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Towards a New Ethical Consciousness

Author: Ruth Housman, LICSW
FOCUS Newseltter - June 2000

Social work, with its emphasis on social change, with its push towards the alleviation of human suffering, has imbedded within it a core value that speaks to the value of human life, the intrinsic meaning to be derived from our existential need to be saviors, or in other words, the architects of our fate. Social work refuses to accept the notion of apartness, as meaning the separation of society into the haves and the have nots, but strives always for apartness meaning that we, as individuals, have a role to play in the dynamic of creating a better society, one in which being a part, or apartness, takes us to a new dimension of meaning. We are all space travelers these days, venturing with our consciousness into a brave new world whose dimensions are constantly shifting and expanding as far as our imaginations will take us.

The ride is both euphoric and scary as knowledge accumulates at a breakneck speed with information coming at us in quantum leaps from all areas of human endeavor. We stand breathless at the threshold of an era in which the impossible has never become more possible, in which there is a crossing over of virtual reality with reality so that we cannot know where terra firma lies from moment to moment because we are constantly in the stream, reinventing ourselves. I can think of no other point in the history of time when the need for humility has been more pressing than in the current era, this entrance through the gates of the Millennium.

Robert Reich’s keynote speech at NASW’s Symposium 2000 eloquently addressed the issue of ethics in a world that could be speeding out of control if not stopped by careful dialogue which examines the shifting structure of the ground beneath our feet. Life should teach us that we are all of us subject to personal earthquakes and that no one, rich or poor, regardless of circumstance, escapes pain and suffering through illness, and the myriad personal and global catastrophes that inhabit and seem to be a prerequisite of our passage through life. There are, however, choices that we all make on a constant and daily basis. A cogent argument has been made by biblical and other scholars, in poetry and great literature, that the meaning of life lies in these very choices and that we have been put here to wrestle with choice. Whether we believe this or not, choice is an integral part of existence.

Social work, as a profession, has brought the notion of ethical choice to the point of consciousness. Mr. Reich so eloquently pointed out that we in the United States are currently experiencing unparalleled growth and economic prosperity unprecedented in the history of this country. Despite this, we are in the midst of a paradoxical situation in which the poor get poorer and the rich get richer. This paradox is hidden only to those who choose not to see it. The shelters are experiencing unprecedented overcrowding, the network of community supports we promised to provide for the mentally ill released when we decried the institutional warehousing of people was never fully realized, we have a health care crisis of major proportions and our management of resources is directed less towards the fulfillment of the needs of people and even more towards selfish individual for-profit motives. Yet never before in the history of the world have we felt more connected to each other.

The Web is a reality as a metaphor and as a new construct in the way we conduct our business. We are all networked together. This fact about life was known before we honed our new computer sensibilities. This truth about life stems from the beginning of time and is apparent from the smallest molecules of life on upwards into this complex form we call man. The word "alone" in English as the word "apart" has imbedded within it a paradox. If you look closely at the word "alone" you will see that it is composed of two words, elided together, "all" and "one". Although we can act individually we are all one and the deeper recognition of the profundity of this is incumbent on us all, especially at this crossroads of history. We must put the humane back in human at this point in time or we will self-destruct. The values which give life its richness are in the realization of the inter-connectedness of all life and the value of money lies in the morality or values we place in its usage.

In summation, this article is a call to arms. Social workers know what it is to hold hands across the world, to link arms together in a concerted effort to effect social change for the betterment of mankind. Those who work in the trenches know better than anybody what the world needs. We hear the screams of the voiceless of our society and our task, the most noble of tasks as Robert Reich reminded us, is to make ‘them who are us’ heard.


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