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Ethical Conflict Among Systems

Author: Debra Smith, LCSW, Chair, Ethics Committee, New Jersey Chapter, NASW

FOCUS Newsletter - October 2000

Originally printed in the April 2000 edition of the NASW New Jersey Chapter’s FOCUS. Reprinted with permission of the New Jersey Chapter.

Social workers find themselves being challenged by difficult ethical decisions. In today’s high-tech world, the informational systems within our Code of Ethics and the legal system often continue to collide and create confusion among practitioners. As such, we need to be clear about just how ethical dilemmas arise and also develop skills to clarify the distinctions between ethical issues and legal ones.

Ethical dilemmas arise in situations where we have to choose between two or more relevant but contradictory ethical values (e.g., confidentiality and protecting a life) or when we face competing or multiple loyalties (e.g. to a client and the agency, or to multiple client systems). Our personal values influence our views of clients, and affect our willingness to take action on the profession’s value base.

The degree of conflict we experience will vary with the degree of personal commitment: the deeper the commitment to personal values, the greater the possibility of conflict with professional values. To facilitate identification and unbiased resolution of ethical dilemmas, the interplay among environmental contexts must also be taken into account. (Grosch and Olsen, 19994, p. 25)

Each situation presents itself as a unique one in which we must weight the competing obligations of the client, the employer, profession and third parties against our own conscience.

Our Code of Ethics provides information to clients and the public about what behaviors are permissible, desirable or mandatory. We must not come to view ethics simplistically.

Our Code is not merely a "laundry list" of "do’s and don’ts." Nor can it ever rightfully serve as a substitute for a thoughtful, creative, and scrupulous approach to professionals practice. It cannot alleviate our responsibility as we struggle with competing demands, multiple values, evolving situations and the anticipation of uncertain outcomes.

We must also be able to distinguish between ethical versus legal behaviors. Our Code requires us to have an aware-ness and general knowledge of the law. The ethical aspects of our profession include questions about our obligations and duties and about what is ethically right or wrong conduct. Questions about the limits of confidentiality, concerns regarding privacy and records and issues about informed consent are representative of causes of ethical dilemmas for social workers (Reamer, 1990, p. 3).

Laws, by comparison, instruct us about the parameters of what we can and can-not do and inform us of what is likely to happen if we commit a prohibited action. A defining feature of law is that it is enacted by legislatures, interpreted by courts and enforced by threat of punishment. While ethical principles are distinct from laws, laws are often based upon ethical principles. For example, the legal principle of "privileged communication" is based on the ethical principle of "confidentiality and privacy." (Lowenberg and Dolgoff, 19996, p. 28)

There are important distinctions between ethics and the law, even though the two are generally regarded as interdependent. While ethics are characterized by a sense of ambiguity, law is said to be definitive. Further, while observance of the law is obligatory and is enforced by threat of punishment, compliance with ethical principles is voluntary and reinforced only by a moral respect for values. Professional ethics, however, may also be reinforced by professional sanctions, ranging from simple censure to cancellation of permission to practice. A professional who is guilty of unethical or unprofessional behavior may find him/herself disciplined by both the profession and the legal system.

A profession that fails to educate its members can only anticipate a trouble-some future. In today’s litigious society, we must be aware of the content of our Code and skilled in discerning when the legal systems intersect the ethical boundaries.

Grosch, William and David C. Olsen. When Helping Starts to Hurt: A New Look at Burnout Among Psychotherapists. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1994.


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