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Philosophy and Social Work


with considerably more historical precision than Heidegger, who is more
concerned with proving that reification is the permanent structure of the
human mind. That not only this question but the whole book was largely
conceived as a response to Luk§cs has been convincingly demonstrated by
Goldmann, in Lukacs and Heidegger. But, as Lukacs has himself pointed out,
Heidegger’s philosophy as a whole is an implicit cri tique of Marxist
philosophy as such.

Radical Philosophy, Nos. 25-27.


It would, however, be as logical to argue, for example, that Popper’s preoccupation with Marxism shC’ws that he was a communist.

I am not for a moment suggesting the.t this was what Waterhouse intended;
but I am sure he would agree that this attitude towards existentialism in
particular is not an uncommon one.

See, for example, BT, p.320.

BT, pp.63-64.

BT, p.164.

Philosophy and Social Work:

The LegitiMalion of a
Professional Ideology
D. J. Clifford
In the 19th century there were close links between
philosophy and social work. The moral social and
political issues that arise in social work were of
vital concern to British neo-idealists, and social
work as a profession owes much to the influence of
these philosophers at its foundation. However, social
work soon lost its interest for philosophy, until in
the last two decades British analytical philosophers
have started to pay it some attention once again.

Unfortunately, the interest that has been paid so far
has not been very beneficial. Often it has been a
rather distant, patronising interest as expressed in
the view that ‘ … so long as philosophy and philosophers remain withdrawn from the substantive issues
(of social work), it is inevitable that ideology
should flourish’ [1], as if philosophy itself were an
indubitably objective and neutral tool of analysis.

This paper will argue that not only have recent
philosophical contributions not been neutral, they
have positively helped to reconstruct and sustain
ideological values in the social work profession.

Values in social work
As social work is commonly regarded as a liberal
semi-profession, it is not surprising to find liberal
values reflected in its literature. It is a frequent
assertion that social work ideas reflect the values
‘ … held to be central to the existence of Western
liberal democratic society, and to Britain in particular’ [2], and these include above all ‘ … the
primary importance of the individual’, and’ … a
parliamentary democratic system of government’ [3].

Like J.S. Mill, liberal social work values are concerned with simultaneously protecting the freedom of
the individual, and also allowing for the morally
important influence of the community to exert, in
some degree and in some respects, its effect on
individual character. The liberalism underlying
social work illustrates this moral concern with individual action in the context of a participatory democratic society. The moral attitude is more fundamental them a specific political commitment, and is

compatible with a variety of political views. It is
the moral concern with both the individual and society which legitimates a type of interventive activity
aiming to balance the interests of the individual, and
the interests of others to their ultimate mutual
benefit, as expressed in the British Association of
Social Work’s code of ethics: ‘The profession accepts
responsibility to encourage and facil~tate the selfrealisation of the individual person with due regard
for the interests of others.’ [4]
Some social work authors ignore the question of
values, taking a ‘scientific’, medical or practical
orientation towards their subject matter – and usually
committing themselves to broad liberal values by
default. However, many social work texts, facing the
pressing moral and political dilemmas of social work
practice, do make explicit reference to values. It
is the formulation of a largely forgotten philosopher
of social work, E.C. Lindeman, which became the basis
for expressing liberal values in many social work
texts. He was a teacher at the New York School of
Social Work from 1924 to 1950 and was deeply
influenced by Dewey. His work has been studied,
utilized and popularised by G. Kcnopka, whose book
on group work refers to Lindemann’s ‘ … distinction
between primary and secondary values, the first ones
representing basic ethical demands, and the latter
ones growing out of cultural mores which change in
time and place’ [5]. She argues that ‘The clear
~cceptance of primary values, and the demand of
honest investigation into the social worker’s own
value system are basic to social group work practice’

[6]. She identifies these primary values by saying
that ‘The key values of social work are ethical ones
since they concern themselves with interpersonal
relations. They are: “justice”, and “responsibility”,
combined with “mental health”.’ [7]
The importance of this distinction and of the
identification of primary values in social work js in
the assumptions that these values are: (1) basic
(i.e. universal, and not a subject of political and
social debate); and (2) moral (since they ‘concern
themselves with interpersonal relations’ at an individual level). These ‘basic’, ‘moral’ values thus
underlie other social or political values. The

distinction thus helps to establish a broad liberal
view as the basis of social work. In her study of
Lindemann’s social work philosophy, Konopka’s discussion of the distinction between primary and
secondary values brings this out clearly. She concludes that: ‘The preceding discussion shows clearly
that social work is based on absolute values, namely
the dignity of the individual, and the responsibility
of the individual for others.’ [8] This distinction
has been taken up on both sides of the Atlantic,
helping to preserve the ‘ultimate’ values, as against
the ‘intermediate’, and ‘instrumental or operational’

values [9].

