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date: 19 October 2021

The Philosophy of Ethics for Macro Social Workfree

The Philosophy of Ethics for Macro Social Workfree

  • Cecilia AguayoCecilia AguayoPontificia Universidad Católica de Chile
  •  and Magdalena Calderón-OrellanaMagdalena Calderón-OrellanaPontificia Universidad Católica de Chile


The concept of ethics in social work is the practical knowledge based on professional experience. To understand ethics in macro social work, first, ethics and morals will be described broadly as well their relevance to social work identity. Then, codes of ethics, standards, and ethics committees are presented as components of integrity systems. In the same way, professional principles and values together with their relation to macro–social work definitions are reviewed. These account for procedures that display autonomy, reciprocity, reflexivity, and conflict acceptance to arrive at prudent and fair decisions. As an applied ethics, social work ethics is concerned with the systematic analysis of ethical issues in practical contexts. In this sense, the work is focused on decision-making in macro social work, bringing out the challenges that professionals face and how they address these challenges. This analysis will be done considering the moral dilemmas that might arise for social workers in practice with/in communities, organizations, and the public policy arena. Finally, to argue decisions and actions in professional practice, some philosophical approaches are presented, which are selected according to their relevance to macro social work. Summarizing, communicative ethics, the ethics of conflict, the ethics of recognition and moral offense, and intercultural ethics are reviewed in order to avoid all kinds of fundamentalism and relativity in professional action.


  • Ethics and Values
  • Macro Practice
  • Social Justice and Human Rights
  • Social Work Profession


Social work has traditionally been established based on principles and values that articulate a professional and disciplinary mission. In fact, the definition by the International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW; 2014) highlights that social work is the profession that promotes social development, social cohesion, and the empowerment and liberation of people, emphasizing principles such as social justice, human rights, collective responsibility, and respect for diversity.

These principles build a practice that moves between two perspectives: micro and macro social work (Rothman & Mizrahi, 2014). Whereas the former focuses on providing clinical services to individuals and families and changing the behavior of individuals (Brueggemann, 2014), macro–social work practice pursues social change in social systems (Mor Barak, 2020). The macrodimension of social work includes professional actions developed in organizational, community, and policy arenas, as well as the implementation of management and administration activities, policy advocacy, and collaborations with business, nonprofit, and grass-roots organizations (Mor Barak, 2020; Netting, 2013).

Regardless of whether the focus is on a micro- or macrointervention, the practice of social work must be based on theories, epistemological approaches, and ethical frameworks (Matus, 2013) from which reality is understood. In particular, ethical frameworks and approaches of moral philosophy allow social workers to reflect and argue their moral decisions on professional practice (Banks, 2012).

This means that in macro social work, it is possible to identify values, ethical problems, and moral philosophy approaches that allow for discernment what is required to justify such decisions (Hafford-Letchfield & Dillon, 2015). To illustrate this requirement, this article presents the case of a social worker who leads a team in a migrant service. Eventually, the social worker will have to face critical situations and, as a manager, will have to make ethical decisions: for example, when, due to overdemand for care, the well-being of the team is opposed to the welfare of users. In this case, the social worker must decide whether or not to continue providing quality care to people in critical situations despite the team’s exhaustion due to constant demands. In this situation, the professional, besides recognizing the ethical question, should identify the steps to be taken to solve this ethical issue.

Thus, to solve this problem and other ethical questions inherent to macro social work, there are components of the ethics and integrity systems that allow for a better foundation for decisions. Then, just as some theoretical frameworks are more pertinent for analyzing the macroreality, and professionals in the microfield use other methodologies, there are values, principles, and foundations of moral philosophy that are more coherent with the macrodimension of the profession.

In this way, this article focuses on describing the social work ethics that allow coherently sustainable interventions that direct transformation in organizations, communities, and public policy while aiming for social justice.

