Why is it that good social workers and good Christians so often find themselves in serious disagreement about what is the right thing to do? If we have the same values, why do we so often disagree in practice?
It helps me to conceptualize the relationships between values and practice in the form of a “Principle/Practice Pyramid,” a basic idea I borrowed and adapted many years ago from Arthur Holmes, ethics professor at Wheaton College. The further up the pyramid we go, the more we are likely to disagree.
Bases: The base of the pyramid is formed by our fundamental worldview and faith-based assumptions (religious or not) about the nature of the world, what it means to be a person, the nature of values, and the nature of knowledge. For example: Do we live in a strictly materialist universe or is there a God? Are all values only relative and subjective or does morality have some ultimate foundation?
Principles: On top of and growing out of this foundation sits our core values or principles. As a Christian I understand these to be the “exceptionless absolutes” of love and justice growing out of the nature of God. The social work Code of Ethics might say (and Christians would agree) that this includes service, social justice, dignity and worth of the person, importance of human relationships, integrity, and competence.
Rules: On top of and growing out of this “principle” layer are the moral rules which guide the application of the principles to various domains of life. These are “deontological” parameters that suggest what we morally ought to do.
Biblical examples would be the Ten Commandments, the Sermon on the Mount, and other Biblical teachings that help us to understand what love and justice require in various spheres of life. In the social work Code of Ethics, these would be the specific standards relating to responsibilities to clients, colleagues, practice settings, as professionals, the profession, and the broader society. These rules can guide us, but they can never provide us with absolute prescriptions for what we should do on the case level because in case situations often more than one rule or value might apply.
Cases: At the top of the pyramid sit the specific cases that require us to use the principles and rules to make professional judgments in the messiness of real life and practice. It is here that we will find ourselves in the most likelihood of conscientious disagreement with each other, even when we start with the same values, principles, and rules.
The short answer for why this is true is that we are fallen (subject to the distortions of our selfishness, fear, and pride) and finite (limited in what we can know and predict). And even more challenging, our principles and rules start coming into conflict with each other on this level. It is here that we have to resolve ethical and practical dilemms in which any action we can take is going to advance some of our values (and the rules that go with them) at the expense of some of our other values (and the rules that go with them). Good social workers and good Christians may well find themselves in serious disagreement among themselves as to what makes for love and justice in these specific situations.
Hence—Sherwood’s Maxim: You can’t maximize all values simultaneously. And Sherwood’s Corollary: You have to make the best judgment you can at the time about which of the available options best approximates love and justice—and act on it.
This judgment is informed by your knowledge and skill, but depends most of all on the character you have developed. For Christians, this means having developed the mind of Christ by being a disciple of Christ and seeking the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
David is Editor-in-Chief of NACSW’s Quarterly Journal, Social Work & Christianity, and a retired professor of Social Work. He has been a member of NACSW for 40 years.
(These ideas and others are explored in more depth in NACSW’s journal Social Work & Chistianity and publications such as the new 4th edition of Christianity & Social Work: Readings on the Integration of Christian Faith and Social Work Practice. To read the book’s introduction and for a listing of chapter titles, go to: CSW4.