Thursday, June 25, 2009

Professional Ethics and Ideological Coercion in Social Work

Scratch a secular liberal--or so it seems--and you will find an authoritarian who seeks to use the powers of the state and licensing bodies, along with professional associations and their ethical codes, to enforce conformity and squelch dissent.

In 2007, the National Association of Scholars released a report about the enforcement of the profession's code of ethics in schools of social work. It was called The Scandal of Social Work Education and the scandal alleged was one of ideological coercion on a wide scale, discouragement of open discussion, and suppression of dissenting views. The study cites several cases where students were allegedly coerced into advocating to their state legislatures for causes they opposed. There are several notorious cases of outlandish behavior by instructors and schools, but the NAS survey of leading schools of social work suggested that the problem is endemic and that the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) Code of Ethics was being used to legitimate a particular and narrow political uniformity. As George Will (2007) saw it, NASW "adopted a surreptitious political agenda in the form of a new code of ethics."

As if to reinforce Will's point, a recent article in the online Journal of Social Work Values and Ethics by two Kansas professors, Spano and Koenig, argued for using the NASW Code of Ethics as a sort of ideological screen standing above "personal worldviews" and against which social workers would assess their positions on a range of contentious social issues such as abortion or same-sex marriage. The Code is actually silent on these issues, and not nearly as prescriptive as its critics suggest, but the authors argued for interpreting the code in such a way as to prescribe particular positions. It seems that many schools of social work and their faculties do the same. The article was a sustained attack on evangelical Christians, although in principle their arguments could be used to mute other minority voices (e.g., Marxists') within the profession.

I wrote a critique of their article, which appeared in a subsequent issue of the journal accompanied by their response. I responded to their response to me, again followed immediately by their second response. This final S&K salvo muddied the waters even more, since I do not hold any of the positions the authors attributed to me but actually agree with much of what they say. So I wrote a letter in response (my last word in the exchange!) which is forthcoming. The original article and subsequent exchanges can be found in the Journal of Social Work Values and Ethics, free online, at:

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

A Plea to Obama's Pro-Life Apologists

Most Americans consider themselves pro-life and a majority favor significant legal restrictions on abortions in the U.S. Yet most Americans, including most Catholics, voted for the most pro-abortion major candidate ever to run for president. How was this possible? One reason is that prominent pro-life Catholics like law professor Douglas Kmiec provided a kind of pro-life cover for Obama. Obama's extreme pro-abortion voting record was obscured with talk of "seeking common ground" with opponents of abortion. But it was not the common ground that might be found with those who said they were personally opposed to abortion, like Bill Clinton or Joe Biden, and who talked of reducing the number of abortions.

Obama talked and talks, even at Notre Dame, in no such terms. Instead he talks of reducing the "need for abortion" (like the need for infanticide?) or the number of women seeking abortions. The difference is crucial. In the Obama/Planned Parenthood view, shared by all Obama's appointees in areas related to the question, abortion is a legitimate, even sometimes desirable, solution to a problem, not a problem in itself. In that sense the common ground is between those who are genuinely pro-life but who nevertheless voted for Obama on whatever grounds, and those who are pro-life who opposed Obama on those and other grounds. Even those who voted for him, George argues, are not thereby bound to support particular policies that promote and fund abortion worldwide, that seek to strip every possible legal protection from the most vulnerable members of the human community, and even to deny medical assistance to those babies who survive attempted abortions and who are left fighting for breath in a soiled linen bin, as Chicago-area nurse Jill Stanek discovered in one case that she courageously publicized.

The issue is not whether the unborn child is an actual or just a potential human being. Scientific advances have settled that question. No-one, certainly not Obama, talks any more of unborn babies as "clumps of tissue." The question is rather whether all human beings, simply by virtue of being human beings, have an equal right to life. As Robert P. George points out with reference to such cases as the dumping of fully born, living babies in the trash, "Even in opposing the Illinois Born-Alive Infants Protection Act, which was designed to assure such babies were rescued if possible or at least given comfort care as they died, Barack Obama did not deny the humanity of the child. What he denied, and continues to deny, is the fundamental equality of that child--equality with those of us who are safely born and accepted into the human community."

The linked piece by Robert George is a beautifully argued appeal to those, like Kmiec, who accept this fundamental equality of all human beings, including the weakest, most vulnerable, and those at the earliest stages of life. It is an argument for unity of all those--even those who voted for Obama--who share this view of the equal dignity and worth of all human beings--to oppose at every possible point the Obama administration's piece by piece drive 1) to remove every possible obstacle to the killing of the unborn, 2) to coerce the consciences of health-care providers who adhere to the Hippocratic Oath as traditionally and universally understood, and 3) to make taxpayers, most of whom oppose these callous policies, pay for them.