Some essential counterpoints must be considered when studying ethics in social work. First, there is general agreement that social work is traditionally practiced in two areas, the micro-area, inaugurated by Mary Richmond, and the macroarea, sustained by James Adams (Austin et al., 2016). Both approaches are social constructions elaborated to understand reality and sustain professional action. Therefore, their limits are rather blurred. Indeed, all social work professionals will need to develop macrointerventions to solve problems faced by individuals or a small group. On the other hand, those who work in the macroarea inevitably need to connect with individuals and recognize their individuality in the midst of interventions (Netting et al., 2017).

In keeping with this reality, the code of ethics agreed upon by the National Association of Social Workers (NASW; 2017) stated that regardless of their area of intervention, social workers should be aware of their dual responsibility to both individuals and society. That is, professionals on the micro- or macrotrack should work to ensure social justice and recognize and promote the value of individuals.

Second, it is necessary to note that the present work describes ethical perspectives that allow people to argue decisions on the practice of macro social work from the tradition of Western moral philosophy.

To meet the article’s objective, the concept of ethics for social work will be first defined, identifying its relevance to the macropractice. Along these same lines, integrity systems will be described to present social work’s most frequent ethical problems and dilemmas. Then, frameworks of moral philosophy consistent with social transformation in organizations, community, and politics will be discussed. Finally, the article analyzes the values and principles that sustain macro social work.

Specifying Categories of Ethics and Morals

Ethics is practical knowledge, which differs from epistemological, theoretical, methodological, and technical knowledge. It is a knowledge that guides human action and our behavior (Cortina, 2009).

In micro and macro social work, these types of knowledge have their own identity. However, in professional practice, their interrelation and interaction are required, depending on whether it is a micro- or macrointervention. In this sense, ethics as an ethic for social work, cannot be split up. It will be the components of ethics, such as certain values, principles, and philosophical frameworks, that will allow focusing on the ethics for macro social work.

Ethics has been defined as the study of morality, that is, the study of rules of behavior regarding what is right and wrong, good, and bad (Banks, 2012). It is also recognized as the creation of real systems of morality that prescribe what people should do (Bell & Hafford-Letchfield, 2015). For Aranguren (1993), it was a matter of distinguishing between lived morality—morality—and thought morality—ethics.

In a properly philosophical language, ethics is a type of knowledge that seeks to rationally guide human action. Thus, ethics is a practical knowledge that guides individuals to discern behavior and what they should do (Cortina, 2008).

Therefore, ethics or moral philosophy provides rationalities to deliberate what is fair and prudent in professional decisions. Some frameworks of moral philosophy are prudential ethics (see Aristóteles, 1999), calculating ethics and utilitarianism (see Mill, 2001), deontological ethics (see Kant, 2013), communicative ethics (Apel, 1980; Habermas, 1990), and intercultural ethics from a critical hermeneutic tradition (Fornet-Betancourt, 2004; Salas, 2019), among other perspectives. In these traditions, a difference is made between ethics—a particular ethical rationality—and morality, which integrates values and norms of traditions (e.g., Jewish morality, Christian morality, and Indigenous morality).

Thus, social work appropriates philosophical knowledge to reflect and argue about the morals that subjects, organizations, communities, and society as a whole build, namely, historically assumed norms and values with which the profession deals (Aguayo et al., 2018).

As has been pointed out, traditionally ethics is the study of morality. However, ethics could also be understood from its etymological study. In this sense, ethics refers to ethos, a word from the Greek that fundamentally means the place where one lives, but likewise a way of being or character (Aranguren, 1993). Therefore, it is possible to establish that social work has a moral character that distinguishes between right and wrong. This idea assumes that professionals must choose and make decisions considering the ultimate aims that the professional community has historically given itself.

Character is formed by the professionals who, through their choices, shape an ethos, a purpose of their actions, and therefore their legitimacy in the eyes of society. So, the more distance between the ethos, the purpose of a profession, and its own actions, the greater its delegitimization will be. For example, a social worker who only seeks to manage an organization efficiently and, however, fails to guarantee the integrity of clients, which is part of the ethos of the profession, will lose the trust of the public (clients, colleagues, superiors, etc.), affecting the profession as a whole.

