More about the weaknesses of ethical codes in mental health decision making

One general weakness of ethical codes is that they often are better at articulating overarching and general, aspirational ideals, i.e., values, than they are at setting standards that prescribe or proscribe particular behavior, i.e., ethics. Thus, the NASW Code broadly espouses the promotion of client well-being (Ethical Standard 1.01), the development of people, communities, and environments (Ethical Standard 6.01), and the advancement of client self-determination (Ethical Standard 1.02), as social work aspirations, but offers only a handful of enforceable standards in the pursuit of these ideals. For example. as already noted, the NASW Code clearly proscribes conduct specifically in the case of social worker-client sexual relationships. Interestingly, in the very portion of the NASW Code in which ethical standards are set forth (Introduction to Ethical Standards), The Code warns readers that only �some of the standards that follow are enforceable guidelines for professional conduct, and some are aspirational.� The Introduction to Ethical Standards goes on to explain that �the extent to which each standard is enforceable is a matter of professional judgment to be exercised by those responsible for reviewing alleged violations of ethical standards.� This extraordinary lack of certainty by NASW itself as to the binding quality of its own �standards� raises serious questions about whether any relied upon in disciplinary proceedings against social workers would be enforceable in subsequent litigation by the subjects of such proceedings. The reason for the cautionary stance by NASW regarding enforceable standards may well be that the framers of the NASW Code have remained somewhat ambivalent about how they envision the Code�s purpose; when drafting the present Code they may have regarded the imposition of stricter standards as an undesirable substitute for allowing flexibility. In the NASW Code, Ethical Standards 1.06 and 3.01, respectively, social workers are cautioned to avoid social relationships and conflicts of interest with clients and colleagues, but only where there is a �risk of harm or exploitation.� The ambiguity inherent in this standard may serve the purpose of ensuring flexibility in its interpretation, but it also unfortunately makes it virtually meaningless in the absence of a situational, regional, cultural, or some other subjective context unique to every practice situation.

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