This contribution of George's was part of a discussion with Pepperdine law professor Doug Kmiec, but I cannot find what Kmiec came up with in reply. George's argument can be found at:

See also the related discussion at:

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Christianity's revolution in social ethics and culture

Read this book!

Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies
by David Bentley Hart

The title does not do justice to the book. Hart, a brilliant Eastern Orthodox theologian, treats the popular atheist writers of our day with scathing wit, but the book is really about something far more important. Drawing especially on his deep understanding of the early centuries of the Church and its cultural context, Hart offers an erudite essay that takes on the view--pervasive since the Enlightenment--that Christianity was a violent and irrational interlude between the cultured classical world and a modernity of reason and science.

Hart accepts that Christianity was an interruption, or irruption, but sees it as one that revolutionized our understanding of what it means to be human. It was the most profound revolution in human history. Hart points out that, unlike today's evangelical atheists, Nietzsche hated Christianity for what it actually was, a religion the God of which is Love and which regards charity as the highest virtue. It was unique and subversive in its insistence on God's universal love--beyond ties to place, tribe, nation, or ruler--and the duty of Christians to help the sick, poor, weak and oppressed, to visit prisoners, and to respect the intrinsic dignity and worth of all human life. Its adherents often disappoint, like all other human individuals and institutions in our fallen world. But in developing a (highly sophisticated) understanding of the God-man in which God became human so that humans may become divine, Christians of the early centuries overthrew older views of the infinite distance between God and humanity and the arbitrariness and immorality of the pagan gods. Christians established a world-view that saw the world as law-governed and humans as subject to a natural law "written on their hearts" and--in great contrast to pagan religions--a social ethic. This made scientific discovery--initially largely the work of churchmen and, like Galileo and Newton, devout Christians--a reading of the book of nature that God had written. No longer could we say, except in the depths of despair like the brutally blinded Gloucester in King Lear, "As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods; They kill us for their sport." Christianity is a religion of joy and hope, as opposed to the prevailing pagan sadness and resignation.

So Hart's argument takes us from the pagan world, with its lack of a sense of the arrow of time and hence of the future and of the purpose and direction of life, its moral callousness toward the weak and oppressed, through the Christian revolution in which king and slave, aristocrat and worker, were of equal worth as sharing in the divinity of the God-man. The Church--again unique in its separation of religion from the state--suffers (what Hart sees as) the catastrophe of being adopted as the religion of the Roman Empire. But unlike the pagan cults, the Church retains its subversive aspect. It insists on the submission even of emperors and kings to God.

The long struggle (as well as collusion) between church and state ends in defeat for the Church as Protestant rulers place themselves at the head of their national churches and Catholic states like France and Spain completely subordinate the church to the monarchy--even in Spain's case insisting on the Inquisition as an instrument of "nation-building." The long march of the hypertrophied state culminates in the secularist horrors of the 20th century. Indeed, Hart argues, the modern secular state has a unique penchant or drive to violence on a vast scale that makes the violence attributed (much of it wrongly) to Christianity appear minuscule by comparison.

Hart's view of our present cultural situation is exceedingly--and for a Christian one might say excessively--bleak. He sees a post-Christian world no longer restrained by any conception of the equal dignity and worth of the individual. The moral restraints that are rooted in the Christian social ethic but have no solid basis in secularist ideologies, survive as memories for awhile but then fade. A foretaste of this world appears in the enthusiasm with which progressives and liberals of all kinds took up the eugenics movement in the U.S., which the Nazis adopted and learned from. The twentieth century, with its court-mandated sterilizations, lobotomies, scientific experiments on prisoners and denial of treatment to poor Black men in the interests of science in the U.S. as well as the the unrestrainedly murderous anti-Christian regimes (atheist or neo-pagan) of Russia and Germany, shows us the post-Christian future. It is a world in which the God who is Love is dead, science is freed from moral restraint and humans become objects of manipulation.

Fortunately, there are developments that might make us want to temper such pessimism, not in the sense that Hart is in any way wrong about the dehumanizing implications of a loss of the social ethics and spiritual depth and beauty of Christianity, but in the sense that secularization is not a done deal, not beyond academia and elite opinion anyway. Christianity is growing rapidly in Africa, Asia, and Russia, has not succumbed (except in its liberal forms) to secularization in the U.S. and is on the rise even in London.

But this is a profound and serious book that invites us to confront what is at stake in the secularist trends that the latest, crudest, most vulgar and, well, deluded atheist writers of our day reflect. A beautifully written and well argued essay that takes us well above and beyond the level of the new evangelical atheists.

(Adapted from the review I posted on

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Do Fathers Matter?