This means that professional practice is not only a means to achieve something outside the profession, such as a salary or recognition, but an activity that has an end in itself. In the words of Aristotle, “professional practice is not poiesis, an action through which one obtains an object situated outside of it, but praxis, an action that is carried out by itself; it is not praxis ateles, without an internal end, but praxis teleia, which contains the end in itself” (Aristotle, in Cortina & Conill, 2000, p. 14).

In this way, social work is an activity that must be understood by its very purposes. This set of goals is called professional ethos. It reflects the internal norms and principles that legitimize the profession (Sandoval & Bratz, 2017) and provides the basis for making the most prudent and fair decisions.

Ethics can have two meanings, from moral philosophy and from an etymological perspective. From the first, social workers base, argue, and clarify moral decisions in the face of ethical dilemmas and problems. In the second sense, social workers make decisions considering their purpose, which has been historically conquered. In the professional ethos resides their character and moral strength to make decisions.

Moral decisions and professional aims must be based on ethical standards. These guidelines are the fundamental values and principles of ethics, which are contained in integrity systems.

Codes of Ethics, Standards, and Ethics Committees: Integrity Systems Components to Macro Social Work

An integrity system is an assemblage of institutional entities, mechanisms, and procedures whose purpose is to ensure compliance with minimum ethical standards and to promote the pursuit of ethical ideals (Miller, 2010). In social work, the most common integrity system components are ethics codes, ethical standards, and ethical committees.

Ethics codes set forth expectations for and attitudes toward professions emphasizing either principles or principles and standards. Principles reflect general ethical virtues (e.g., helping people in need and addressing social problems), which are unenforceable. In contrast, standards describe specific enforceable behaviors members are expected to demonstrate (Leach & Oakland, 2007).

Therefore, to different degrees, codes of ethics attempt to clarify moral conflicts faced by a profession in an historical era. At the same time, a code regulates the duties of professionals based on a set of values that is proposed for their monitoring and sets a list of behavior standards (Rubio, 2007).

Concerning principles, every professional community establishes, as part of their specific knowledge, principles that refer to universally declared human rights such as human well-being, social justice, autonomy, and human dignity. These principles agree with rights recognized in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights precisely because they represent global and extended agreements.

However, deontological codes also account for the relationship between the state and civil society and, therefore the spheres of action where social workers exercise their profession. The code is an ethical–political reference in defense of the duties and rights of professionals. For these reasons, the codes support the advocacy of fairer and more supportive institutions for professionals and the regulation of immoral behavior by users.

The standards, set out in some codes, serve as behavioral regulations and also represent a practical way to apply the principles and values of a profession. Thus, they are limited to specific organizations, territories, and cultures because, although they represent universal principles, they detail specific ways of acting, so they have to be analyzed for each situation.

From the perspective of Sara Banks (2012), deontological codes are public evidence of professional intentions and ideals. Thus, the function of deontology in social work is of great ethical-political importance in order to incorporate a critical ethical perspective, which has to modulate its principles in terms of claims of emergent subjects and the possibility of glimpsing new values in the daily task of the profession (Rubio, 2007).

One ethical component that offers possibilities for expressing the critical capacity called for in deontological codes are ethics committees.

The origin of ethics committees is biomedical ethics. The biomedical discipline establishes that ethics committees are multidisciplinary and multirepresentative groups dedicated to studying the moral problems of medical practice, healthcare, research, and, especially, the formulation of ethical principles (Maliandi & Thüer, 2008). The purpose of these ethics committees is justice, nonmaleficence, autonomy, and charity (Aguayo, 2006).

Social work has developed ethics committees, especially in the area of health (Caras & Sandu, 2018; Holmes et al., 2020; Idareta et al., 2017). There are different cases where ethics committees have been formalized and, at the same time, have been perceived by professionals as a tool to support social workers in terms of quality and growth of the profession (Fletcher, 2019; Hamric & Wocial, 2016). However, there are still paths to be explored.

