Fall 2008





Heidrun Wulfekuehler

Osnabrück, Heilpädagogische Hilfe Osnabrück e.V.

Osnabrück, Germany





This article will critically examine the place of three key ethical theories for social work. Before examining these three ethical theories that can be employed in solving ethical dilemmas and/or problem laden situations in social work, we must be clear as to why ethics apply to social work at all.


It could be argued that social work is strictly a technical profession, and that practitioners merely apply the various methods of intervention which they have acquired through training. However, the point of view taken here is that ethical considerations are always substantially involved in social work practice and even constitute the founding grounds for it. Without ethical considerations and presuppositions there would be no social work in the first place.[1]In the following, three central ethical dimensions will be given, without, however, claiming to be all-encompassing.


The Political Dimension

On this level, questions such as the following apply, “How does society position itself towards existing problems? Do we take responsibility for them as a community? Do we ignore them? Do we acknowledge them, but ascribe the guilt and/or responsibility to those who experience the problems (perhaps because we consider them to be morally at fault and deserving of their situation)?” Further, each social worker must make a decision as to whether to stand up to her[2] accountability within the political dimension. Ultimately, she is accountable on that level as well, whether or not she acknowledges it. Political responsibility is inherent in the social work profession. Social workers are not merely to act technically within the boundaries set by laws implemented in society, but they are to actively shape the society within which they are working. They are committed to human rights and to a certain view of the world,[3] thereby also accepting their responsibility within this greater realm. This is the case, even though this might not be obvious to each and every social worker in everyday practice.


The Individual Dimension

On this level, the social worker must ask herself whom she needs to consider in deciding what to do as a social worker. There are many people, institutions, and ideologies to whom the social worker owes consideration, i.e., the client with whom she is working, the people connected with the client, the public providing the money for the service, the agency the social worker is working for, the relevant code of ethics, the agency’s rules and regulations, etc.


The Essential Individual Dimension

This dimension might sound strange at first – Which “essential” part was left out in the previous section “individual dimension”? The essential individual dimension refers to what a social worker believes, feels and thinks personally. What should she do when her personal professional beliefs clash? Should she ignore her personal thoughts and beliefs?


The personal views one holds cannot be “silenced” when working and dealing with values, beliefs and ethical decision making. We are, and must essentially be, involved as a whole person in order to make ethically sound decisions, because this is a substantial feature of who we are as human beings. Essentially, moral accountability cannot be trumped by a role that a person takes on, substituting and overruling her own personal moral responsibility with another code and set of rules developed for this role specifically. 


Put bluntly, what would that look like, i.e., a strict separation between the personal and the professional? How would one know when a “personal” thought enters the inner debate about values, ethical choices, etc.? The separation between personal and professional values could not be a clear one, since our thinking about values is deeply embedded in our being, and one must influence the other. They are unrecognizably intertwined.


However, let me stress that this does not mean that careful reflection about personal values is not possible. Likewise, acting according to professional standards is necessary and possible. Acknowledging that ethical thinking and decision making is such a core feature of our lives, personally and professionally, makes it mandatory to develop a high sensitivity to these issues within the professional realm.


As part of these considerations, in the following I will consider three key theories which can aid in the development of such sensitivities.




Immanuel Kant: Deontological Ethics

Kant referred to the “supreme moral law” by which each and every rational creature was to guide their lives. To Kant, the moral law was an absolute. The question of what is the right thing to do is entirely independent of the consequences of the action. Doing what is right is a matter of following what the law tells us to do.[4] The moral law, the categorical imperative, is expressed in five formulae. Here, only three of the five will be considered, as these contain the core ideas of Kantian moral philosophy.


1. Formula of universal law

“Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.”[5]


When engaging in any action, you must always see this action in a wider context: what would happen if this action was to apply as a solution for anyone in this world in similar circumstances? Would you want people to act like that in all places at all times? In a sense you must see yourself as a potential legislator at anytime. Do you live up to that responsibility in your actions?


