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

Webster, Paul (2011) A critical analytic literature review of virtue ethics for social work: beyond codified conduct towards virtuous social work. Doctoral thesis (DPhil), University of Sussex.

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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.

Item Type: Thesis (Doctoral)
Schools and Departments: School of Education and Social Work > Social Work and Social Care
Subjects: B Philosophy. Psychology. Religion > BJ Ethics > BJ1518 Individual ethics. Character. Virtue Including practical and applied ethics, conduct of life, vices, success, ethics for children
H Social Sciences > HV Social pathology. Social and public welfare. Criminology > HV0040 Social service. Social work. Charity organization and practice Including social case work, private and public relief, institutional care, rural social work, work relief
Depositing User: Library Cataloguing
Date Deposited: 09 Aug 2011 11:55
Last Modified: 17 Aug 2015 13:37
URI: http://sro.sussex.ac.uk/id/eprint/7085

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