The existence of ethics committees does not mean that social workers do not act consciously in the face of ethical dilemmas. Ethics committees are one among the different sources that social workers should consult. Other actions to face ethical dilemmas are, for example, discussing the dilemma with a colleague, consulting the Code of Ethics, consulting one’s immediate superior, using common sense, using intuition, consulting the director of service, consulting the official college, consulting a lawyer, researching legal decisions, and attending meetings on ethical issues (Ballestero Izquierdo et al., 2012; Banks, 2012, 2015; Banks & Williams, 2005; Bermejo, 2002; Fóscolo, 2006).

The need for ethical committees for social work practice is justified by its telos—the inherent purpose of the profession—represented by dignity, social justice, and public responsibilities (Aguayo, 2006). In the same way, Bermejo (2002) used the ethic functions in social work, to justify ethical committees. For this author, ethics in social work had three functions: normative (deontological or professional ethics), teleological (telos or end of the profession), and pragmatic functions (resolution of ethical conflicts from everyday life), and the aim of ethical committees is coordinating them.

In other words, ethical committees must facilitate the decision-making of professionals, considering the profession’s norms and aims, as well as the effective resolution of the problem.

An example of the articulating role of ethics committees is related to the confidentiality that social workers must guarantee in their professional practice. Although the ownership of information always belongs to the users, there are special circumstances in which the breach of this confidentiality is justified.

In this example, the deontological character is represented by the principle of confidentiality. The telos refers to defending the dignity of the person and social justice, and the pragmatic is expressed when the professional must make decisions considering the special circumstances that lead to breaking the principle (e.g., saving the life or integrity of another person).

The ethics committee’s role is to guarantee a space for reflection, where the different parties involved participate actively, dialogically, and collaboratively, preparing reports and recommendations for the case analyzed and proposing action protocols. Therefore, ethics committees should address moral decisions not only in a deductive way, namely, the reflection of ethical problems based on references from moral philosophy, but also in an inductive way, namely, from their own social and political experience in which these dilemmas and ethical problems are contextualized.

The research on the role of ethics committees in social work refers specially to solving dilemmas and ethical problems and, in this sense, to protecting the rights of users in the relationship between professionals and institutions. This professional–institutional relationship seeks the protection of autonomy and co-responsibility in moral decisions. Consequently, these committees also seek to collaborate in the formation of ethics in centers and in particular in the formation of committee members, in order to propose to the institution actions for situations in which ethical conflicts arise in a repeated or vocational way (Idareta et al., 2017).

In some way, ethics committees will allow counteracting social policies and programs that, more often than not, seek to control and manage problems and ultimately cover the shortcomings of a liberal and capitalist society (Chauvière, 2008). In fact, social workers are not autonomous professionals; they are hired by agencies that work within the limits of legal rules and procedures (Banks, 2012). Because of that, ethical committees have an important role in social work macropractice. They allow reflection and argument about what is right or wrong in a specific situation collectively.

This is how ethics committees have particular relevance for macro social work. They constitute a methodology to develop integrity systems in the practice of the profession. Indeed, committees represent a relevant space for organizational management that should be developed by managers to facilitate the achievement of the organization’s objectives and as another tool for the learning, development, and motivation of people. In parallel, committees can become an essential tool for community development and professional action, mostly when they are made up of professionals and users, who are also called upon to regulate the profession.

Finally, in the case of public policy, committees have special importance, as they can provide a basis for resolving ethical dilemmas and guaranteeing the public values that originated the policy.

Dilemmas and Moral Problems: A Tension Identified by Professionals

The first part of this work has defined the concepts of ethics and morality. Whereas ethics is a philosophical discipline, morality is understood as a dimension in which we are all included. In this way, “moral” involves thoughts, decisions, and actions regarding good and bad, right and wrong.

Nevertheless, it should not be understood that a moral decision implies assuming a subjectivist or unipersonal position to argue decisions or actions—as a concrete subject with particular values. On the contrary, the moral dimension involves an internal process as thinking and feeling subjects. This moral deliberation constitutes the basis of the professional decision and action, so every professional decision or action implies a moral deliberation, even if it is decided to hand over this deliberation to another agent: institution, law, public policy, hierarchical superior, or institutional norms.