Kant stated that when we do not act in this way, we do not actually will that everyone in the world will act like this, but we allow ourselves to be the exception. We actually acknowledge that another action would be the right one and that we are doing something wrong, but we permit ourselves to do so for whatever seemingly plausible reason we give ourselves (e.g., “I will lie this time, so that she won’t be so upset!”).


2. Formula of the end in itself

“Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of another, always at the same time as an end and never simply as a means.”[6]


An “end” or “end in itself” is what is sufficient all by itself. It needs no external justification for being, but demands respect for what it is without external reference. This is what we are as persons. It is unchangeable. We are always and forever the kind of beings who have inherent worth, no matter where we are, what we have done, what we own, what we represent, where we come from, and so forth.


A “means”, on the other hand, is a tool: we use it when we need it (e.g., money is a means to buy food, it does not have inherent worth). This also means when we do not need it, it has lost any value for us (if tomorrow we decide to no longer attribute exchange value for money, the metal and pieces of paper will be worthless). We can ignore it or just throw it away. As rational beings we may never be treated as a means only.


3. Formula of the kingdom of ends

“A rational being belongs to the kingdom of ends as a member when he legislates in it universal laws while also being himself subject to these laws. He belongs to it as a sovereign, when as a legislator he is himself subject to the will of no other.”[7]


Kant explained that as rational beings we are ultimately free: by employing reason, we discover the supreme moral law, which is objectively there. It is not something we create in our minds, but there regardless of whether we acknowledge it or not. It is the absolute guiding rule for how we ought to act. If you deny this, Kant would say that you have not discovered the central feature of your being, namely reason, and further that you are still subject to your inclination and desires. You are thus not a free being and not fulfilling your true purpose in life.


This law is not forced upon us by external forces, but it is discovered by reason. When we use reason and manage to make it our main guiding force in our actions, we see that we want to follow this law. It is then freely chosen, because it fulfills what we substantially are as the beings that we are. “Kingdom of ends” means that all rational beings are in the same boat: each of us discovers the moral law, each of us knows that she needs to treat other rational beings with respect because each has inherent worth and each knows that she deserves to be treated with respect herself. We are all free and equal in this sense. Each of us is an end in itself.


Valuable aspects for social work

Valuable aspects for social work may be listed as follows:


·      Recognize and respect the inherent worth of each human being.

  • Take care of yourself. Do not forget that you are obliged to treat yourself as an end in itself as well and thus are obliged to treat yourself with respect.
  • Consider your actions and their impact from a universal standpoint. The next law might be up to you.


Questionable aspects

Questionable aspects include the following:


  • The view is too strict: following the law can sometimes entail that we show disregard towards other people. It looks as though the law is the most important thing irrespective of why it was needed in the first place: to tell us how we ought to act in order to treat people the way they deserve to be treated. Kant’s view looks as though the most important thing is to serve a principle.[8]
  • Living life from duty: there seems to be no room for happiness and pleasure – Is this how people live their lives?
  • From Kant’s view it looks like as though each person is a “moral island”, each struggling with discovering her essential being (rational) and, from there, trying to discover what would be the right action to take. Yet what about our emotions? I suggest that often we initially sense that there is a moral dilemma not because of a rational thought, but because there is a strong feeling attached to the situation, which seems to push us into beginning to reflect about the issues at stake. The question I would like to raise is this: Is the rational thought about a situation the starting point? Alternatively, is it to be sought within the emotional realm?


John Stuart Mill: Utilitarian Rule Ethics

In contrast to Kant, Mill’s moral philosophy takes into account the consequences of an action in deciding about the right moral action. The so-called “Greatest Happiness Principle” says:


An action is morally right when it leads to greatest good for the greatest number and when it minimizes or prevents pain for the greatest number of people involved![9]


Whether or not an action is morally right is not dependent on whether or not one has followed a rule/law (as we saw with Kant), but whether or not the outcome of the action contributes to the maximization of happiness and the minimization of pain for the greatest number of people involved. This means that in each situation we have to look closely at the specifics of the case. Mill distinguished the action from the agent. An action can be right even if the agent acts from ulterior motives. The moral character of the agent is a distinct issue to Mill.


