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Eye on Ethics

Eye on Ethics: The Aesthetics of Ethical Decisions
By Frederic G. Reamer, PhD
January 2017

Sometimes I marvel at the remarkable skill colleagues demonstrate when they make ethical decisions. In the hard cases, talented social workers have impressive instincts and conceptual ability when they try to sort out the best approach to tangled moral dilemmas. Here's an example: I was invited to join a group of senior staffers at a meeting organized by the clinical director of an agency that serves people with persistent and severe mental illness. Agency staffers include a mix of licensed practitioners—social workers and other behavioral health professionals—and unlicensed people who provide peer support services. Prior to the meeting, the clinical director told me that she had the opportunity to hire several of the agency's former clients as peer support specialists and case managers. The director strongly believed that these former clients, all of whom had been stable for several years, had a great deal to offer clients who were struggling with mental illness.

The clinical director recognized that hiring the former clients offered benefits but posed several ethical challenges that she wanted the group to consider. For example, the former clients who would become employees would develop professional relationships, as colleagues, with other staffers who were once their service providers. In addition, there was a possibility—no matter how remote—that a former client who becomes an employee would need to return to client status, further creating boundary-related challenges. Also, former clients who become employees might encounter current clients with whom they once received services, such as group counseling. Furthermore, the agency had to take steps to ensure that the former clients who become employees respected the confidentiality of people they knew when both were clients. For more than two hours I had the privilege of participating in a remarkably thoughtful discussion among the staffers as they developed comprehensive and rigorous ethics and risk-management guidelines and protocols. It was a thing of beauty.

Social Work Ethics as Art and Aesthetics
During that meeting I thought about the notion of "beautiful ethical decision making." What, I thought, makes an ethical decision beautiful? Is this akin to our judgments about beautiful works of art, music, literature, and poetry? What criteria can we use to assess such beauty?

The concept of art and the metaphor of the artist appear throughout social work. We sometimes speak of a clinician's uniquely effective and novel intervention in a complex case as "artistic." The same is true of a community organizer's artistic efforts to empower neighborhood residents who advocate for affordable housing in their gentrified neighborhood or a social work researcher's remarkably creative and illuminating analysis of complex data. In a lovely passage in her classic 1942 book Learning and Teaching in the Practice of Social Work, Bertha Capen Reynolds, one of the profession's lodestars, wrote, "social work is an art, or it is worse than nothing."

And Hugh England has this to say in his book Social Work as Art: Making Sense for Good Practice (1986): "It becomes clear that there are substantial grounds for locating social work within the tradition of art. Art offers recognition and exploration of the ephemeral nature that marks the subject matter of all social work; it knows the practices of selection and synthesis which social workers must undertake if their understanding is to be adequately complex and coherent. … Art strengthens social work's theory."

Understanding the artistic nature of ethical decision making entails aesthetic judgment. Aesthetics is generally defined as the philosophical study of beauty and taste. The word is derived from the Greek aisthanesthai, to perceive, and aisthetica, things perceptible. The term "aesthetics" was introduced into philosophical parlance about the middle of the 18th century by German philosopher Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten. Aesthetics entails the study of the ways in which individuals perceive, judge, assess, evaluate, or comment about works of art—not just art in the narrow sense, such as paintings, but creative works of any sort.

Philosophers who study aesthetics have taken several broad approaches that have implications for social work in general and social work ethics in particular. One approach is quite abstract and involves the study of aesthetic concepts and the language of aesthetics. For example, what do we mean when we conclude that a particular painting, sculpture, or poem is beautiful? How should beauty be defined? Can it be defined? What constitutes beauty?

Clearly, we can ask comparable questions about ethical analyses and decisions in social work ethics. What constitutes an elegant ethics analysis and decision? What criteria shall we use when we render such judgments?

A second approach focuses on the state of mind—such as individuals' responses, attitudes, and emotions—that are part of the aesthetic experience. The emphasis here is on the observer's reaction to that which she or he observes. In the art and literary world, we ask about how viewing a particular painting or hearing a particular poem moves us emotionally in a way that reflects its aesthetic qualities. By way of comparison, I know that in some instances I am truly inspired and moved by social workers' ethics-related analyses and insights.

One other major approach to aesthetics involves study of the aesthetic object itself. In this domain, philosophers study particular paintings, books, plays, poems, and sculptures to assess their aesthetic qualities. The goal is to assess their beauty or other relevant qualities, just as social workers might assess the aesthetics of ethical analyses and decisions.

Most of us would probably agree that life sometimes produces moments that appear to be stunningly beautiful to nearly every, if not every, observer—perhaps in the form of a striking sunset, a deeply moving aria, or breathtakingly inspiring oratory. British philosopher Anne Sheppard, DPhil, puts it nicely in her book Aesthetics: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Art: "Might there be some elusive quality possessed by all the different objects we appreciate aesthetically which explains our interest in them? … English lacks a satisfactory term for this quality but we may call it 'beauty' so long as we remember that it is a quality which may be found in men and wine and even cows as well as in landscapes, women, horses, and flowers, in plays, novels, and concertos, as well as in paintings, buildings, and songs."

So too with social work ethics. We seem to accept that beauty can be assessed in life's other domains. Isn't it worth thinking about what constitutes true beauty in our efforts to sort through ethical challenges encountered by social workers?

— Frederic G. Reamer, PhD, is a professor in the graduate program of the School of Social Work at Rhode Island College. He's the author of many books and articles, and his research has addressed mental health, health care, criminal justice, and professional ethics.