Another one for Fathers Day!
(or right click on the title below)

Do Fathers Matter Uniquely for Adolescent Well-Being?

David Eggebeen

Research Brief No. 14, October 2008

To Have, to Hold, For a While

To Have, to Hold, For a While

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A review of Andrew J. Cherlin's latest book, The Marriage-Go-Round by W. Bradford Wilcox

Tradition and the Individual Father

Here's an interesting reflection for Fathers Day:

On the Demise of Fatherhood



Peach writes not only about fathers, but also about the tension between tradition and individualism--a key theme of Cherlin's book (see above post) too.

Odd how we claim to value tradition in indigenous cultures, seeing in it a systemic wisdom and indispensable resource for the flourishing of individuals and communities. And yet we have such an impoverished understanding of the central and universal tradition of marriage as the institution that created fatherhood as a social role in all cultures. Instead we prettify the social misery caused (and reflected and exacerbated) by the collapse of fatherhood, marriage, and the family in poor and working class communities by celebrating diversity of family types, pretending that family structure is unimportant to nearly all the social problems we address and that a single-parent family structure or a co-habiting blended family is no less to be preferred than a married, intact two-parent family. We separate legal parenthood from biology (most bizarrely in Canadian law) and marriage from sex and children. We talk of culture and tradition but apotheosize a rugged individualism that liberates itself from all tradition and subordinates the needs of children to the freedoms of adults. According to this "unconstrained vision" (Sowell) of the human condition, as Peach (2009, linked) puts it:

Every undertaking of the human race should flow from the rationally articulated plans of the individual. As Justice Anthony Kennedy infamously summarized in the passage dubbed the mystery clause of Casey v. Planned Parenthood, “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” Liberated from the constraints of custom and, increasingly, nature herself, the true powers of reason can be harnessed and applied to the unique circumstances of this unique individual’s unique situation. Faith in any other kind of guidance—for instance, forms of systemic or less directly rational knowledge, such as tradition—is mere superstition, a form of tyranny by other people, usually the dead. Standing firm against the oppressive tides of history, biology, and community pressure, the rugged individualist charts his own course for his own existence; indeed, he not only charts his course but also makes his map, his boat, and maybe even his own body of water.

An irony of this hypertrophy of the autonomous, self-determining rational individual is that, in the process of loosing the bonds of tradition, culture, and community, it feeds the Leviathan state, which in the name of social welfare substitutes for (cuckolds, as Gilder used to say) fathers and reduces mothers to a loveless, powerless, and disempowered dependence on bureaucracy.

O brave new world!

Friday, June 19, 2009

Self-Congratulation as a Basis for Social Policy?

Can we get beyond the moral superiority and self-congratulation that Thomas Sowell sees as the ideological basis of liberal social policy? I have taught social policy at schools of social work most of my life. I am struck by how narrow the ideological range is within the profession and academia, and how different the views of the “anointed” elite are from the views of the “benighted” masses, in Sowell’s terminology.

Challenges and alternatives are dismissed with a few key words like "religious" (used disdainfully to dismiss any dissenting argument, not only about abortion or stem cell research, but even marriage), patriarchal, conservative, colonial, etc.--or on the other side liberal, progressive, rights, diversity and the like--are thrown around as substitutes for argument and evidence. (See Sowell's The Vision of the Anointed: Self-Congratulation as a Basis for Social Policy for an aptly titled critique of this phenomenon.) I am not interested in using those terms of "left" and "right" as accusations, justifications, or substitutes for argument. I want to engage the competing ethical, political, and cultural stances or, in Sowell's term, visions, that underlie their use in public and policy discourse.

ETHICAL PHILOSOPHY SELECTOR QUIZ philosophers: Aquinas Aristotle Ayn Rand Cynics David Hume Epicureans Jean-Paul Sartre Jeremy Bentham John Stuart Mill Kant Nel Noddings Nietzsche Ockham Plato Prescriptivism Spinoza St. Augustine Stoics Thomas Hobbes

ETHICAL PHILOSOPHY SELECTOR QUIZ philosophers: Aquinas Aristotle Ayn Rand Cynics David Hume Epicureans Jean-Paul Sartre Jeremy Bentham John Stuart Mill Kant Nel Noddings Nietzsche Ockham Plato Prescriptivism Spinoza St. Augustine Stoics Thomas Hobbes

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Who is your top moral philosopher? Or, with which leading philosophers, past or present, are your views most compatible? When I did the quiz above, my top two moral philosophers came out to be 1) Aquinas and 2) Aristotle. No surprise there--that's what I would have said without the quiz. What surprised me was that my long-time friend and colleague, a thoroughly secular liberal elite academic social worker, came up with the same top two. How do you fare?