The American example is paralleled by the British
social wprk establishment both in respect of the distinction between primary and secondary values, and
the description of the basic values in moral, personalistic terms. The Central Council for Education and
Training in Social Work published a report on values
in social work which states that:

‘Primary values’ are the broad and generalised
values characterising a whole social outlook.

The value of ‘respect for persons’ is an
example of a primary value, and there is a
wide consensus of agreement that this is the
value underlying a great deal of Western
liberal culture. [10]
Furthermore, this central liberal value is ‘The value
to which the social work profession most frequently
lays claim’ [11]. The British Association of Social
Workers also makes a similar distinction between
‘ultimate values’ and ‘instrumental values’, asserting that: ‘ … there is a broad consensus amongst
social workers about ultimate values in social work’

[12]. Numerous other works utilize the same kind of
distinction between primary and secondary values,
sometimes with slightly different terminology, but
invariably they describe the basic values in terms
of a moral concern with the individual in society.

It is only in recent times that liberal ideas in
social work have been under serious attack, and this
has usually been at a social and political level.

Traditional ways of doing social work, especially
individualistic casework, came under heavy criticism
from the left in the 1960s and 1970s, ruffling the
social work establishment. However, there was little
criticism of the basic moral stance taken up by social
work theorists. The distinction between primary and
secondary values has therefore continued to be
particularly useful to the liberal establishment in
helping to reserve a suitable basis for an
‘apolitical’ code of ethics, in which the conception
of morality is conveniently enshrined as both the
basis of a profession, and also a central feature of
the culture, disguising the extent to which a particular concept of the moral has a particular range of
implications for politics and society. Obviously,
this basis of ultimate values needed some justification in itself – but this provided British academic
philosophy with the opportunity of performing a
socially useful function: reconstructing the social
work profession’s basic ideology.

The legitimation of social work values
In the 1950s and early 1960s the dominating themes of
moral philosophy, such as emotivism and prescriptivism, offered little help to social workers searching
for firm foundations. It was part of the liberal
academic consensus that there was a very wide range
of considerations that could be counted as ‘moral’ and
therefore a person was free to choose other than those
officially promoted in social work. However, the
development of British moral philosophy in the 1960s
and 1970s saw a revival of interest in utilitarianism

and Kantianism, and this made the subject of direct
use to social workers. For example, in a study of the
nature of social work, Z. Butrym makes use of G.J.

Warnock’s neo-utilitarian ethical position on the
‘ … amelioration of the human predicament’ [13].

What was of more significance than the occasional
reference by social workers to current trends in
ethics was the developing interest of academic philosophers in the value base of social work. At this
point, philosophy had reached a stage where it could
more than adequately help to provide a legitimating
ideology. One of the first philosophers to get
interested in social work in recent times was Dorothy
Emmett, whose contribution was based on the view that
moral judgements can be ‘reasonably grounded’, and
that the general principles of ethics relevant to
social work was that ‘ … people should be helped to
build up their own moral wills, and their own integrity’ [14]. This brief paper set the tone for subsequent discussion: the view of moral judgements as
founded on rationality, impartiality, and a respect
for persons as independent individuals.

It was a colleague of Emmett’s at Manchester,
Raymond Plant, whose book has been used for the past
decade as a basic text in social work. The book
sought only’ … to describe and analyse the concepts
which others use’, and not ‘ … to argue for or
against the use of particular concepts’ [15]. It
thus sought to characterise the nature of the ethical
principles at the basis of the casework relationship.

But, as Eromett had already noted, ‘ … anyone who sets
out to discuss the meaning of ethical terms will be
bound to produce an ethical theory, which can be controverted’ [16]. Accordingly, Plant’s account of
casework principles is not just a description, but a
justification in terms of the Kantian argument that
‘Respect for persons … is a pre-supposition of
having the concept of having a moral principle at
all’ [17], since ‘If I am rational then I will respect
others as sources of argument, of rationality, and
therefore as moral agents’ [18]. He then shows the
tension between this basic social work principle and
other aspects of social work, presenting therapy,
reform or revolution as an ‘insoluble conflict’ which
arises out of these tensions, reflecting the fact
that ‘ … implicitly at least, the theory and practice
of social work raise in an immediate and important
manner some of the most difficult problems of social
and political theory’ [19]. But the scope of this
debate has been limited by his initial commitment to
a particular conception of morality: the ‘insoluble
conflict’ is over the social and political means to
this moral end.

