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

This post summarizes Ethical Standards in the NASW Code of Ethics: The Explicit Legal Model, and Beyond, published in Families in Society in 2011 (vol. 92, no. 1, pp. 21-27).

Abstract: The Code of Ethics (here referred to as simply the Code) of the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) loosely follows the American Bar Association’s (ABA) Model Rules of Professional Conduct, but provides less protection for professionals. Social workers may benefit by adopting the Model Rules, with contrasting commentary where legal and social work practices diverge. That contrast would highlight social work’s ethical advantages and demonstrate the need for nonlegal ethical principles (in economics, for example) that are underrepresented in the NASW Code. Development of companion ethical statements (of social work economic ethics, for example) would give social workers improved ethical guidance. Such companion statements, possibly developed through empowered participation by the spectrum of social workers, may ultimately yield an empirically informed statement of definition and mission for the profession.

This article on the Ethical Standards section of the Code follows a previous (2008) article discussing the first several sections of the Code. Another post summarizes that previous article.

I noted that the first several sections of the Code offer the sorts of materials found in traditional ethical thinking, such as a list of key ethical principles. By contrast, the last section – the Ethical Standards section – sets forth pages of relatively legalistic strictures (e.g., “Social workers should not terminate services to pursue a social, financial, or sexual relationship with a client”). I suggested, in effect, that the Code’s first sections contain the sort of material that a professor and students might discuss in a course on social work ethics, while the Ethical Standards section amounts to a sort of  “Social Worker’s Ethical Practice Rule Book.”

The Ethical Standards section appears to have been modeled upon the American Bar Association’s Model Rules of Professional Conduct for lawyers. Frederic Reamer, chair of the committee that produced the Code, has spoken of his realization that practitioners wanted a source of guidance focusing, not on abstract philosophical principles, but rather on the practical question of whether they could be sued for their handling of a given client situation. Perplexingly, however, the Ethical Standards section, seeking to respond to such concerns, was drafted by a committee lacking any practicing attorneys.

As one might expect from that start, the Code has not generated an informed literature exploring social workers’ potential legal liability in various practice situations. By contrast, the legal profession’s Model Rules are undergirded by a large quantity of written material, including assorted commentary and court decisions. Such material gives lawyers a rich source of ethical guidance in a wide variety of practice situations.

There is no realistic prospect that the social work profession will develop the depth of legalistic expertise needed to assemble a comparably informative set of materials on the words and ideas in the NASW Code. A comparison of the legal and social work ethical codes on a specific sample case, involving interception of unencrypted email, demonstrates that the legal advice given to social workers in the Code could actually increase their legal liability unnecessarily.

Instead of creating their own Ethical Standards through unacknowledged borrowing from the legal profession’s Model Rules, the social work profession should consider openly adopting those Model Rules as their own. In some cases, possibly including the previous paragraph’s example of intercepted email, the lawyers’ ethical practice rule for themselves might be exactly the right rule for social workers too. In other cases, social work ethicists (and practitioners, perhaps, participating in ethical discussion via wiki) would have to adapt the lawyers’ rules to a social work context. Either way, a large amount of hard work and organization would already have been done, many relevant questions would already have been put forward, and many possible scenarios would already have been considered.

That explicit adoption of the law’s Model Rules, and the ensuing explication of ways in which social work ethics diverge from legal ethics, would tend to benefit the social work profession in certain regards. For one thing, social workers would become more attuned to otherwise unanticipated legal attacks (as in, again, the foregoing email example, which might never come to practitioners’ attention within the present social work ethical guidance materials). In addition, the point-by-point differentiation of legal and social work ethics would tend to highlight the contrast between a prestigious but widely unjust profession that tends to serve the rich and powerful and one that seeks social justice.

The process of working through the differences between ethical practice in law and social work could also exert some reformative pressure on the legal system. There would be, for instance, a question of how far social workers may go in procuring or providing paralegal assistance for clients who cannot afford attorneys; the social work profession may find itself in the position of knowledgeably and equitably challenging bar associations to discourage prosecution of unauthorized legal practice in hardship cases. In other settings as well, the involvement of social workers in dispute resolution, and social work’s tendency toward greater acceptance of empirical research, could alter certain aspects of the litigation landscape to the public benefit.

The exercise just described, beginning with adoption of the law’s Model Rules for ethical practice and proceeding through a point-by-point differentiation between legal and social work ethics, would tend to provide a partial answer to the question of what is included in the practice (and particularly the ethical practice) of social work. The answer provided by that exercise would be only partial because social work is so much more than a poor cousin of the law.

A similar exercise could unfold in other theaters. Consider, for example, what would happen if one attempted a similar adoption and differentiation of a code of business ethics. Suppose we now have, on the shelf, a book titled The Difference Between Legal and Social Work Ethics; now we wish to add a new book, The Difference Between Business and Social Work Ethics.

Such a book would be of great value. Much of what social workers do is about money. Money issues pervade schools, hospitals, homelessness, and mental health care, for example, on the organizational level, as well as purchasing decisions, career opportunities, and marital negotiations, on the level of the individual. Textbooks on business ethics address topics such as workplace rights and economic justice. The development of a text contrasting social work ethics and business ethics could yield an extremely important clarification of ethical social work practice in the economic arena; it could, in fact, contribute significantly to a refined understanding of the social work profession itself.

The foregoing paragraphs have suggested two spheres in which the nature of the social work profession generally, and of ethical practice in particular, could be clarified by development of contrasts between principles of social work and of the fields of law and business. The exercise could be repeated, of course, in other directions as well: one could contrast social work ethics and practices against those of practitioners in medicine, psychology, and even literature (considering, for example, various therapeutic practices related to journaling and narrative).

As in the examples of law and business, initial adoption of another profession’s code would be followed by identification of specific contrasts between the ethics (and, implicitly, the definitions) of that profession and of social work. Active pursuit of such efforts could anticipate important developments in the broader society. For example, timely attention to the boundary between the work of social workers and soldiers might have resulted in the development of a sophisticated form of military social work, ready for action when acute needs emerged in places like Afghanistan and Iraq.

Such efforts would no doubt introduce some contradictions and difficulties, as social work attempted to position itself more definitively among these other professions. But those efforts could also effect a stabilizing influence on social work ethics. It appears, in particular, that the unacknowledged adoption of the style if not the substance of legal ethics may have contributed to a growing and perhaps excessive similarity between certain aspects of social work and law. Adding other fields to the mix could beneficially remind social workers that, unlike law, social work does value compassion, collaboration, and a determination to do no harm, as the codes of the medical, public health, and psychology professions emphasize. An informed and ongoing effort to position social work among such other professions could result in a living ethical code consistent with this profession’s varied and adaptive roles.

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