There are many important qualifications to be made to properly understand the utilitarian principle in the way Mill proposed it. First, Mill had something very specific in mind when referring to pleasure/happiness: He connected it with the human faculty of reason (like Kant). Mill said that humans have the capacity to develop into higher beings, by employing reason. Happiness/pleasure is thus not a hedonistic concept, but it is linked with an idea of universal and absolute truth. Mill would reject that “anything goes” as long as we think we have a good time.


Secondly, Mill had a very communitarian idea – he linked the good/happiness of the individual with that of the community and argued that it was not possible for one to feel happy at the expense of the whole.


Thirdly, Mill insisted on taking into account the long-term versus the short-term consequences of an action. Even if something looked as though it would maximize pleasure to a great extent in the short run, the action would be considered to be morally wrong if the consequences were bad in the long run. This demands careful reflection about each situation, which Mill thought possible since humans have a long history from which they can learn.


Valuable aspects for social work

Valuable aspects for social work may be listed as follows:


  • Public responsibility is inherent in social work. Social workers do not merely work in the interests of individuals, but are connected with the broader community and need to acknowledge their responsibility within this realm.
  • It is important to consider the “real” interests and concerns of those who are involved.
  • Human beings can improve their world if they fully develop their capacities.


Questionable aspects

Questionable aspects include the following:


  • Is it possible to calculate people’s “happinesses”? This in itself requires that we make value judgments about what is more worthy and important to consider. 
  • Mill says that there is a common and absolute understanding of happiness. If we employ our faculty of reason and all other faculties we have, then we will arrive at a state of enlightened and superior notion of what it means to live a good life. Is this true? Furthermore, how do we deal with cultural differences? What about societies where happiness and pleasure are not seen as important?


Aristotle: Virtue Ethics[10]

According to Aristotle, an action is right when it is done with the right motive and when it is done by a person who is a good person.[11] Moreover, the person who develops herself into the kind of being who does what is virtuous will live well, since she will live according to the purpose of human beings (strive for happiness).[12] To determine whether an action is right it is essential to look at what kind of person is engaging in the action. The outcome of an action is not the decisive feature, but the motive from which the agent engages in the action. An action is good/virtuous when it is done by a person who is virtuous. Aristotle thought that the ultimate reason why we engage in any action is to attain happiness.[13]


To be a good/virtuous person is not easy. Aristotle emphasized that it was not enough to do something good once and to then somehow receive the “label” and status of being good, thereafter being able to show it off like a medal. He saw it as a never-ending process and activity: if you do not use it you will lose it. The idea of “habit” is central to this, as you can only develop yourself into a “virtuous person” through habit: “For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them, [...] so too we become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts.”[14]


To illustrate this idea of habit and pleasure in doing what is right, I will turn to an analogy of a person training to become a long-distance runner. When starting, training seems to be pure torture and one does not know why one goes through with it. At some point something changes: there is a moment where one begins to enjoy it and the running is no longer an effort, but is instead something that one needs in order to feel good and to thrive as a person. At this point running has become the person’s “second skin”. However, if the long-distance runner stops training and instead sits on the couch every day, eating all sorts of bad food, she no longer can be considered a long-distance runner, even though for a long time she has been running regularly. By no longer engaging in the activity, she has lost all claims to being what she would be through the activity and she will likewise lose all pleasure in running. If she starts again, it will at first be an unpleasant experience. This is the same for virtues: When you engage in virtuous activities, you will turn yourself into the kind of being who does virtuous activities and you will start to enjoy it.


Valuable aspects for social work

Valuable aspects for social work may be listed as follows:


  • Reflect closely and carefully on your actions. Consider what kind of a person you are, what kind of actions you engage in and what kind of a person you want to be. Developing virtues will imply that the person, who is a social worker, will turn into a particular kind of being (honest, trustworthy, competent, caring, dependable, conscientious, etc.).
  • Be consistent and authentic in your life. Essentially, the private person cannot be separated from the professional. We would corrupt ourselves as people by doing what is essentially contrary to that which we do professionally. There has to be an essential soundness, since everything we do plays into what we are as a whole person. Splitting ourselves into a “professional” and a “private” person does not work. This is not to say that there should not be professional standards.


