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Eye on Ethics

Social Work’s Moral Soul — The Challenge of Faustian Bargains
By Frederic G. Reamer, PhD
March 2014

Perhaps you read Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust in high school or college, a play based on the medieval legend about a man who sold his soul to the devil for worldly gains. According to traditional interpretations, Faust is willing to abandon his moral values and disregard future consequences for wealth and other benefits. This is what has become known in the literary world as a Faustian bargain.

There are echoes of Faust in contemporary debates involving social work. As every student of the profession knows, social work’s roots are in service to society’s most vulnerable citizens. In the late 19th century, when social work was formally inaugurated, practitioners principally served people living in poverty, immigrants, and people in poor health.

As the profession grew from its roots in prominent charity organization societies, and especially as it embraced the mission of the settlement house movement in the early 20th century, social workers broadened their service to include a wider range of populations in various settings. Over time, increasing numbers of social workers aimed for clinical careers that involve the delivery of psychotherapy and other counseling services to people who struggle with mental health and other emotional issues.

During much of the 20th century, particularly following World War II, legions of social workers moved beyond settlement houses, welfare programs, and hospitals to work in inpatient psychiatric facilities, outpatient mental health agencies, and independent (private) practice.

Social Work’s Mission
For decades, social workers have discussed—and debated—whether the profession has strayed from its ideological and moral roots. Critics such as Harry Specht and Mark Courtney, in their challenging book Unfaithful Angels: How Social Work Has Abandoned Its Mission, argue that social work has lost its soul, as evidenced by the large number of practitioners who train for and engage in private clinical practice that sometimes excludes low-income people.

Others, in contrast, argue that social work’s tent is, and should be, very large, and that it is reasonable for social workers to assist all of society, which for some practitioners may focus on those who are relatively affluent and do not struggle economically.

When the task force (which I chaired) that wrote the current NASW Code of Ethics began its work, the members engaged in thoughtful and spirited discussion about social work’s principal mission. We acknowledged that the profession has evolved and matured since its modest start and now offers services in various contexts and to a range of populations that social work’s founders could not have imagined. For example, today’s social workers serve people who are HIV positive, addicted to gambling and digital technology, and served in highly structured and sophisticated wilderness therapy programs, none of which were known to the likes of Jane Addams, Mary Richmond, or Sophonisba Breckinridge. For many good reasons, social workers serve a much wider range of clients than originally fell within the profession’s original mission.

Early in the Code of Ethics task force deliberations, I proposed adding a mission statement to the document, which had not been included in the two preceding versions (1960 and 1979). I argued that social work’s ethics code should be anchored in a strong statement of the profession’s principal purposes and aims. There was widespread and enthusiastic support from task force members, NASW delegates responsible for voting on the proposed code, and NASW membership.

What is particularly noteworthy about the Code of Ethics mission statement is its unequivocal assertion that the profession is deeply committed to serving our world’s most vulnerable citizens. The language makes it clear that a critically important hallmark of the profession’s mission is service to vulnerable populations and people who are oppressed and living in poverty. Intense concern about social justice, in addition to individual well-being, is one of social work’s distinguishing features.

According to the Code of Ethics, “The primary mission of the social work profession is to enhance human well-being and help meet the basic human needs of all people, with particular attention to the needs and empowerment of people who are vulnerable, oppressed, and living in poverty. A historic and defining feature of social work is the profession’s focus on individual well-being in a social context and the well-being of society. Fundamental to social work is attention to the environmental forces that create, contribute to, and address problems in living. Social workers promote social justice and social change with and on behalf of clients.”

The Profession’s Moral Ballast
Social workers enter the profession for many different reasons. Some feel called to help people in need, whether for religious or secular reasons. Others have struggled in their own lives, received deeply meaningful help from social workers or others, and feel inclined to pay it forward by helping other people in need. Still others—a relatively small percentage, in my experience—have little interest in helping society’s poorest and most vulnerable citizens or engaging in efforts to promote social justice. Instead, they see a social work degree (especially the MSW) as the most expedient way to become a licensed psychotherapist. These are primarily the social workers who drew Specht and Courtney’s attention in Unfaithful Angels.

Every March our profession honors and celebrates National Social Work Month. This is an annual opportunity to reflect on, reexamine, and renew our individual and collective commitment to social work’s core values and purposes. At the risk of sounding chauvinistic, I firmly believe social work is the most noble helping profession on the planet. We are the helping profession that asserts with confidence and conviction its enduring commitment to addressing the private troubles of the world’s most vulnerable citizens and the compelling public issues that surround them and affect their well-being. Social workers do not sell their souls for worldly gains.

In Faust, Goethe wrote, “There are but two roads that lead to an important goal and to the doing of great things: strength and perseverance. Strength is the lot of but a few privileged men; but austere perseverance, harsh and continuous, may be employed by the smallest of us and rarely fails of its purpose, for its silent power grows irresistibly greater with time.”

Strength and perseverance. Now that is social work!

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