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Ethical dilemmas in practice – some thoughts on the children

John McLaughlin and John Pinkerton

Ethical theory addresses consequences, duties obligations and rights in an attempt to justify ethical decisions. While ethical theories and reasoning do not solve these dilemmas they can suggest alternative ways of structuring and clarifying them. One of the main ethical theories, known as Deontology, based on the philosophical work of Immannuel Kant, focuses on the primacy of duty. The other major ethical theory is that of Utilitarianism, expounded in the work of such writers as J.S. Mill and Jeremy Bentham. It regards the consequences of decisions as of paramount importance in defining their moral worth.

Duty based theory makes the claim that certain kinds of action are inherently right or wrong as a matter of principle (Reamer 1990). Deontologists believe that certain duties exist which must always be fulfilled regardless of their consequences. For Kant, because of mankind’s rationality, one must act not only in accordance with but for the sake of obligation. A central tenant of Kantian theory is that because of their inherent worth and dignity people should he treated as ends in themselves and not as a means to an end. In other words all human beings, by virtue of their rational nature, deserve to be treated as fully rational, as we ourselves wish to be treated (Rhodes 1986 p30).

However according to Clarke and Asquith (1985) one of the problems with the deontological approach to moral behaviour of doing one’s duty or doing what is right, is that it often conflicts with our own interests and the interests of others. A major shortcoming of the theory is that because all moral rules are absolute and universal (through the application of the categorical imperative’) it fails to provide adequate guidelines for the resolution of conflicting obligations in practice (Beachamp and Childress 1994).

Consequence based theory focuses on the outcomes of a course of action for justification. Utilitarians regard as ‘right’ decisions those resulting in consequences that are ultimately valued. ‘Wrong’ decisions are those having consequences that are ultimately not valued (Blumenfield & Lowe 1987 p49). Within this theoretical frame of reference an action is right if it promotes the maximum good for everyone. or at least the greatest happiness for the greatest number.

Like Kantianism this theory has several shortcomings. For one, how is ‘happiness’ or ‘good’ to he quantified? Utilitarianism therefore has difficulty in assigning quantitative values to consequences of actions that are of a qualitative nature – for example the good derived from self-determination (Home 198 p32). Similarly what kinds’ of consequence count as good? Moreover, are the outcomes that are being evaluated those of a short-term, medium-term or long-term nature? However the most serious problem for utilitarian theory according to Reamer (1990) is that it may permit subordination of rights of a few individuals if for a greater aggregation of good results. Horne (1987 p32) makes the point succinctly: ‘the rights of the individual or individuals could be denied or manipulated to conform to the ‘ideal’ or greater good of others (the majority?)”

Towards a framework for ethical decision making
Perhaps one immediate reaction to the two ethical theories outlined is that they do not appear to have advanced the ability of social workers to resolve the complex dilemmas of practice. The deontlogical approach for instance is unable to offer adequate guidelines for resolving conflicts of opinion amongst practitioners. Utilitarianism, on the other hand, falls short of being able to determine how consequences that are qualitative in nature can be quantified or indeed of resolving the issue of how the rights of a few can be protected from subordination in the interests of a greater aggregation of good.

Because no theory of ethics exists which can provide guaranteed right answers to ethical dilemmas in individual cases what is required is an approach to ethical analysis which can enable social workers to systematically explore the ethical dimensions of the dilemmas they face. By adopting a problem solving approach to practice that incorporates attention to the moral principles behind professional values along with professional knowledge and skills, the social worker may be enabled to at least ask fuller questions about particular practice dilemmas. This questioning will arguably show that some solutions are morally untenable whilst others are morally justifiable.


Beauchamp T. L. & Childress I. F. (1994). Principles in Biomedical Ethics (4th Edition) New York, Oxford University Press.

Blumenfield S. & Lowe J.I. (1987) A Temple for Analysing Ethical Dilemmas in Discharge Planning in Health and Social Work, NASW Vol. 12, No.1 Winter 1987 Children (Northern Ireland) October 1993

Clark C. L. (1985) & Asquith S (1985) Social Work and Social Philosophy A Guide for practice. London. RKP
Horne M. (1987) Values in Social Work. Aldershot, Wildwood

Reamer FG (1990) Ethical Dilemmas in Social Service. New York: Columbia University Press

Rhodes M. (1986) Ethical Dilemmas in Social Work Practice. London. RKP

McLaughlin J. & Pinkerton J. (1995). Ethical dilemmas in practice – some thoughts on the children.
Child Care in Practice. Vol.1 No.4 pp 45-46

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