Ethics with Character: Virtues and the Ethical Social Worker -- Paul Adams
Professor Paul Adams of the University of Hawaii's Myron B. Thompson School of Social Work in this peer-reviewed article explores those aspects of social work that "…are not primarily about identifying and resolving dilemmas" (Adams, 2009, p. 83). Adams delves into the "ethical tradition" -- and the potential therein -- that had its roots in "the virtues and character" of social work practitioners from Aristotle and Hippocrates to today's social workers. In other words, how can today's social worker -- and the field of social work -- learn from the past to enhance the field ethically? This paper reviews and critiques Adams' research, which is very interesting and enlightening in the context of values, human interaction, and social work.
Review / Critique of Adams' Article
Ethics, in the view of Strom-Gottfried, refers to the "…embodiment of values into guidelines for behavior" (Adams, 83). And Strom-Gottfried meant that definition to refer specifically to the ethics of social work, not to the "branch of philosophy" that relates to moral philosophy. The ethical values discussed in this piece relate to guidelines as to social worker professional conduct; ethical values vis-a-vis social work also link to the rules, the obligations, the principles and the dilemmas that workers encounter.
In the classical and Christian era ethics related more to "happiness" rather than "obligation"; and ethics related more to "character and the virtues rather than resolving moral dilemmas," Adams writes (84). And when Thomas Aquinas died in 1274, there was a "fundamental shift" (of both philosophical ethics and moral theology) away from the character issues, away from virtues and "habits of the heart" and instead moved into a focus that was narrower, based on what Adams (84) calls "the rightness or wrongness of specific actions" (which is much closer to how ethics is approached today).
There are two positions from which Adams draws his history of ethics on page 85. One, today's ethical decision-making (as an activity of a professional) tends to be more about the life, the development, and "character of the decision-maker" rather than the definitions from older traditions. In the older tradition a human life is a kind of history; the mind remembers actions and is disposed to make "similar choices in the future"; that is, virtues and vices are acquired by "practice and lost by disuse" rather than a matter of "episodic, purely rational choices"(Adams, 85).
In the process of following the historical development of ethics (and the practical application of ethical approaches to behavior) Adams mentions a number of great thinkers and writers along the way, and has sharp criticism for some of them. Philosopher John Stuart Mill's utilitarianism in his "Greatest Happiness" principle, for example, is far off from what modern ethics is all about, the author asserts. Adams takes note of Mill's principle of happiness (Utilitarianism) that wholly relies on the "maximization of happiness -- understood as pleasure" (86). In Mill's approach, to judge an action or rule of action as making one happy could justify what Adams calls "the most monstrous acts." Some lunatic paranoid maniac could find torture or murdering children acceptable and pleasurable, especially if one "…reasonably calculates that the expected consequence of not doing those acts is likely to be worse" (Anscombe, 1958) (Adams, 86). Obviously, Adams has discarded Mill's ethical approach as inappropriate and obsolete as well.
Meantime, an important element in understanding ethical choices (Adams references Kupperman) and how practitioners perform assessments on social worker situations that are "problematic" is not complicated at all, and makes perfect sense. The assessment of an ethics-related problem boils down to the "moral sensitivity" of the social worker. It also boils down to the character of that person, what his or her training and experience has been. In other words, confronted with a moral dilemma, a social worker doesn't have to sit and think about his or her values; the ethics and values are already instilled through experience (Adams, 86-87).
Adams takes the reader back to the era of Aristotle and into the Middle Ages (Aquinas), explaining that the "cardinal" virtues were vital for people to find happiness and "well-being." The virtues were firmly entrenched in the idea of "doing good" and using "practical judgment or wisdom (prudence, phronesis), courage (fortitude), moderation (temperance), and justice" (Adams, 87). These "habits of the heart and mind" thus became part of the Christian ethical tradition, Adams continues. The long and the short of it, according to Adams (p. 90), that the concept of "virtue ethics" defines a "virtuous agent" as one who: "…has and exercises certain character taints or virtues, the virtues then being defined as those character traits a human being needs for eudaimonia." Eudaimonia means to be able to "flourish and live well as a human being," Adams explains on page 90.
Taking virtue ethics a step further, Adams references Boswell, who posits that:
"If I am unsure how to act in a given situation or gray area and I want to act honestly (with integrity), I will seek out someone I know to be honest, indeed more reliably honest than I… I do not have to be a person of great probity myself to recognize such a friend or colleague, just as I
do not have to be a carpenter to appreciate a well-made table…"
Virtue ethics transcend cultures and disciplines even today, Adams assures readers, despite the "erosion of a common moral tradition in the West" (92). Indeed virtue ethics are central to the classical tradition in the West and have a strong link to the East; Adams notes that virtue ethics can be found in Confucianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Jewish and Christian theologies and ancient Greek philosophy as well (92).
Moving on to issues directly connected to social work, social welfare, and human well-being, Adams mentions that the National Association of Social Workers Code of Ethics uses "well-being" three times in the preamble. Hence, there is no doubt that the "primary mission" of the profession of social work is to "enhance human well-being," and today's concepts still mesh well with Aristotle's eudaimonia (translated, again, it reads "well-being, flourishing, or happiness" in the sense of "health" not hedonism or selfish pleasure), Adams explains (93).
The scholarly act of boiling well-being down to the mission of social work in 2011 is by way of embracing Aristotle, and Thomas Aquinas, and the Dalai Lama; promoting well-being means doing what it takes "…for human beings to flourish given their nature" (93). Aristotle in particular linked the human need for virtue in "biology"; and it was clear for the ancient philosopher that virtues were not a "means to human flourishing" but rather virtue actually constituted the flourishing of humans (93). Meantime sixteen hundred years later Aquinas posited that that there were three basic types of good (in Christian theology) that were present and inherent in human nature. All three defined our "telos" (the ultimate end of human nature).
The three types of "good" that were inherent that Aquinas put forward began with the statement "Like all animals, it is a good for us": a) to "maintain ourselves in existence"; b) "to reproduce ourselves and care for our offspring"; and c) in contrast to other creatures living on the Earth, it is also a good for humans to "develop and use the powers of rational thought, and, in consequence, to know and love God (Aquinas, 1981; Williams, 2005) (Adams, 93-94).
On page 96 Adams references some common-sense applications to the "craft" of social work (using MacIntyre's Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry, 1990). The apprentice in any craft (say, woodworker, watchmaker, or physician) must learn what is required of the practitioner, and must "do what is best without qualification" in order to achieve the "highest standard of excellence"…