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Eye on Ethics

Of Clouds and Clocks: Ambiguity in Social Work Ethics
By Frederic G. Reamer, PhD
December 2016

Years ago I read a compelling essay, "Of Clouds and Clocks: An Approach to the Problem of Rationality and the Freedom of Man," by the famed philosopher of science Karl Popper, CH, FBA, FRS. I often think about this essay when I encounter difficult ethical challenges. Popper's thesis is elegant and parsimonious: Life is full of uncertainty and ambiguity, alongside some semblance of certainty and predictability. The metaphor of clocks and clouds describes the two ends of the spectrum. Clocks represent the knowable, predictable, and orderly. Clouds represent the unpredictable, disorderly, amorphous, and irregular, Popper says.

In the essay, according to Popper, "My clouds are intended to represent physical systems which, like gases, are highly irregular, disorderly, and more or less unpredictable. I shall assume that we have before us a schema or arrangement in which a very disturbed or disorderly cloud is placed on the left. On the other extreme of our arrangement, on its right, we may place a very reliable pendulum clock, a precision clock, intended to represent physical systems which are regular, orderly, and highly predictable in their behavior.

"According to what I may call the common-sense view of things, some natural phenomena, such as the weather, or the coming and going of clouds, are hard to predict: we speak of the 'vagaries of the weather.' On the other hand, we speak of 'clockwork precision,' if we wish to describe a highly regular and predictable phenomenon," the essay continues.

The Clarity of Clocklike Ethical Issues
Ethical issues in social work, it seems to me, are very much like clouds and clocks. Some ethical issues are very orderly with relatively clear structures that lend themselves to easily understood and relatively precise guidelines. A couple of examples come to mind. In one, a clinical social worker provided counseling services to a woman who was the victim of domestic violence. The client's estranged husband was the perpetrator; he was arrested and scheduled for trial in criminal court. The client was also involved in a civil court matter with her estranged husband; she had filed a petition in family court seeking sole custody of the couple's two young children.

The father's lawyer subpoenaed the social worker's clinical records in conjunction with the child custody matter. The lawyer wanted to see whether the clinical records contained information that the lawyer could use against the mother, especially pertaining to her mental health and substance abuse challenges. Although the mother's lawyer sought to quash the subpoena, the judge wanted to review the social worker's records before deciding whether to order their disclosure.

The social worker reviewed her records and realized that some of her notes did not reflect positively on the mother and might be used against her by the father's attorney in the child custody dispute. The social worker decided to secretly rewrite her notes to exclude the potentially damaging information.

Ethically, this is a clocklike situation. Although the social worker's motives—to protect her client—may be pure, it is clearly unethical to selectively rewrite notes once a subpoena and court order regarding disclosure of records have been issued. The guidelines are straightforward.

In another case, a social work administrator of a family service agency had to file a quarterly report with a key government funding agency that provided a grant for a home-based program that serves families at risk of child abuse or neglect. The report was to include data on the number of families served, services provided, and outcomes. The administrator was concerned about the possible negative implications of that quarter's statistics, which clearly showed a sharp decline in families served and services provided. The administrator worried that the government agency would greatly reduce or withdraw funding. The administrator considered inflating the quarter's service utilization statistics. He reasoned that doing so would protect the agency and its employees, and avoid jeopardizing the agency's financial stability.

This, too, is clearly a clocklike ethical issue. It would be patently unethical for the social worker to inflate and falsify statistics, no matter how noble his motives.

The Challenge of Cloudlike Ethical Dilemmas
In sharp contrast, of course, are the many cloudy ethical dilemmas in social work. These are the instances where there are no easy answers, no clocklike precision or clear guidelines that produce unequivocal answers. Take, for instance, the social worker who provides substance abuse treatment services in a rural community. He is in recovery and, despite his efforts to avoid boundary confusion, occasionally encounters clients and former clients at his own 12-step meetings. The social worker is uncertain about how much information about his own recovery status he should share with clients.

To complicate matters, often the social worker encounters his clients in the town's one food market, church, and at PTA meetings. His 9-year-old son has become best friends with a classmate in the town's lone fourth-grade classroom; he is the son of one of the social worker's current clients. The two friends want to play at each other's homes.

Also, the social worker has received several Facebook "friend requests" from several former clients and is unsure about whether to simply ignore them or contact his former clients to explain why he cannot be a Facebook friend. Further, one of the social worker's current clients is moving several states away to begin a new job and has asked the social worker to continue a counseling relationship via Skype and e-mail so that the client doesn't have to start with a new therapist. The social worker is unsure about current ethics guidelines in the profession concerning distance counseling. Shortly before the client moved, he gave the social worker a carefully selected thank-you gift—a painting that reflected the social worker's obvious interest in seascapes—and invited the social worker to attend his upcoming wedding.

In my experience, a cross-section of seasoned, thoughtful, and principled social workers would have different opinions about the best way to manage these diverse ethical challenges. Over the years I have found that social workers have remarkably different opinions about the application of ethical standards and guidelines to these sorts of complex issues involving management of boundaries in small and rural communities, practitioner self-disclosure, the appropriateness of distance counseling, and how to respond to clients' gifts and invitations. These are much more cloudlike ethical challenges, about which reasonable minds may differ.

Clouds and clocks exist in every profession. Physicians, lawyers, accountants, engineers, airline pilots, nurses, police officers, and dentists, among others, often talk about the distinctions between the easy and hard cases in their respective professions. The hard cases are permeated by the proverbial clouds that require extraordinary effort, persistence, insight, and good judgment in an effort to produce clarity; so, too, with social work ethics.

— 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.