Soundings

Allan T. Demaree
(Social) Workers Unite!
Spring 1997

Leave it to the National Association of Social Workers to bring its code of ethics up to date with an ever-more-complex world. To take but one example: the old version of the code, which dates back to 1979, devoted 13 simple words to prohibiting sex with "clients" (as social workers call the people they serve). The new code, adopted in January, dedicates 488 words to discussing every imaginable contingency concerning sexual relations, sexual harassment, even physical contact among co-workers, former clients, current clients, and their friends and relatives. For social workers, it seems, it's never enough just to say, "Be responsible and exercise self-control."

But what's most striking in the new code is the candor with which the NASW articulates its sociopolitical worldview. No one will be surprised to learn that the 155,000-member group, whose board of directors unanimously endorsed Bill Clinton for reelection and resolutely opposes welfare reform, trumpets political correctness and tilts decidedly to the left. But here, for the first time, the NASW provides a full social workers' credo.

The code lays out a familiar and—one would think—by now discredited view of the poor as victims of social and economic injustice. It defines the profession's "primary mission" as enhancing human well-being, with particular attention to the "empowerment" of the "oppressed." Social workers, it says, strive to end all "forms of social injustice," including poverty, and pursue their ends through "advocacy," "community organizing," and "social and political action." As the NASW sees it, the poor bear no responsibility for their lot in life, and the system is the villain.

What's almost entirely missing here, of course, is any expectation that social workers will help clients to examine their own defects of character and judgment or to take responsibility for themselves. This jibes nicely with the code's command to respect "ethnic diversity" and constantly display "cultural sensitivity." Far be it from social workers to make judgments, impose standards, and demand that their impoverished clients change their ways. Indeed, social workers should recognize "the strengths that exist in all cultures" and educate themselves about "the nature of social diversity and oppression with respect to race, ethnicity, national origin, color, sex, sexual orientation, age, marital status, political belief, religion and mental or physical disability."

The NASW's original code, written in 1960, focused narrowly on how social workers should behave toward their clients: "I give precedence to my professional responsibility over my personal interests," "I respect the privacy of the people I serve," and so forth. It all fit neatly on one page—and it deserved respect.

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