Three forms of moral deliberation could be mentioned: ethical issue, ethical problem, and moral dilemma. The ethical issue occurs when social workers face situations where principles and values are involved (Banks, 2012). Although it is not necessary to decide between two or more values, it is a decision in which there are principles involved—for example, designing a public policy to strengthen the employability of indigenous women requires answers: Who will be the recipients? How will they access the program? These are questions that contemplate specific theories and methodologies but also principles and values.

On the other hand, ethical problems occur when professionals have to make a complicated moral decision; however, they have options to choose from. For example, this happens when a social worker in a managerial position has to decline a new contract due to budget issues. Indeed, there are values at stake in this difficult decision, but no values are in conflict.

Finally, moral dilemmas refer to situations in which there is a conflict between ethical principles (e.g., autonomy vs. well-being). A moral dilemma occurs when there is a conflict between principles that lead to exclusionary courses of action (Ballestero Izquierdo et al., 2012; Hafford-Letchfield & Dillon, 2015). Likewise, it also refers to those situations in which moral arguments are found to carry out an action and reasons not to carry it out (Úriz Pemán & Idareta Goldaracena, 2017).

Therefore, these are situations in which the moral arguments that are found do not determine a single course of action, and precisely for this reason, they represent an ethical dilemma, since none of the paths we can take fully convinces us (Banks, 2015; Banks & Williams, 2005).

In a moral dilemma, we confront values, and that confrontation problematizes our decisions and actions. There is an objective and subjective component in moral dilemmas because they are presented as internal and imperative difficulties for the subject that must make a decision or take action.

In the international context, significant findings regarding ethical dilemmas have been found. One of them shows different types of ethical dilemmas present in the practice of social work in Spain. There was a sample of approximately 700 social workers, within which about 82% of the professionals acknowledge having been faced with some ethical dilemma, in addition to distinguishing 18 types of dilemmas and their prevalence according to the area of intervention (Úriz Pemán & Idareta Goldaracena, 2017).

A qualitative study carried out in Latin America, especially in Argentina, identified dilemmas, contradictions, and ethical conflicts in the profession (Fóscolo, 2006). This research identified problems from different fields of social interaction, namely, social emergencies, social housing, and educational institutions.

On the other hand, Aguayo and Salas (2018) evidenced tensions between the intervention of social and institutional work, where these dilemmas and moral problems occur, with different pressures/tensions between the various users and interests served; between the interests of the users and the institution and the user and public policies; and finally between the professionals and their code of ethics.

It is important to mention that there have a been theoretical contributions related to the dilemmas and ethical problems of social work also from North America, where social workers have begun to face dilemmas related to information technologies (Harbeck Voshel & Wesala, 2015).

Significant studies have been carried out in the field of moral dilemmas that represent the most common dilemmas faced by professionals in macro social work.

Moral Dilemma 1: Social Workers Must Utilitarianly Administer Scarce Resources in the Face of Conditions of Extended Precariousness of Subjects and Users

A public organization dedicated to poverty and exclusion receives funding and technical–methodological guidelines from the government. The selection of participants is made by the political authority, which identifies 40% of most vulnerable families through focalization. In this way, an instruction is given to disengage from the program those who do not comply with attendance regulations. For example, if a person does not attend the program on three occasions, they are disengaged from it. In this case, the professional recognizes that the attendance of users depends on many factors, which, given the participants’ precarious conditions, are difficult to comply with. Therefore, it is easy for a participant to miss three or more meetings. On the other hand, the continuous lack of resources in research on programs and public policies to meet the needs of users in a dignified and promised way has affected professionals’ morality, making it vulnerable since they are the visible faces of projects, especially in the case of social workers.

Moral Dilemma 2: Logic of Profitability in Social Programs

A social worker leads an organization focused on the reparation of child abuse. This organization has experience and knowledge regarding the issue, but it is subject to the technical guidelines of its sponsor. Therefore, the methodology for working on highly complex issues such as sexual abuse is limited, and the organization does not have resources to evaluate the program.

This situation is transformed into a critical issue in which the social worker in the managerial position sees how the implementation of public policy and the normative framework of the UNCRC are diluted. As a result of this decision, the organization focuses only on maintaining the current offer of certain projects without looking at the quality of the service provided.

