Saturday, September 18, 2010

Thyer on Social Justice

Bruce Thyer is Professor and former Dean of the College of Social Work at Florida State University, and also founding and continuing editor of the journal Research on Social Work Practice. It is not surprising then that a leader in social work education would write an article on one of social work’s “core values,” social justice.

What is surprising is that a social work leader of such distinction would subtitle his article, “A Conservative Perspective.” See Thyer, B.A. (2010), Social justice: A conservative perspective, Journal of Comparative Social Welfare, 26(2-3), pp.261-274.

The liberal consensus
Conservatives, at least professing ones, are rare in social work and especially in the profession’s higher reaches—a feature, along with secularism, that distinguishes them from their clients and much of the general public. Thyer makes the case that social work professes in its own standards an openness to diversity and opposition to discrimination on the basis of political perspectives. Yet he cites recent cases where students were allegedly required to advocate for liberal causes they opposed, as well as the National Association of Scholars (2007) study, the title of which speaks for itself: The scandal of social work education. He also quotes another social work educator, Fred Newdom (2003), as making the following pronouncement: “If you accept that social workers have an obligation to advance social justice and that political engagement is a means to accomplish that end, then you have to accept that we reject conservative political thought and conservative politicians” (p.3).

No wonder social work education is a scandal! It is a profession licensed in one form or another by most states and mostly funded via taxpayer money, and yet in this view excludes a large part of the political spectrum from membership. Fortunately, Newdom’s exclusionist line is not the official position of NASW or CSWE, as Thyer documents.

But Thyer argues for more than reluctant toleration of conservative social workers and their positions. His argument is that a conservative perspective offers promise of a more socially just practice than the dominant liberal orientation.

The article is a welcome addition to the social work literature, in particular to the assigned readings for my foundation social policy class. It is the only such reading I have found in recent times that argues a conservative perspective in social work and social welfare. Even relatively factual textbooks in social welfare policy have a strong liberal bias. For example, DiNitto’s Social welfare: Politics and public policy—as good a social work policy text as I have found—takes for granted a liberal perspective on controverted issues of the day.

For example she uses terms like “gay rights” that assume the point at issue, whether “sexual orientation” confers rights, especially the right to marriage. Hitherto no-one has been either included or excluded from marriage on the basis of their sexual preferences or desires. Marriage always has been understood as socially approved sexual intercourse between a man and a woman such that any children resulting from such sexual activity are legally, socially, and emotionally tied to the two parents who made them—and nothing to do with whatever sexual desires or proclivities the partners may harbor. So a fundamental redefinition of our most pro-child institution is presented as a matter of diversity and (adult) gay rights.

Similarly, in discussing the deep divide over abortion in the country, DiNitto calls the two positions anti-abortion and pro-choice. She could have called them, as they call themselves, pro-life and pro-choice, or more accurately, pro-abortion and pro-life. After all someone who supports an adult’s choice to own slaves (on the grounds that the owner thinks they are not full human beings) is not pro-choice, but pro-slavery.

So Thyer’s article is a welcome challenge to the mindless consensus, the group- think, which prevails in social work. For an instructor, it provides that valuable stimulus to disagreement that requires students to examine and articulate their assumptions and easy dismissals of minority perspectives in social work.

The two faces of liberalism
At the same time, for a policy teacher, it poses the pedagogical problem of the two faces of liberalism. Thyer’s perspective, though conservative by current understandings, is a good expression of the liberal political philosophy on which the republic was founded. It is the liberalism of liberty, natural rights, and the rule of law that stood opposed to tyrannical sovereigns, noble privilege, and arbitrary power. The rights espoused by the Constitution, as Thyer says, are all negative rights, rights to be free and secure in one’s person and property vis a vis the state. It is the liberalism of laissez faire, of the belief that that government governs best which governs least.

The liberalism of the American founders was aimed at limiting state power by separating the powers, branches, and levels of government, and separating church and state so that all were free to worship publicly without state interference or favoritism toward one particular denomination. But it was not a relativistic or subjective liberalism in which the individual is atomized or morality a matter of opinion. The rights embraced by the new state were rooted in an understanding of Natural Law, of Nature and Nature’s God. It rested in the conviction that there is a truth, that human beings can know it, and that their well-being lies in finding and living in accord with it.

