Home  |   Subscribe  |   Resources  |   Reprints  |   Writers' Guidelines

Eye on Ethics

The Relevance of Game Theory to Social Work Ethics
By Frederic G. Reamer, PhD
November 2013

A couple weeks ago, I heard a National Public Radio feature about game theory. No, the story had nothing to do with teenagers immersed in online video exploits. Rather, game theory is a remarkably complex academic subject.

Game theory, which was pioneered in the mid-20th century by Hungarian mathematician John von Neumann and Austrian economist Oskar Morgenstern, offers a conceptual framework for studying strategic decision making. It includes analysis and application of mathematical models of conflict and cooperation between rational decision makers. It first emerged as a way to understand a large collection of economic behaviors, including those of business firms, financial markets, and consumers. Over time, it has been extended to analyses of political, sociological, and psychological phenomena.

Game theory ordinarily is divided into two branches: cooperative and noncooperative. Cooperative game theory studies how people work together as members of a coalition to create and capture something of value. In contrast, noncooperative game theory explores the actions of people when coalitions are not permitted and people make decisions independently, without sharing knowledge for their respective benefit.

In the language of game theory, social workers tend to favor cooperative efforts. After all, clinical social workers do their best to help clients prevent and manage conflict. Agency administrators work hard to promote teamwork and minimize adversarial relationships. Social workers in policy positions build coalitions to formulate policies that benefit the commonweal. In short, social workers generally are conflict averse.

That said, some social workers recognize that conflict has its place. Those who serve as community organizers and activists argue that vigorous protest against entrenched and self-serving interests sometimes is necessary in the name of social justice. Social workers who serve in political campaigns for candidates who embrace the profession’s values sometimes engage in competitive tactics to defeat an ideological opponent.

Game Theory and Social Work Ethics
Game theory has remarkable relevance to social work ethics. Consider the following example:

A clinical social worker provided counseling services to a married couple who had considerable difficulty getting along. After four months of weekly counseling, the husband stormed out of the office one afternoon proclaiming that he’d “had enough” and refused to return for additional sessions. The social worker continued to provide counseling to the wife.

Several weeks later, the husband sued his wife for divorce and custody of their two children. The husband alleged that his wife was emotionally unstable and unfit to parent their children.

Shortly thereafter, the husband’s lawyer subpoenaed the social worker’s clinical records. The lawyer was eager to see whether the social worker’s notes included clinical observations about the wife’s mental health struggles that the lawyer could use against the wife during the divorce and custody proceedings.

Three weeks later, the husband filed a licensing board complaint against the social worker alleging that her decision to provide individual counseling to his wife, without the husband’s consent, constituted an unethical conflict of interest.

Unfortunately, the social worker had not anticipated the possibility that her clinical notes might be subpoenaed and her ethical judgment questioned. In fact, the clinical notes included some detailed observations about the wife that did not reflect well on her emotional status. The social worker was eager to protect this confidential information and, as well, defend against the husband’s allegation that the social worker engaged in a conflict of interest.

Akin to cooperative game theory, some ethical challenges in social work can be resolved collaboratively in an effort to protect everyone’s interests. For example, when a clinical social worker receives a gift from a client, the social worker must make an ethical decision about how to manage this boundary issue. The social worker can talk with the client about the gift’s meaning and its implications for their professional-client relationship. Their mutual, cooperative effort can resolve the issue in a manner that protects both parties and their relationship; no conflict is necessary and usually is avoidable.

Similarly, a social work administrator who must make a difficult ethical decision about allocating scarce agency funds can approach the task with a spirit of cooperation. She can bring together colleagues to review all reasonable options and promote shared decision making in a sincere effort to promote what ethicists call distributive justice.

Unfortunately, some ethical matters, as in the case involving the social worker whose former client subpoenaed her records and filed a licensing board complaint against her, entail conflict and adversarial exchanges. When this occurs, social workers sometimes feel the need to make ethical decisions defensively in anticipation of conflict. Such ethical decisions, as in noncooperative game theory, may be driven primarily by self-interest and self-protection rather than clients’ best interest.

Magnanimous and Defensive Ethics
Over the years, I have discovered there are two ways to think about social work ethics. One view—as in cooperative game theory—involves constructive collaboration at its core. Social workers make many ethical decisions in the spirit of collaboration. An example involves social workers who do their best to manage complex boundary and dual relationship issues when they live and work in small, rural communities. Social workers in these situations typically must work hard to manage client confidentiality and inevitable nonprofessional encounters with clients in the community. Their children may be playmates; the client may be the social worker’s auto mechanic; and the social worker and client may share the same physician’s waiting room as patients.

In principle, in such circumstances, social workers and their clients can talk candidly and cooperatively in a mutually beneficial effort to navigate challenging confidentiality and boundary issues. When I have the opportunity to consult with colleagues about such challenges, social workers typically share their earnest commitment to “doing the right thing.”

In sharp contrast, the second view of social work ethics is more defensive and often adversarial. Social workers whose former clients subpoena their clinical records and file licensing board complaints against them—as in the case example above—may feel caught in an adversarial vortex, where opposing parties strategize in a competitive effort. When adversaries challenge social workers’ judgments, social workers understandably respond defensively. In such instances, ethics-related conversations are less about doing the right thing and more about social workers’ efforts to protect themselves against allegations that they violated clients’ rights and mishandled ethical judgments. When this occurs, ethics becomes a contest driven by self-interest rather than a virtue-driven endeavor inspired by professional duty.

Ethics is not a game. Ethical judgments require earnest, deliberate, and principled reflection on matters of moral right and wrong and on professional duty and obligation.

Game theory has much to teach social workers about ethics. In a perfect world, ethical judgments would be limited to cooperative attempts to act morally. Sadly, ethical challenges in social work sometimes entail adversarial proceedings that force social workers to react defensively, much like the focus of noncooperative game theory. Social workers would do well to understand this distinction.

— 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.