Philosophy & Professional Ethics

If philosophy is to have any relevance in real world, what kind of guidance can it give to people in a practical day to day basis: say to people working with people in caring professions, e.g. medicine.?

One Response to Philosophy & Professional Ethics


    Below is a narrative addressing the issues of ethics I completed for a dissertation in social work. Although relating specifically to social work the issues it addresses could relate to practice in any of the caring professions.

    In considering the role of values in social work practice and their definition I am reminded of Shardlow (2002) p30, who likens social work values to a large slippery fish, i.e. whenever one thinks one gets to grips with it, it slips free from ones fingers. From reading the work of Shardlow I became aware that values and ethics in relation to social work practice can be addressed at a number of levels, ranging from the restricted definition of ‘how should social workers should behave in an everyday manner towards their clients i.e. professional ethics, through to ‘mid range’ and extended definition questions of social work practice. These mid range to extended definitions include the sociology of social work, the epistemology of social work knowledge and the social construction of social work.

    To consider the extended definitions is to generally venture into territory beyond what is required to practice ethically on a day to day basis. In sticking with professional ethics, then I am of the opinion that one can provide a working framework with which one can base ones practice. The first list of social work values was produced by Bistek in 1961, Bistek (1961). The list of values principle has been criticised for various reasons. A second approach that of professional codes of ethics, was also criticised for similar reasons. The most helpful approach I have found personally, is that of universal; moral principles. Paton p91 (1948) quotes that Kant ‘I ought never to act except in such a way that I can also will my maxim should become a universal law’, ‘Act in such a way that you always treat humanity whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simply as a means but always at the same time as an end.’
    These can be summarised as saying never act in a manner that you yourself would think of as unjust and always respect people as individuals and treat them accordingly. Although various authors may pick holes in these principles, they are on an intuitive level for me useful statements of purpose in dealing with clients. As Shardlow states ethical principles can be difficult to pin down, and practising on a day to day basis it is only ones conscience that one has to ultimately determine what governs ones actions.
    Kant’s moral principles to me appear to complement BASW values requirements. The first of these is ‘identify and question their own values and prejudices, and their implications for practice.’ For me the second of Kant’s maxims rings true for this principle. It is necessary for one to identify and question ones own prejudices, otherwise it is impossible to respect clients unconditionally. I have found it necessary to question my attitudes towards offenders and drug addicts, as my previous experience with these client groups had been as a policeman. My initial views of these client groups had been formed years ago, in seeing the effects of their offending and its impact on the victims. On the whole however I felt that I was able to counter such feelings, as I had been able to work on a one to one with the clients, and was able to view them as individuals and to see them from an ecological perspective.
    The second value requirement of respect and value uniqueness and diversity, and recognise and build on strengths, I feel to be closely related to the first; in that to be able to value uniqueness, one must be able to question ones own prejudices. This is because diversity by its nature will lead to one encounter values, beliefs and lifestyles that are alien to one’s own. I found that as well as obvious differences in terms of culture, ethnicity, sexuality etc, there were more subtle examples of diversity. For example in work summary three the case of P was outlined. P was a young man from an apparently stable background who had become involved in drug use and offending. Outlined in the following practice requirement statements is an account of how I had to address P’s offending, though had to be careful not to practice in a manner not to discriminate against P, as although we were both from similar backgrounds, that I should respect his values and life choices were different from mine.
    The third value requirement practice requirement is also related to Kant’s second formulation. By valuing the client as a person, then one can recognise that the client will also feel the need for the right to choice, privacy, confidentiality and protection. Working in the Criminal Justice Field one becomes particularly aware that there will by competing rights and demands, an example being the interests of client confidentiality versus the requirement of producing accurate reports for the court. The dilemma between balancing the needs of the clients immediate wants, long term interests and society at whole, is one in which social workers are often required to adopt a utilitarian (see ref) position, overriding the immediate wants of the individual. The apparent conflict is addressed in value requirement four, which addresses the need to increase control of and quality of lives of clients, but recognises that control of behaviour will be required at times in order to protect children and adults from harm. An example of this being in the mental health field, a client who is severely mentally ill may require detention to protect them and potentially others and from harm, until they can receive treatment. My own view is that although such interventions may be required, in ethical practice they should only used when absolutely necessary and the principle of minimum intervention applied: a principle underpinning much recent legislation, e.g. The Children Act (1995).
    Value requirement number five is also a logical extension of his second formulation that in order to respect the person, it is necessary to identify and take action to counter discrimination, racism, disadvantage and injustice, otherwise the former is impossible. In addition i.e. VR6, it is necessary for one to practice in a manner that one does not disadvantage clients, groups or communities by any of the above, which may be unwitting, but nevertheless a practitioner should always be always careful not to be an agent of disadvantage.

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