The founders also recognized that the kind of democratic republic they were establishing required citizens able and willing to deliberate together about the common good—it required the civic virtues. It was, then, a very different liberalism from that of two and a quarter centuries later, one which saw the establishment of a secular liberalism or liberal secularism. The new liberalism increasingly pushed God and religion out of the public square, substituted vacuous values talk for the virtues, and tended to relativism and principled indifferentism in matters of faith and morals.

This modernist, secular liberalism inverts much of the liberal perspective on which the republic was founded. It looks not to the voluntary association that Tocqueville noted as such a distinctive feature of American democracy, nor to Burke’s “little platoons” or Berger and Neuhaus’s “mediating structures”—the rich civic society that mediated between state and individual. On the contrary, it increased state power and intrusiveness in just those areas of life, protecting the individual from family, neighborhood, church, and community. The rights espoused by modern liberalism are not guarantees against state interference, but claims on the state for resources funded by others, the taxpayer or Forgotten Man as William Graham Sumner called this donor of coerced charity. It is a liberalism of ever-expanding state control, of the collectivist authoritarian impulse that criminalizes perspectives other than the politically correct secular-liberal orthodoxy. (See Robert P. George's Clash Of Orthodoxies: Law Religion & Morality In Crisis .)

Thyer’s conservatism is not that of the ancien regime, of an organic, hierarchical, traditional society, either European or “indigenous.” It is closer to the economic individualism that fought those old orders from the 17th to 19th centuries, to the political philosophy of liberalism that finds expression in the U.S. Constitution.

But that liberalism understood natural rights as rooted in a Natural Law established by God but discoverable by human beings whom God had endowed with the reason needed to discover their real nature and their common good. Because rooted in Natural Law, these rights are prior to political entities and justify the alteration or abolition of such regimes if necessary to secure those rights. Absent such grounding in the real nature of human beings in relation to their Creator, however, such rights are built on sand.

As Pope Benedict just said in his magnificent address at Westminster Hall in London, “If the moral principles underpinning the democratic process are themselves determined by nothing more solid than social consensus, then the fragility of the process becomes all too evident – herein lies the real challenge for democracy.” Absent such grounding, we may add, the core social work value of respect for the dignity and worth of the individual human being—a concept rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition of humans as created in the image and likeness of God—evaporates. It is relativized to exclude the most vulnerable among us—those of us in the womb, severely disabled, in severe pain or depression, or comatose.

The shift in the nature of liberalism—a liberalism that is the shared heritage of both “liberals” and “conservatives” in the U.S.—poses particular challenges for the teaching of social welfare history and policy development. How did social welfare ideology and legal theory adapt liberalism to accommodate the expanding role of the state as provider and funder of social work and social services? The best account I have read is James Leiby’s (1985) “The moral foundations of social welfare and social work: A historical view” – in Social Work, 30(4), pp.323-330. Leiby describes the progression from the religious duty of charity as a matter of personal and social responsibility to the role of natural rights rooted in the Natural Law, the police power that provided the legal basis for an expansion of state power, and ultimately to the notion of an individual “right” as a claim that a “needy person could make and enforce on a public agency and official. Enter the ‘welfare state’” (p.326).

An important part of the story, sometimes minimized, is the role of liberal thinking in opposing help for the needy, not only because it is ineffective—that was the criticism to which the Charity Organization Societies sought to respond and it is a major part of Thyer’s critique of modern social work and social welfare. But other critics, who also sought to marshal science for the improvement of the human condition and who also condemned charity, public and private, as unscientific, were the liberal eugenicists like Margaret Sanger. Her complaint in the chapter of The pivot of civilization on “The cruelty of charity” was not that charity was ineffective, but the reverse. Following in the footsteps of Herbert Spencer, she appealed to the “science” of Social Darwinism to argue that charity was enabling the unfit, the weeds of society, to survive instead of to die off.

There is here a remarkable similarity to the economic liberalism of Scrooge in the early pages of Dickens’s A Christmas carol, where Scrooge fends off two gentlemen who appeal to him for a charitable donation at Christmas time. Like modern liberals, he prefers leaving the needy to the tender mercies of the state’s provision, which he supports through his taxes, to dipping directly into his own pocket. (See Brooks, Who really cares?)

In social work discourse, social justice often means the welfare state, as it does for modern liberal political theorist Brian Barry. The great virtue of Thyer’s intervention is that he challenges an all too smugly and consensually “liberal” profession to think again.


  1. Thank you for your thoughtful review and comments. Bruce Thyer

  2. Thank you for your thoughtful review and comments. Bruce Thyer