If Emmett and Plant laid the foundations, it has
been R.S. Downie who has been mainly responsible for
further refining a framework of legitimacy for social
work. His general stance is even more determinedly
liberal than Plant’s. In a Postscript to his study
of social ethics, he admits to having ‘ … a~tempted
to restate the viewpoint of liberalism in a way that
incorporates the insights of mid-twentieth century
socialism of the “welfare state” variety’ [20]. His
ethical position is a strong form of Kantianism,
which he has elaborated in several places, and his
chairmanship of the CCETSW Working Party of values
resulted in a document which clearly showed the
imprint of his position [21]. His understanding of
‘respect for persons’ is as ‘ … an attitude which
combines a regard for others as rule-following, with
an active sympathy with them in the pursuit of their
ends’ [22]. It is thus broader than Plant’s, including ‘feeling’ and ‘desire’, as well as ‘rational
will’ in the object of respect. Downie regards respect for persons as ‘ … pre-supposed by the content
of a particular type of moral discourse’ [23], which

is identified as ‘Western liberal culture’, and the
political implications are spelt out concisely:

‘ … social improvements can be brought about by cooperation with the state’ [24]. Social work is thus
seen as rational human action, coping with the rights
and duties of different social roles, so that the
self-determination of clients as moral agents is
maximised and balanced against the rights of others
within a liberal democracy.

A further contribution to the legitimation has
been made by Plant in his study of the concept of
community. He moves closer to Downie’s position in
orienting himself towards reaching a ‘liberal theory
of community’, in which a community worker is not only
committed to the ideal of community, ‘ … but at the
same time, qua social worker he must have a very deep
respect for the individual’ [25]. Plant emphasizes
that community work and social work are complementary
aspects of the same endeavour, both committed to
‘ … a range of values of a liberal sort’, values
which ‘ … we are forced to choose’ [26].

There is thus now a legitimating liberal philosophical framework to which social and community
workers can appeal, professing to justify and describe
the moral basis of the principles on which they operate. Subsequent contributions have modified and added
to this framework. For instance, Watson has argued in
favour of ‘respect for human beings’ rather than
‘persons’, and Downie and Loudfoot have extended
ethical analysis towards more practical issues,
including policy-making and the use of skills [27].

Elsewhere, an analysis of client self-determination
concludes by appealing to ‘ … the basic moral assumptions of our society’ [28], in the style of Plant and
Downie. The most recent contributions by the latter
two philosophers extend their liberal moral views
outwards from social work into the wider fields of
social services and medicine. Plant tries to link up
the principle of respect for persons with the concept
of meeting basic hl~an needs, in order to justify
state welfare provision [29], whilst Downie elaborates
upon the same principle in the context of the ‘caring
professions’ of social work and medicine [30].

This philosophical intervention in the field of
social work, whilst not always received without criticism of its remoteness, has been significant in its
support of established liberal ideas. It has had
some direct influence partly through Downie’s contribution to the CCETSW document on values, and through
the use of books by Plant and Downie as standard
texts on social work courses. Their vindication of
social work ethics has come at a crucial time when
social change and research evidence had cast doubts
upon the profession.

A critique of moral values

Some recent contributions to ethical theory which
utilise a Marxist approach help to situate the contribution made by the academic philosophers. This
shows that the academics have succeeded in constructing a particular form of moral concepts, but one
which is related in specific ways to different
groups in society. It is neither theoretically nor
socially neutral, but has contestable implications
that social workers need to know.

It has been convincingly maintained that what is
historically unique about a particular morality is
not only its content but its foPm. Whilst different
societies must overlap moral concepts in the area of
basic human needs, the characterisation of these
general facts of human life cannot be entirely va1uefree, but will reflect the forms of specific moral
concepts. Thus, general, humanitarian, and ‘primary’

moral principles cannot be regarded as neutral, even

though they cover the same kind of ground where
‘ … certain human interests are so fundamental and
so general that they must be acknowledged universally
in some fo~ and to some degree’ [31]. Even if it is
the case, therefore, that the content of a particular
morality is non-invidious, in the sense that its
principles try to cover the needs of all without discrimination (such as ‘respect for persons’), its form
and structure are not neutral, and it was in this
respect that ‘ … Marx called the whole established
notion and practice of “morality” into account’ [32].

