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When Right is Not Easy:
Social Work and Moral Courage

Allan Barsky, JD, MSW, PhD is a Professor of Social Work at Florida Atlantic University and a member of the NASW National Ethics Committee. He is also the author of Ethics and Values in Social 9780195320954Work: An Integrated Approach for a Comprehensive Curriculum, which offers a series of learning modules that will ensure graduates receive a comprehensive ethics and values education.  In the post below Barsky asks how we learn moral courage?

When social workers think of ethics, they often think of the NASW Code of Ethics. The Code of Ethics identifies a list of ethical principles and standards of behavior for professional social workers. It tells us to respect the dignity and worth of all people, to maintain client confidentiality, to promote client self-determination, to maintain high standards of professional competence, and to promote social justice. When ethical guidelines are clear and non-conflicting, they are generally easy to follow. But what happens when social workers know the right way to act – what is ethical – but acting in an ethical manner poses risks to the social worker? Consider a social worker who knows that the executive director is using agency funds for personal benefit, a worker who is aware that a clinical supervisor is acting in a discriminatory manner toward African Americans, or a worker who suspects that key donors to the agency have earned their money through illegal Ponzi schemes? Consider also a social worker who unintentionally breaches the Code of Ethics but is too ashamed to admit it. In such cases, the worker knows that the right thing to do is to confront the unethical behavior or wrongdoing. In practice, workers may do nothing for fear of reprisal. A worker’s fears may include:

• What if I raise the issue and my superiors get angry?
• What if I can’t prove the wrongdoing and people accuse me of being insubordinate, traitorous, or disloyal?
• Am I willing to risk scorn, humiliation, alienation, or even the loss of my job?

On the other hand, if the worker does not confront the wrongdoing, then the worker’s inaction perpetuates the problem.

Knowing what is right does not necessarily mean that workers will do what is right. Often, it takes significant moral courage to do the right thing. Moral courage refers the virtue of having the strength to do what is right in the face of opposition. Moral courage is required to put ethics into action under challenging circumstances (Strom-Gottfried).

So if moral courage is so important, where do we learn it? Certainly, some people learn moral courage from their families and from modeling key people in their formative years. Has anyone heard of a course in moral courage – in primary education, in college, or in any school of social work? I haven’t. If we expect social workers (and indeed all people) to act ethically, shouldn’t we equip them with the skills they need to put ethics into action? Shouldn’t social work education include the development of moral courage?

The question is not simply, “Should we provide education to foster moral courage?” but “What should moral courage education include?” What knowledge and information should we provide, and what types of learning experiences should be used to promote moral courage? How can we ensure that social workers not only know what is the right thing to do, but that they have the moral strength to put that knowledge into action? I welcome your responses.

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