This type of conflict has been resolved by opting for instrumental rationality, which has given rise to profound moral problems among professionals and institutions.

Moral Dilemma 3: Sustaining Undocumented Migration to Save Lives

A social worker runs a program related to migrant community development. Some members of his community entered the country through unauthorized border crossings. This situation does not allow them to be part of social protection programs. To resolve this, they could reenter the country through formal channels. However, the risk involved in leaving the country exposes them to trafficking, smuggling, theft, abuse, sexual violence, and even death.

Lawyers, educators, and social workers are confronted with immigrants’ reality and therefore with an intercultural ethic. The relationship between professionals and migrants requires understanding the world of traditions, beliefs, memories, values, and principles of the people who are served and often opting for alternative solutions within the limit of legality in favor of saving a life.

Then, according to these cases, some dilemmas or moral problems arise for professionals:

Conflicts between users’ interests and the institution (management, internal rules, resources, etc.).

Conflicts between users and public policies (rights and their realization), referring to the distance between the program, its design and their values, and its actual conditions of execution.

Conflicts between the institution and public policies, which mean an adaptation of public policies to institutional reality because of lack of funds, ambiguous interests in some foundations, and lack of continuity in the programs.

Conflicts between professionals and their deontological code: violation of its principles in favor of the user, the institution, public policy, or personal benefit.

Due to the complexity of the situations described, a list is not enough. Social workers who work in the macroenvironment are called upon by collective welfare principles while coping with oppression. However, in their professional practice, they may find these principles stressed by other values, for which ethical decisions will have to be made.

Moral Philosophy, Ethical Problems, and Dilemmas of Professional Action

Moral philosophy is a contribution to the macro–social intervention of social work since moral judgments cannot be separated from the needs of communities, organizations, and institutions, in short, from a society project, and these are related to approaches of moral philosophy.

According to Cortina (2008), ethics as a moral philosophy has three functions: to clarify what moral is, to clarify its features, and to give morality a foundation—that is, to try to inquire about the reasons for mankind to behave morally and apply the results of the first two to different aspects of social life, which is what today is called applied ethics.

Moral philosophy approaches are as relevant to social workers as the theories that drive their intervention or the methodological approaches that they implement. Macrolevel social workers must recognize philosophical approaches because they allow them to argue their ethical decisions in practice, in the face of specific conflicts. In this sense, it is not enough to identify values or try to behave according to the standards of the profession. Most of the time, when faced with ethical issues, it will be necessary to argue ethically, because the problem supposes a contradiction between standards or values and must be solved based on arguments of moral philosophy.

For this, social workers must establish the necessary relationships between the ethical paradigms and the theoretical, methodological, and technical models involved in the conflict, in order to solve the professional problem in which they find themselves.

At present, the ethical foundations, which seem closer to social work in its macropractice, refer to procedural foundations, conflict, recognition, and interculturality for the current social, health, economic, and intercultural challenges.

Communicative Ethics: Habermas and Apel

Giving an account of the reasons for making a moral decision and relating them to current contexts requires consideration of communicative ethics in the style of Habermas (1990) in conjunction with Karl-O Apel (1980). This moral philosophy allows recognition of the dialogues necessary to resolve moral conflicts, where all those affected can participate in the resolution. This participation must be ensured for all those affected. Likewise, participation must be manifested under equal conditions.

To analyze macro–social dilemmas and ethical problems it is important to establish formal procedures where communication, language, and the worlds of life are vital. The values of freedom, justice, and solidarity lead to agreements and consensus among those affected by a norm. These formal procedures require considering first that all human beings are capable of communicating and therefore are valid interlocutors in the resolution of their moral problems. Second, not any dialogue allows us to reach agreements but only that which responds to certain rules, namely, every subject capable of action and language can participate in the discourse, anyone can problematize any discourse, anyone can introduce any statement in the discourse, and no speaker can participate in the agreement of the rule using processes of abuse of power.

