethical Principles logically “flow from” the core values. They do not, and they did not. To the contrary, they were created by the committee that drafted the current version of the Code. Unfortunately, that committee declined to publish an account of its processes. The whole affair is murky. Some scholars have called for more practical standards, of the kind that people actually use. Such principles could replace, for example, the Code’s vague references to integrity and honesty, so that the people who were sheltering Anne Frank could know whether they should lie to the Gestapo and save Anne, or be truthful to the Gestapo and betray Anne.

There appears to be a contradiction on the whole idea of having a set of Ethical Principles. Frederic Reamer, chair of the committee that created the Code, says that the profession has moved past the phase of depending upon core values. Instead, he says, the profession is now focused on the Ethical Standards, appearing in the final section of the Code. But if that’s what the committee chair believes in, why did his committee produce a Code containing – indeed, emphasizing – those supposedly outdated Principles?

The Code’s long final section, containing the Ethical Standards, tends to overshadow the previous sections. This is unfortunate. As the Code itself acknowledges, there is much more to ethical thought than that little list of six Ethical Principles can accommodate. A better Code would include a much deeper presentation of ethical principles – extending to empowerment (above), to the “do no harm” principle, and to other ideas that could inform rich consideration of multiple perspectives on ethical issues. These are the sorts of things that professors and students should, and often do, find engrossing. They are very different from the “Social Worker’s Ethical Practice Rule Book” approach taken in the Ethical Standards section.

Practically speaking, the Code consists of several distinct documents that were arbitrarily thrown together. Those documents – the Standards, the Principles, and also the Mission Statement – are likely to be more fully and properly developed if they are each spun off into separate documents designed for more specific purposes, and developed for their own purposes with the aid of empirical research.

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