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Jim Poulter Author of Books on Aboriginal Culture and Child Protection
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The Next Review of the Code of Ethics Starts Now

In: VSW Newsletter, Vol. 5. No. 1. Autumn Edition, 2011.


This article appeared in the Autumn 3011 edition of the VSW newsletter leading up to the May 2011 Ethics Forum as a means of stimulating interest. The article is therefore also reproduced in the brief text ‘Reflective Value Based Ethics in Social Work’. Essentially the article critiques the process of the ethics review that took place over the course of 2010. Because it is only a brief article it is reproduced in full under.

The Next Review of the Code of Ethics Starts Now

Victorian members put a great effort into the recent review of the code of ethics. Initially our input into the early stages of the review was compromised by the fact that the Branch Ethics Group had been virtually non-existent over the previous four years. However things quickly gathered pace. An internet blog site was set up to aid the interchange of views between members, and this was supported by the development of an email network between interested members. The result was a wide ranging number of comments and suggestions for improvement of the code, but importantly, what developed was a fairly comprehensive theoretical foundation that underpinned the Victorian submission.

Unfortunately the national review process did not facilitate a national interchange and cross-fertilisation of views between members, but instead tended to filter the submissions in a linear process. Accordingly no theoretical rationale for the changes to the code of ethics has been made explicit. Instead, the impression was directly given that the changes to the code were more on the basis of a ‘popularity contest’. That is, those ideas with the most ‘votes’ were the ones included. This therefore begs the question as to whether the code might include some contradictory elements that rest on differing theoretical assumptions.

In this regard for instance it was strongly argued in the Victorian submission that the concept of the equal worth of all human beings, enunciated by John Rawls in his landmark 1972 book ‘A Theory of Justice’, is in fact the foundational value of the social work profession. The Kantian principle of ‘respect for persons’ has long been touted as the core value of social work, but this was seen as a natural corollary to equal worth, not the actual foundational value.

When you think about it, a good argument can be mounted that equal worth is in fact the notion at the core of all anti-oppressive, anti-discriminatory and human right practice. Not only this, but equal worth is also a key concept within pluralist theory. It is in reality the foundational value of plural democratic societies such as Australia.

Searching for social work’s prime instrumental value

The Victorian submission therefore proposed that the foundational value of 'Equal worth of all persons' consisted of three corollary values expressed as:

  • Respect for human dignity and autonomy
  • Culturally safe and sensitive practice
  • Collaborative practice

It was strongly argued that collaborative practice is in fact the prime instrumental value of social work. That is, collaboration is the focus through which all our values are articulated in to practice. It is the empirically proven cornerstone of effective practice and reflects the whole orientation of our profession. Probably the most treasured epithet of our profession is that social work is about doing with not doing to.

Flowing on from the prime value of equal worth, ‘Justice’ was in essence seen as an operational value that consists of both individual justice and social justice. That is, justice is the process by which imputations or delimitations on an individual or group’s equal worth is sought to be redressed. Social justice was seen to be only one aspect of the equation and ‘social justice’ does not adequately reflect our daily direct practice concerns with individual justice and advocacy. In the Victorian submission the two corollary values to ‘Justice’ were therefore seen as:

  • Commitment to individual justice and equity
  • Commitment to social justice and human rights

The welcome move in the new code to a more incremental view of societal change

It was noted in our submission that the 1999 code mentioned social justice seven times, but did not mention individual justice once. Social justice had therefore by word substitution been associated only with distributive justice, and seemed to be strongly based in Marxist theory. This had been reinforced by the 1999 code’s constant reference to the need for ‘structural’ change and the omission of any concept of systemic change of a more incremental nature.

Fortunately, the 2010 code has a much stronger emphasis on ‘systemic’ change and on advocacy processes in achieving this. This was certainly an important theme of the Victorian submission which was derived from pluralist theory, so it seems that the new code has gone some way to adopting more of the rhetoric of pluralist theory.

However, much like the 1999 code, the 2010 code now mentions social justice nine times, but still does not mention individual justice even once. Despite this however, the implications and inferences toward individual justice have been greatly strengthened by more frequent references to advocacy and systemic change, ideas that are more aligned to pluralist theory. Therefore whilst the implicit reliance on Marxist theory has been lessened through a greater inclusion of pluralist theory, Marxist theory still comes through as the principal theory of change underlying the code.

The adoption of new constitutional values

When these and a number of associated ideas were expressed to the review, it was indicated that some were actually outside the scope of the review. This was because they related to the values expressed in the constitution, which can only be changed by a 75% majority vote at an Annual General Meeting.

Submissions were accordingly made by Victoria to the national board for some specific changes to the values expressed in the constitution. The board quickly saw the merit of the proposals and threw their support behind the Victorian suggestions. All the proposals were then unanimously adopted at the AGM in November 2010, when the new code was also launched.

These new, reworded or relevant constitutional values included the following:

  • Belief in the equal worth of all human beings
  • Commitment to Australian plural democratic society with equality under law and equal opportunity
  • Respect for others, including compassion, equity, fairness and justice
  • Acceptance of the uniqueness of each individual
  • Belief in collaboration as the cornerstone to effective practice
  • Individual choice and both personal and collective responsibility

The new tension between the values expressed in the constitution and code of ethics

It is interesting that these suggestions for changes to our constitutional values were adopted unanimously by the membership at the 2010 AGM. There is a clear theoretical rationale underpinning these values which was made explicit in both the Victorian submissions to the ethics review. However whilst the membership embraced the changes, the same suggestions had not been embraced by the ethics review.

This therefore now raises the question as to whether the new code is consistent with our constitutionally stated values, and whether there are conflicting theoretical assumptions in our constitution and our code of ethics. Or is there just a healthy level of tension? This is not stated with any purpose to make mischief, but as a stimulus to ongoing debate on our values and ethics. Reviewing our code of ethics should not be a once in a decade linear process, it should be a continuing organic process involving the whole membership.

The task before us is to have an ongoing debate, not just at an esoteric level about what sort of moral or social theory should underlie our code of ethics, but at a practical level as well. We need to be examining the practice implications of the new code, not with the aim of developing it as a proscriptive rule book, but as an accurate reflection of the processes and principles involved in our ethical decision making.

In this regard the new code has continued to develop the good groundwork laid in the 1999 code on the ethical decision making process, but the point is we cannot rest on our laurels. Social work has led the way in applied ethics over the last fifty years and we need to continue to set the pace. As the title of this paper states, the next review of the AASW Code of Ethics starts now.

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