The Ethics of Conflict or Convergence: Maliandi

Communicative ethics needs to be complemented by an ethics of convergence or ethics of conflict because ethical conflicts are present in practical discourses. For this reason, in the words of Maliandi and Thüer (2008), it is about developing an ethics of convergence between two problems: that of foundation and that of conflict. The philosopher recognized that ethical dialogue requires communicative argumentation, where conflict is already contained. Conflict structures give an account of the a priori principles contained in any argumentation, which seek to be validated in any practical discourse.

Four principles that are conflicting in daily life or are experienced in professional practice are recognized: universality–individuality, conservation–realization.

The first dyad, expresses conflict, for example, when a child’s rights are violated by a family member with whom they live, and therefore the child must leave home and the right to live with their family. The second dyad expresses the ethical conflict between the principles of conservation versus realization, for example, social programs and policies that promote the dependence of users (conservation) versus strengthening the participation and the political action of users themselves regarding social assistance and paternalistic programs.

The universality–individuality and conservation–realization dyads are important because they allow the application of a method of moral discernment, that is, a method that accounts for the intensity of conflict in decision-making. In this way, the intensity of conflict is expressed by the distance between the principles that constitute each dyad. Either the approach or the convergence of the principles will diminish the moral conflict in professional decision making.

Ethics of Recognition and Moral Offense: Honneth

Another rationality or moral foundation that guides social workers is ethical conflicts, expressed in institutions that harbor moral grievances or moral contempt.

Honneth, belonging to the Frankfurt School’s third generation, emphasized recognition and nonrecognition as social structures and frameworks produced by capitalist societies (Honneth, 1991, 2011). Contempt affects not only subjects but above all social structures and the relationships between subjects. These structures are manifested in social institutions that harbor forms of contempt and are capable of affecting the processes of intersubjectivity of individuals. It is possible to affirm that ethics is no longer only a communicative process that seeks to agree on norms and principles among communicating subjects or that ethics is only a model for making explicit the conflict between principles; instead, ethics is also a form of social and institutional recognition.

Honneth (1996) started from the premise that every human being or social community seeks recognition, and if it is not granted, it is fought for. When recognition does not exist, it gives rise to ethical pathologies of reason. The ethics of recognition is manifested through love (given by the closest relationships to the subjects), rights (given by the state through legal rights), and the community (recognition that is expressed in bonds of solidarity). If love is not found, violence takes over. When the state does not recognize the rights of its citizens, they feel dispossessed and often seek recognition through violent movements. Simultaneously, if the community despises certain members, those members feel disgraced, which causes greater self-absorption and fundamentalism of their cultural patterns within the group.

Intercultural Ethics: A View From Latin America

Each of the ethical reasonings accounts for an ethic characterized by Western worlds of life. However, cultural diversity, the history of cultures, and their identity processes will reflect axiological worlds that do not necessarily respond to modern philosophical reasons. In this sense, Latin American philosophers (Dussel, 1998; Fornet-Betancourt, 2004; Salas, 2019) argued that a communicative ethics developed by Apel (1980) and Habermas (1990), a paradigm of conflict (Maliandi et al., 2009), and an ethic of recognition (Honneth, 1991) “are too much bent on the faculties of logical-verbal understanding, on the one hand, and too bound to values of Western culture, to be accepted, in theory and practice, from an intercultural point of view on the other” (Bilbeny, 2004, p. 49).

Therefore, it is crucial to consider an intercultural ethics in which the history, the identity, and the value worlds of human groups are incorporated into the moral decisions of professional social workers.

Finally, like theoretical fieldworks, the ethical grounds offer a basis for professional action. So, the ethical foundations discussed here—communicative, conflict, recognition, and intercultural ethics—require an interdependent analysis that guides moral decisions in macro social work. In this way, this analysis will allow practitioners to make prudent and fair decisions.

Values and Principles of Social Work for Macropractice

In social work, ethical values are particular types of beliefs about what is regarded as worthy or valuable for human welfare (Banks, 2015). Likewise, values define macro–social work duties since social work is a profession based on concepts such as justice and fairness (Reamer, 2019).

In a specific way, social work as a profession has principles and values that have been defined and reviewed in different cultural and historical contexts (Idareta et al., 2017).