It is an important part of Marx’s view of bourgeois
morality that it cannot be condemned except within
its own terms. But this implies more than a reiteration of the cultural relativity thesis because
‘ … it was as a whoZe that Marx condemned capitalism,
… based on an analysis of its inner workings, and
its position in human history’ [33]. But this is not
simply a ‘moral’ view, since it does not separate out
moral from political, social and other values. Nor
is it merely theoretical, insofar as its view of
society expresses the attitudes and demands of the
dominated classes in society: ‘ … the dominated
class … will experience what cannot be said’ [34],
but Marxist theory tries to say what ‘cannot be said’

– the class values that are only partially formed
within capitalism. It is thus possible to contrast
with established liberal values other emergent and
different values emanating from the experience of
common suffering and collective action [35].

In this context, I only wish to draw out the
general contrast between the form of the concept of
‘morality’, and the values contained in Marxist
theory. Whereas Marxism is consciously non-universal
in its internal connection to one social class rather
than another (because it is the dominated class), it
is characteristic of morality in class society to be
universal. For instance, the universalism of Kantian
principles is functional in class soci~ty ‘ … because blanket obedience to them here and now supports
exploitation and deception’ [36], and ‘ … easy
conformity with authority [37], regardless of their
humanitarian content. Skil1en illustrates this by
arguing that: ‘ … to refrain on principZe from
harming or lying to the bosses or the officers of
the state is to consent to exploitation by those
whose good is typically the harm of the exploited’

[38]. This foPm of morality is also exemplified in
the utilitarian use of universality: ‘ … that it is
the good of all which is to be pursued by each individual; this moral imperative taking absolute priority
over the naturalistic good of each individual’ [39].

The assumption behind the ‘universal’ form of morality
is the existence of common interests, and the relative
unimportance of power relationships and inequality
between individuals.

A second structural feature of morality is that it
is ‘ … typically experienced as a quasi-external
command, and as a prohibition against a natural
impulse’ [40]. Whereas Marxism has an obviously
positive attitude towards the satisfaction of the
wants and needs of the dominated classes, it regards
these wants as socially structured and constrained.

But morality is typically concerned with restraining
‘natural’ impulses: ‘ … the negation of needs,
rather than the satisfaction of them’ [41]. This is
particularly clear in anti-naturalistic ethics such
as Kant’s, where moral action is duty for duty’s sake,
a form of self-control over inclination: ‘An unbridgeable gap is placed between the natural values
and moral imperatives, and the latter are supposed to
take absolute priority’ [42]. Naturalistic ethics
such as utilitarianism take wants as naturally given,
thv.s artificially reducing potential conflict over
goods. Either way, this moralistic form – the intern25

alisation of the demand to control the satisfaction
of impulses and wants – serves to maintain the interests of the socially dominant class, by reducing
the demand for goods from the dominated classes.

Finally, it is clear that the form of morality as necessarily personal, individual and voluntaristic contrasts
sharply with Marxist values which do not separate out
personal from social and political values, and which
do not set individual human action in a voluntaristic
category apart from the sociological, economic,
political and psychological factors governing human
behaviour. Some versions of existentialism take this
aspect of moralism to an extreme, but it is typical
of a wide range of moral thinking, leading to an
opposition between ‘ … an understanding of the
action, which sees it as an intelligible response to
a situation’, and a moral view which ‘cuts short all
understanding’ [43]. The form and structure of
morality as being a matter of individual personal
action is in itself opposed to a Marxist point of
view: ‘The normal political implications of personalist ethics is “classless” liberalism’ [44].

In sununary I ha,ve argued that Marxism is a theory
about society that contains a value-slope which
favours working class values and interests. But it
is a theory which stands in an antagonistic relationship to the whole concept of morality as it has been
understood by a wide range of philosophers, including
those who have been appealed to by social workers
[45]. The implication is thus that the concept of
morality is itself not neutral but is socially
structured along lines which favour one set of
interests rather than another.




It is necessary to make one or two qualifying remarks.

Firstly, there should ideally be a detailed historical
study to support this conclusion, as I do not wish to
suggest a simple functionalist account of social work
values, which are in any case more complex, contradictory and varied than the above brief sketch can
possibly show. Secondly, I am sure that both at the
level of social work values, and at the level of
ethical theory, the analysis could be made more
accurate by complementing and adding to it a feminist
critique. The centrality of ‘respect for persons’ in
the ‘caring’ professions is not coincidentally related
to the fact that at the level of practice, it is
largely women’s work. I do not feel competent to
make this critique.

Thirdly, I should ideally justify using the term
‘ideology’ but space forbids. My use of ‘ideology’

in this context, therefore, is to signal two judgements about primary social work values. Firstly, that
they cannot be taken as a neutral ‘humanitarian’ base,
forming an inescapable moral obligation for all social
workers, and an uncontestable foundation for a professional code of ethics. Secondly, that they represent a particular expression of some of the values of
the dominant class in our society. An important
qualification is that it is not being implied that
primary social work values are to be dismissed as
entirely worthless. This would be incompatible with
a Marxist conception of ideology: the ideas and values
of a dominant social class should be subsumed and
transcended by a more comprehensive theory [46].

