The Helping Professional’s Guide to Ethics: A New Perspective, by Valerie Bryan, Scott Sanders, and Laura Kaplan, Chicago, IL, Lyceum Books, ISBN 978-1-933478-04-3, 2016, 180 pages, $39.95.
The Helping Professional’s Guide to Ethics: A New Perspective contributes to social work ethics by proposing a comprehensive framework that differs from traditional principlism. This framework is based on the common morality theory of Bernard Gert (1934-2011), a Dartmouth philosopher and bioethicist. His theory appeals to a common moral system from which more particular moral rules and standards are derived.
The book begins with moral theory, including short summaries of deontology and utilitarianism. The authors critique several social work ethics texts as lacking useful ethical reasoning processes applicable in actual practice. They assert that education that resorts to application of principles or values from ethics codes and decision trees does not enable a thorough understanding of moral action. They then explicate Gert’s theory as a more superior method for decision-making in human services, particularly social work.
Gert’s theory assumes a moral system exists, implicitly, in daily actions; this system can be explicitly described. It assumes all humans are vulnerable and fallible. Humans can agree to avoid harm and agree on fundamental rules to do that. Gert asserts that “the evidence for a moral system is seen in the overwhelming agreement on most benign moral matters...an understanding of the moral system places limits on what is morally acceptable and not acceptable...” (Gert, at al., 2006, cited on page 37). The common moral system is informal, public, agreed upon by all rational individuals, and characterized by impartiality with both moral rules and moral ideals.
The authors rarely refer to “ethical dilemmas,” wanting to complexify our thinking beyond considering ethical issues as only conflicts between principles. From the common morality perspective, a dilemma occurs when a worker might make a decision that knowingly violates a moral rule. The worker then must justify the violation.
The common morality framework uses the Four Component Model of moral development (Rest, et al., cited on p. 23), consisting of moral sensitivity, judgment, character, and courage, and Gert’s 10 moral rules (e.g., do not cause pain, do not deprive of freedom) and five moral ideals (e.g., prevent or reduce [risk of] loss of pleasure). The authors then take readers through confidentiality/duty to warn, competency, paternalism, informed consent, and dual relationships.
This book provides a useful new perspective on the ages-old challenge of moral decision-making in social work. The authors acknowledge that reasonable social workers can, and do, disagree about what constitutes a moral decision in challenging practice situations. They combine universalism (common morality across time and place) with slight discussion about particularism (how one culture might prioritize and apply such common rules). Recognizing there is no single right answer to an ethical question, the authors hold that following the common morality approach will aid social workers to feel more secure in their decisions.
Social workers and clients would need more thorough understanding of ethical theory to find this book useful. This is an illuminating reference for teachers of social work ethics, and, with additional study of normative traditions, is appropriate for upper level undergraduates and graduate students in social work.
Reviewed by Mary S. Carlsen, MSW, LISW, Professor of Social Work and Chair, Department of Social Work and Family Studies, St. Olaf College.