While Philosophy is the investigation of the ultimate questions of life, e.g., Is there a God?, or How do we know what we know?, Ethics (also called Moral Philosophy) is the philosophical investigation of questions about morality (Gensler & Spurgin, 2008). In our everyday lives we are faced with moral dilemmas and sometimes we must quickly judge what decision is the best based on our contemporary principals of knowledge and methodology regarding the circumstances. Occasionally, we are faced with an issue where no amount of sound reasoning completely justifies an action and leaves us asking ourselves, "Did I make the right decision?" While both Kantian and Utilitarian modes of thought have developed criteria for making such decisions concerning morality, they vary in that each model has a different methodology and desired end.
This paper will illuminate a moral dilemma found in the context of the social worker's profession using both a Kantian and Utilitarian ethical critique. Each will illustrate a different a viewpoint on how to go about solving the moral issue, while simultaneously being incapable of fully validating all the potentialities of the social worker's decision.
Obeying an Unjust Policy for Personal Gain
At some point in the career of a social worker, he or she may be asked to promote or perform research projects on patients that may or may not be viewed as creating beneficial knowledge in the relevant field; moreover, the social worker may be asked to omit certain aspects of the project from the understanding of the patient. This is in conflict with Reiff who argued that teaching students with learning disabilities self-awareness is paramount in a social worker's duties, "They need to learn self-advocacy skills to be successful and their self-advocacy skills must be grounded in self-understanding" (Reiff, 2007, p. 49). Any student with a communication disorder could be influenced wrongly since their disorder is basically a problem in understanding (Harris & Turkinton, 2003). An example in a social working context where this type of moral dilemma occurred is when an office required a social worker to encourage students with learning disabilities to go through painstaking experiments that were viewed as intrusive and unjust by the social worker. Furthermore, the social worker was guaranteed that he would receive a promotion if he garnered the most candidates for the study. In contrast, if he refused to promote interest in the study he would be fired.
The inherent dilemma is that while social worker coveted a promotion and preferred to gain it, in order to do so he had to commit to a situation he viewed as unjust where patients were put through unnecessary processes to complete a redundant study to promote relevance for the self-interest of the office, and ultimately gain more funding for more wayward studies; a cycle of performing research for the sake of continued funding to stay relevant to perform more research. Moreover, the social worker believed that the action would be justified, since he will eventually use his promotion to end unjust and redundant research projects and focus on more fruitful endeavors in the office.
The Kantian Approach
The entire make-up of the Kantian approach is based on living by laws that hold up a priori. What Kant means by this is that our mode for creating universal laws of conduct cannot stem from empirical knowledge, i.e., sensations and experiments that show causality in the finite world, but from universal reason that spans across the infinite world (Gensler & Spurgin, 2008, p. 152). Using empirical motives gets messy with imperfect humans who tend to use self-interest, and these can influence us to violate our duties depending on different conditions and situations. What Kant believes is that our reason is necessary to develop our highest good, our good without qualification -- our highest motive to do good because it is a good in itself. While many goods exist in the spectrum of mankind, e.g., intelligence, diligence, courage, these could be bad if used for an unjust purpose. Kant wishes to teach the will abstractly because teaching by empirical methods has transient results; what holds for some cases does not hold for others (Blakney, 1960, p. 164). Therefore, a law is only moral when it satisfies the categorical imperative, which entails that we will act on principals that we can will consistently for everyone (Gensler & Spurgin, 2008).
From Blakney's reading of Kant, in order for the categorical imperative to be followed, an action must fit to a certain formula (Blakney, 1960, p. 165):
1) Let my personal rule of action be fit for general law
2) Let me treat people as ends and never as means
3) Let my acts reveal autonomous willing
4) Let me act as a lawgiving member of the kingdom of ends
Persuading a student to partake in research that will benefit the social worker foremost illustrates a conflict of interest. Living by Kant's moral law must be an end in itself, not as a means to gain recognition, power, wealth, or whatever mortal passion drives us. The promoting of a student to become involved in research that is unjust, even if the eventual result benefits future students with learning disabilities is incompatible with Kant's categorical imperative. He firmly contends that people are not to be used as tools.
Additionally, the social worker cannot in good faith be an exception to the universal law. By Kant's model, the personal rule of action must be fit for everyone for it to be a categorical imperative (Hutchins, (1952). For this to be the case the social worker must enable that all other people can knowingly allow others to be put through unjust processes, in order to gain power to eventually help them in the end.
Kant refuses to use specific cases as he believes it deviates from the pure idea of moral law. With no examples being utilized by Kant it leaves his ideas aloof, abstract, and too absolutist for a practical setting such as a social worker's office. Furthermore, the moral dilemma still exists and afterward students with learning disabilities are under the care and direction of the social worker's negligent boss. By Kant's method, the will of the social worker must be developed by reason so that it will always live by universal laws that are applicable to everyone (Blakney, 1960, p. 167). In the case of the social worker, he should not deceive the students and put them through unjust research practices to gain a promotion in order to help them later. Conversely, if by his actions he loses his job trying to protect the students, he will no longer be in a position to prevent unjust practices from happening to them. In this instance, Kant's moral law cannot save the social worker due to its irreproachable absolutist approach, and in the meantime the students living with learning disabilities suffer.
The Utilitarian Approach
In essence, Utilitarianism focuses on the ultimate good for all parties involved. While this may sound similar to Kant's inscrutable Moral Law, its approach is far looser in concerning the concept of all. The general view contends that we ought always to do whatever maximizes the sum-total of good consequences for everyone (Gensler & Spurgin, 2008, p. 228). It has been stated that this approach of considering the sum-total of everyone's good, and not just our own, is the basis for much thinking in areas of politics and economy (Gensler & Spurgin, 2008, p. 228).
There are various sects within the Utilitarian model that rate the overall good differently. The Classical Utilitarian model essentially uses an A & B. method: if two possible choices occur in a situation, one must estimate to the best of his or her ability the likely pleasure-and-pain consequences of each option on each of the affected parties. By using numerical values, one can create a mathematical table and view the sum-good that can occur from each decision (Gensler & Spurgin, 2008).
John Stewart Mill is considered the foremost proponent of Utilitarianism and was a writer on the subject for most of his life. His view slightly differs from the Classical Utilitarian's as he rates specific pleasures higher than others. In essence, higher pleasures such as knowledge, freedom, virtue, and beauty would rate higher compared with hedonistic pleasures like recognition or fine food (Gensler & Spurgin, 2008).
Applying this mode of morality to the issue of the social worker is flawed at best. In this case there would be a conflict in how the social worker viewed the overall good benefiting everyone. What rating system does he use for the students and himself in calculating the overall good? Where does this system stem from? In one instance he may discourage students from joining the research project since the overall good of the students would be lowered compared to his benefit of gaining a promotion. However, this…