The fundamental value principles of social work have been laid out in various national and international statements. Table 1 details the values contained in the statements of the IFSW (2018), the NASW (2017) Code of Ethics, and the International Association of Schools of Social Work (IASSW; 2018).

Table 1. Social Work Values by Professional and School Associations




Recognition of the inherent dignity of humanity

Promoting human rights

Promoting social justice

Promoting the right to self-determination

Promoting the right to participation

Respect for confidentiality and privacy

Treating people as whole persons

Ethical use of technology and social media

Professional integrity


Social justice

Dignity and worth of the person

Importance of human relationships



Recognition of the inherent dignity of humanity

Promoting human rights

Promoting social justice

Promoting the right to self-determination

Promoting the right to participation

Respect for confidentiality and privacy

Treating people as whole persons

Ethical use of technology and social media

Professional integrity

Sources: Adapted from IASSW (2018); IFSW, 2018; NASW (2017).

As can be seen, these principles are very similar. The IFSW and the IASSW have the same values. The examples also include values that have a more global character, such as social justice. In contrast, others are more concrete and even operational, such as the value related to the use of technology.

Regardless of the values and recognizing that these have a general character for the profession, certain principles are more consistent with a macropractice and others with a micropractice. Thus, values such as social justice, recognizing human dignity, and the promotion of human rights are linked to a macroperspective of social work. On the other hand, the statements contain principles focused on the individual and on direct intervention, such as respect for confidentiality and privacy and treating people as whole persons.

In this same sense, it is possible to identify three areas of ethical issues faced by social workers that require recognizing different principles and values.

First, there is a field of issues related to individual rights and well-being, where users must make decisions and the professional must safeguard their well-being (Banks, 2012).

Second, there are issues of public welfare, where other institutions besides the users are involved, such as employing organizations and society. In this case, the most important is promoting the greatest good for the most significant number of people (Banks, 2012).

Finally, a third area refers to ethical issues related to inequality and structural oppression. In this area, the responsibility of social work is to challenge oppression and strive for changes in political arenas and in society (Banks, 2012).

In general, these are contrived dimensions, and most professionals will have to go through all of them. However, thinking about the areas in which macro social work is developed, it could be established that, generally, professionals will face ethical questions about public welfare, inequality, and structural oppression.

However, because these norms, principles and values are shared by the entire social work community (see IFSW, 2018; NASW, 2017), the aims of macropractice are shared by the entire social work community. Indeed, all social workers pursue social justice and social transformation (Netting, 2013). In fact, those professionals who work in organizations, communities, or the area of public policy face decision making with the same historical norms and values as their peers who practice micro social work.

Therefore, social workers commit to social justice, equality, the right to life, and human dignity. Consequently, they have the responsibility to dedicate their knowledge and techniques, in an objective and disciplined manner, to help human beings in their development in a way that is consistent with these principles (Bermejo, 1996; Fóscolo, 2006).


The ethical foundations allow reflecting and justify professional decisions at the macrolevel. The communicative ethic proposes that every professional, organization, and community has communicative abilities. Therefore, they have the capacity to make their decisions reaching political freedom, social justice, and solidarity, which, at the same time, are historical principles and values of social work.

Social workers at the macrolevel are at the center of moral grievances, generally produced by capitalist societies. Therefore, according to ethics of recognition, human rights and strengthening solidarity relations between citizens have to be ensured by ethical decisions of professionals.

The intercultural ethics and the moral decisions of the social worker allow us to recognize that the principles and values are deeply rooted in cultural, historical, and identity diversities that are necessary to recognize. Finally, conflict ethics is a model that reflects the tensions between the singular and the universal between the micro and the macro.

Professional ethics refers to a practical knowledge that allows making prudent and fair decisions. Consequently, the ethics for macro social work requires a strong moral character to achieve professional goals, which are defined by social work principles and values historically constructed. The moral character of social work is in its ability to face ethical dilemmas and problems. In this sense, ethical arguments (philosophical) are essential to defend and promote human rights, social justice, and human dignity.


This article was translated from Spanish by Camila Cabello.

Further Reading

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