This is precisely what British academic philosophers
have not done: they have merely helped to elaborate
and legitimate an ideology of basic values already
established in the textbooks, codes and practices of
social work.



L. Hunt, ‘Social work and ideology’, in N. Timms and D. Watson (eds.),
PhiZ.osophy in Soaial Work, RKP, London, 1978, p.22.

C. Pritchard and R. Taylor, Soaial Work: Reform or Revolution? RKP, London,
1978, p.12.


British Association of Social Workers, A Code of Ethias for Soaial workers,
BASW, Birmingham, 1975 (my emphasis).

G. Konopka, Soaial Group York: A Helping Proaess, Prentice-Hall, Englewood
Cliffs, NJ, 1963, p.71.

G. Konopka, op.ait., p. 77.

ibid., p.70.

G. Konopka, E.C. Lindemann and Soaial Work PhiZ.osophy, University of
Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1958, p.179.

M. Siporin, Introduation to Soaial Wcrk, MacMillan, NY, 1975, p.73.

CCETSW, Working Party Report, Values in Soaial Work, London, 1970,

ibid., p.28.

BASW, The Soaial Work Task, BASW, Birmingham, 1977, p.24.

Z. Butryrn, The Nature of Soaial Work Praatiae, MacMi 11 an , London, 1976,

D. Emmett, ‘Ethics and the social workers’, in E. Younghusband (ed.), Soaial
Work and Soaial Values, AlIen and Unwin, London, 1967, p.20.

R. Plant, Soaial and Moral Theory in Casework, RKP, London, 1970, p.3.

D. Emmett, Rules, Roles and Relations, MacMillan, London, 1966, p.83.

R. Plant, op.ait., p.20.

ibid., p.21.

ibid., p. 90 .

R.S. Downie, Roles and Values: An Introduation to Soaial Ethias, Methuen,
London, 1971, p .187
CCETSW Working Party, op.ait., pp.16-l7.

R.S. Downie and E. Telfer, Respeat for Persons, AlIen and Unwin, London, 1969,

ibid., p.155.

ibid., p.23.

R. Plant, Corrorrunity and Ideology, RKP, London, 1974, p.36.

ibid., p.83.

D. Watson’, Social services in a nutshell’, and R.S. Downie and E.M.

Loudfoot, ‘Aim, skill and role in social work’, in N. Timms and D. Watson,
PhiZ.osophy in Soaial Work, RKP, London, 1978.

R.F. Stalley, ‘Determinism and the principle of client self-determination’,
in F.E. MacDermott (ed.), Self-determination in Soaial Work, RKP, London,

R. Plant, H. Lesser and P. Taylor-Gooby, Politiaal Philosophy and Soaial
Welfare, RKP, London, 1980, especially Chapter 4.

R.S. Downie and E. Telfer, Caring and Curing Methuen, London, 1980.

P.F. Strawson, ‘Social’morality and individual ideal’, in G. Wallace and
A.D.M. Walker (eds.), The Definition of Moral~ty, London, 1970, p.lll (my
emphasis) .

A. Skillen, Ruling Illusions, Harvester Press, Sussex, 1977, p.133.

A.W. Wood, ‘The Marxian critique of justice’, Philosophy and Publia Affairs,
Vo!.l, No.3, p.277.

P. Corrigan and D. Sayer, ‘Class struggle and “morality”’, Radiaal
PhiZ.osophy 12, 1975, p.2!.

Cf. A. Arblaster, ‘Liberal values and socialist values’ in R. Miliband and
J. Saville (eds.), The Soaialist Register, Merlin, Londop, 1972.

A. Skillen, op.ait., p.132.

A.C. Maclntyre, A Short History of Ethias, RKP, London, 1976, p.198.

A. Skillen, ibid.

A. Collier, ‘The production of mora} ideology’, Radiaal Philosophy 9, 1974,

A. Skillen, op.ait., p.126.

A. Collier, op.ait., p.lO.

ibid., p.9.

R. Norman, ‘Moral philosophy without morality?’, Radiaal Philosophy 6, 1973,

A. Collier, op.ait., p.lO.

Cf. M. Simpkin, Trapped within Welfare, MacMi II an , London, 1979,
pp.95-100, for a similar attack on social work ethics, but restricted to
Kantian interpretations.

A. Arblaster, op.ait., p.97.

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