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A critical analytic literature review of virtue ethics for social work: beyond codified conduct towards virtuous social work

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posted on 2023-06-07, 16:00 authored by Paul Webster
This submission is based on a critical analytical literature review of the moral paradigm of virtue ethics and a specific application of this to social work value discourse in search of lost identity. It echoes the philosophical academy's paradigmatic wars between 'act' and 'agent' appraisals in moral theory. Act appraisal theories focus on a person's act as the primary source of moral value whereas agent appraisal theories - whether 'agentprior' or stricter 'agent-based’ versions - focus on a person’s disposition to act morally. This generates a philosophical debate about which type of appraisal should take precedence in making an overall evaluation of a person's moral performance. My starting point is that at core social work is an altruistic activity entailing a deep commitment, a 'moral impulse', towards the distressed 'other'. This should privilege dispositional models of value that stress character and good motivation correctly applied - in effect making for an ethical career built upon the requisite moral virtues. However, the neo-liberal and neo-conservative state hegemony has all but vanquished the moral impulse and its correct application. In virtue ethical language, we live in 'vicious' times. I claim that social work’s adherence to act appraisal Kantian and Utilitarian models is implicated in this loss. Kantian 'deontic' theory stresses inviolable moral principle to be obeyed irrespective of outcome: Utilitarian 'consequentualist' theory calculates the best moral outcome measured against principle. The withering of social work as a morally active profession has culminated in the state regulator's Code of Practice. This makes for a conformity of behaviour which I call 'proto-ethical' to distinguish it from 'ethics proper'. The Code demands that de-moralised practitioners dutifully follow policy, rules, procedures and targets - ersatz, piecemeal and simplistic forms of deontic and consequentualist act appraisals. Numerous inquiries into social work failures indict practitioners for such behaviour. I draw upon mainstream virtue ethical theory and the emergent social work counter discourse to get beyond both code and the simplified under-theoretisation of social work value. I defend a thesis regarding an identity-defining cluster of social work specific virtues. I propose two modules: 'righteous indignation’ to capture the heartfelt moral impulse, and 'just generosity' to mindfully delineate the scope and legitimacy of the former. Their operation generates an exchange relationship with the client whereby the social worker builds 'surplus value' to give back more than must be taken in the transaction. I construct a social work specific minimal-maximal 'stability standard' to anchor the morally correct expression of these two modules and the estimation of surplus value. In satisficing terms, the standard describes what is good enough but is also potentially expansive. A derivative social work practice of moral value is embedded in an historic 'care and control' dialectic. The uncomfortable landscape is one of moral ambiguity and paradoxicality, to be navigated well in virtue terms. I argue that it is incongruous to speak of charactereological social worker virtues and vices and then not to employ the same paradigm to the client’s moral world. This invites a functional analysis of virtue. The telos of social work - our moral impulse at work - directs us to scrutiny of the unsafe household. Our mandate is the well-being of the putative client within, discoursed in terms of functional life-stage virtues and vicious circumstance. I employ the allegorical device of a personal ethical journey from interested lay person to committed social worker, tracking the character-building moral peregrinations. I focus on two criticisms of virtue ethics - a philosophical fork. It is said that virtue ethical theory cannot of itself generate any reliable, independently validated action guidance. In so far as it does, the theory will endorse an as-given, even reactionary, criterion of right action, making 'virtue and vice' talk the bastion of the establishment power holders who control knowledge. I seek to repudiate these claims. Given that this demands a new approach to moral pedagogy, the practical implications for the suitability and training of social workers are discussed.


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  • Social Work and Social Care Theses

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  • doctoral

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  • eng


University of Sussex

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