Social work is a humble profession. It lacks the prestige, status, and rewards of law or medicine. Yet in order for social workers actually to do all we claim to be able to do, we would have to be God. Law claims justice as its essence and medicine claims health. According to The Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) (and NASW’s formulation is similar), “The purpose of the social work profession is to promote human and community well-being.” That is pretty much how Aristotle defines happiness or human flourishing. Law and medicine, by contrast, claim only a small segment of social work’s domain.
In the absence of a more narrowly defined sphere within which we claim expertise, we face a strong temptation to seek to control the lives of those we serve. As professional helpers, we think we know (and sometimes may in fact know) what is best for them. We may sometimes or even habitually use our power and influence to coerce our clients into following the path we lay down for them.
It’s a temptation that works both at macro level, seeking to impose a kind of soft or progressive totalitarianism in the name of our own vision of what is best, and at the micro level of individuals and families. It is the temptation that Roger Scruton calls “unscrupulous optimism” and Thomas Sowell an “unconstrained vision” of social reality. It’s a delusion about the extent to which we enlightened ones can or should impose our will on the backward masses. It looks to expand the reach of the regulative state.
To the extent that it succeeds, this approach squeezes out the space between individual and state that we call variously civil society, intermediary groups, or mediating structures (family, church, markets, voluntary associations, formal and informal groups and networks) – the sphere in which as social animals we live out most of our lives in all their richness and density. It is the sphere that totalitarian regimes and movements, of left and right, seek to suppress, either in the name of the collective or of the individual (whom the state must protect against family, church, market, etc.).
At the micro level, the temptation is strong, since so much practice is with people set on a path of self-destruction. Except in certain areas of sexual morality, we rightly reject the view of self-determination or empowerment that reduces the practitioner to a cipher or robot, approving, providing, or colluding in whatever the client wants as long as it is legal. As Christians, we understand that Christian charity, caritas, or love, willing the good of the other as other, is at the heart of our calling. In social work, this necessarily involves using our professional judgment about what serves the other’s good and what, in a world pervaded by sin, is destructive of it.
Such judgments cannot be evaded responsibly. But they do not warrant becoming a client’s or family’s boss or puppeteer. Love requires equanimity, restraint in the face of temptation to take control of the lives of others for their own good. We do our best for the client and want the best for her. What happens, though, depends not on our will but at least in part on what she freely chooses to do, whether we like it or not. That is as it should be. We do our part and leave the rest to God.
Paul is a recently retired professor of social policy from The University of Hawaii. He has been a member of NACSW for 3 years.