Questionable aspects

Questionable aspects include the following:


  • Does it make sense to not separate the action from the agent? In the social work context, the persons affected by an action might not care at all about the motives of the agent and whether or not a virtuous person engaged in the action. It is part of her ethical obligation to consider whom she will affect, how, and by what she does, and this is an important consideration aside from deliberating about what action she should engage in to act from virtue.[15]
  • The questionable aspect is at the same time a strength: virtue ethics might be hard to follow at all times to solve ethical dilemmas in social work, but what they can help with is to keep the social worker reflecting carefully about her actions and herself. The demand to be sensitive towards one’s own feelings, beliefs and thoughts could be fulfilled by taking the attitude proposed by Aristotle as presented here.



The theories here presented do not provide clear-cut answers and they are not tools that will allow practitioners to “simply” apply them in order to know what to do. Doubts and uncertainties will always remain a part of ethical decision making. We must live with this situation and accept that making ethical choices implies a never-ending struggle. Still, the theories can help to support us through this struggle: they are crutches by which we can make our way through the often unsteady terrain. The point made by the three thinkers discussed in this paper is that ethical decision making is an essential and necessary feature of being human and that, in fact, we can manage to deal with this task – this is perhaps a truth about us, the first certainty from where to start the endeavour.






Aristotle (2001) The Basic Works of Aristotle: Nichomachean Ethics. Translated by W.D. Ross. Ed. by Richard McKeon. New York: Modern Library.


Kant, Immanuel (1993) Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals: On a Supposed Right to Lie Because of Philanthropic Concerns. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company.


Mill, John Stuart (1979) Utilitarianism. Ed. by George Sher. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company.



[1] Unless one wishes to argue that a state puts social work into place from self-preserving motives (keep the “outsiders” in a society under control and satisfied so that there is no upheaval).

[2] I will use “she” and “her”, not to exclude the men but because I wanted to choose one for better flow of reading. Since the greater number of social workers is female, it makes sense to choose the feminine case.

[3] See the different Codes of Ethics and the Statement of Principles from the International Federation of Social Workers, National Association of Social Workers, British Association of Social Workers, etc. The political involvement and responsibility are clearly pointed out there.

[4] This is not to be understood as “blindly” following rules in the sense that someone would obediently follow rules an authority has put before them. Kant assumes the rational creature to be a thinking and autonomous being. To him, following the supreme moral law implies that a person has a deep understanding of it and recognizes it as the supreme principle by which rational beings meaningfully live their lives.

[5] Kant, Ak. 421.

[6] ibid., Ak. 429.

[7] ibid. Ak. 433/434.

[8] Kant’s theory easily invites criticism because it seems to be too strict, not allowing one to look at the specifics in a given case. However, I wish to point out here that Kant cannot be dismissed that easily and a thorough discussion of his view is necessary to do justice to it, which, however, cannot be done here.

[9] Mill, p. 7.

[10] Teleological view: all actions aim at some end, i.e., the aim is attainment of human excellence, the virtuous being, striving for human excellence.

[11] According to an objective standard. It is not enough to mean well. Aristotle had in mind an objective standard that could not be changed according to personal views. Kant, Mill and Aristotle all had in mind an objective standard. All three of them are not moral relativists, but would claim the existence of a truth that is out there to be discovered and followed by rational beings.

[12] Aristotle, 1097a and 1098b.

[13] Not to be misunderstood as chasing one pleasurable moment after another. To Aristotle, “happiness” meant an activity from the rational principle in accordance with virtue. As humans we are striving for excellence. This will be achieved when we act upon our nature: rational capacity combined with the goal to reach excellence, employing and developing the virtues we have trained ourselves to have.

[14] Aristotle, 1103b.

[15] It is important to keep in mind that Aristotle strongly pointed towards the human being as a social being to keep a check on this point. He would always tie the community responsibility to the action of a person. I wish to mention this here to present a full picture of the Aristotelian view. However, the issues must be discussed in more depth elsewhere.



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