MAY 2017
I have read your very extensive and impressive document, Policy Guidelines for Course of Conduct, Code of Conduct and the Rules for Social Workers. It has left me with the feeling that my contribution to ethics for social workers would be very limited. As a group, you already have such a comprehensive understanding of ethics.
I therefore decided that my course of action today would be to stimulate your thinking towards taking a slightly different approach to ethics, namely to use an evolutionary-scientific construct to morality, rather than a religious or philosophical approach (Lawrence 2010). I do this by using another’s’ oxen to plough in giving you my input today. Because I’m deeply in debt, for what follows, to Dr Chris Jones of Stellenbosch University for his articles and research. His ongoing research focuses on ethical leadership, which I belief fits in with your task as social workers.
As a group, social workers occupy leadership positions because you influence thinking and action around you. You and your clients, like all of us, constantly face ethical questions. You often have to make decisions based on your ethical views.
We can also say that, in a wider sense, we as homo sapiens, are those creatures who have the intellectual ability to act ethically. As humans, we evolved to survive in a different way than other animals. Because we learnt to work in groups and rely on problem-solving skills – rather than on brute force (4 Basic Human Drives: 29 May 2014).
Charles Darwin’s distinction between moral sense (conscience) and moral codes (norms), can help us in this discussion.
Moral sense is the ability humans have to be ethical beings. It is a consequence of our intellectual capacity, which includes self-awareness and abstract thinking (Jones 2017). This developed over thousands of years through an evolutionary process.
Moral codes, that sets of norms that we use to judge behaviour, can differ from culture to culture and can also change over time. These norms are influenced by religion and cultural traditions. For many of us, our religious background and belief system are the backbone of our ethical thinking. The Dalai Lama reminds us that “… religious belief is no guarantee of moral integrity” (2001:27). He further elaborates by saying: “Religion can help us establish basic ethical principles. Yet we can still talk about ethics and morality without having recourse to religion” (2001:28).
Moral codes change much faster than our biological inheritance and can developed within one generation. Certain moral systems have become extinct and were replaced with others. Some moral codes died out when the societies that held them died out.
It is because a society thinks that moral codes are beneficial for the social stability and success of that society, that they are held. But moral codes sometimes change when circumstances change, such as around political and cultural thinking. Each society or culture also tends to think that their own moral codes are universal and then often becomes “blind” to the momentum of continuously evolving events or thinking within a culture and even religious landscape.
The reason why we are following this specific approach today, is to see, by careful reflection, whether the moral codes you as social workers hold or follow, connect with the innate moral sense of human beings.
Based on evolutionary biology and psychology, there are certain preconditions for ethical choices and behaviour. These preconditions seem to exist in humans alone. The preconditions are also interdependent and closely connected. There are three preconditions:
This is the most fundamental of the preconditions. It is the ability to anticipate the future and to form mental images of – or imagine – outcomes not yet in existence. It is precisely because we can anticipate the consequences of action in this way that our actions have an ethical dimension. This is only possible because of a fundamental capacity in humans that developed over many thousands of years.
It can be explained as follows: Pulling the trigger of a gun is not in itself a moral action, but our ability to anticipate that pulling the trigger will fire a bullet – which can strike and kill somebody – becomes a moral action by virtue of its consequences.
This means there is an ability to evaluate and perceive certain objects and deeds as more desirable than others. It depends on the capacity for abstraction. This is an ability to compare objects and actions and see differences between them.
But it is the ability to perceive the death of a person if I pull the trigger, with this being preferable to that person’s survival, that makes pulling the trigger an action with negative moral consequences. Aiming to stop an attacker with the minimum harm caused rather than to kill the attacker is also an ethical judgement for those who have chosen to own a gun. Society has determined that police officers should be armed. Police officers have the ability to make value judgements how they use their firearms.
An action beyond conscious control is not a moral action. The circulation of my blood or the digestion of my food are not moral actions because they are not consciously decided actions. Pulling the trigger of a gun can be an issue of morality because there exists the option not to pull the trigger, as well as the possibility to explore an alternative course of action.
This raises the questions of “free will”. It seems quite clear that if we are not free to choose, consciously, between different options – have no free will – the question of whether we acted ethically becomes a fruitless debate. This is a complex issue and is much discussed in theological debates, along with its theological implications. (For instance: Did Judas Iscariot have an option on whether to sell Jesus out, or not? Was his action predetermined?)
I have already referred to the concept of moral conscience, which is not the same thing as that of moral codes. From an evolutionary biological stance, there are four main drivers of human behaviour that should be kept in mind when we talk about human actions and choices. The first two innate drives – or ultimate motives – are also present in animals. Humans have also evolved to acquire two additional drives: “to bond”, in trusting, caring, long-term relationships; and “to comprehend”, for example, information and knowledge.
What is important for good moral behaviour is to hold these four drives in a dynamic balance, especially when conflicting demands surface. These four drives are:
Food, water and the like are essential to our survival. For rural communities land may be essential, while people in cities may think of fresh air as essential.
But we don’t only want to acquire what is needed for survival. We are also driven to attain things that interest us, or give us a sense of identity, as well as to meet the needs of our loved ones.
The need to defend what we see as belonging to us (our property) is the source of much conflict. We are driven to defend our own lives and those of our loved ones (such as our offspring), but we also want to protect our ideas and beliefs, even our sense of pride, hope and self-image.
Human beings have the desire to bond and form long-term, mutually caring and trusting relationships with one another.
As human beings, we have a deep desire to learn, understand, create and make sense of the world and our place in it.
We need to further reflect on the implications of the four innate drivers to help us to determine moral codes for our time. Again, we need to remember that different moral codes evolve in different cultures and that they do not automatically just exist for ever. In some societies there are a close connection between religious faith and the moral codes of the society. It is also said that morality may contribute to the success of some tribes over others, and tends to improve the functioning of societies over time (See Jones 2017 citing F J Ayala [2012] and C Darwin [1871]).
It is necessary to unpack the implications of the four innate drives further to help us see the development of our own moral codes.
The type of code and behaviour that is needed is the following: actively helping people to prosper and flourish by giving them the chance to live a life filled with choice. This implies that necessary resources would be made available. It includes:
• Enhancing other people’s capacity – not only your own.
• Asking and establishing what others are entitled to, and then promoting it.
• Accepting that, at times, restraint, self-sacrifice and simplicity need to be practiced and that we should be content with what we have.
• Not to participate in trends of greed.
The type of codes and behaviour needed is the following: acts of justice and courage. These include:
• Helping to protect your own and others.
• Protecting especially those who are vulnerable, i.e., children.
• Exposing destructive plans when they come to light. Do not pull a veil over injustices.
• Protecting and preserving your own name and integrity, but also those of others.
• Do not defend the indefensible.
• Do not prioritise your own interests and survival.
The type of codes and behaviour needed is the following: Creating a milieu of trust, integrity and peace. It includes:
• Seeing trust as essential to caring and social cohesion.
• To respect, honour and recognise every other person for who they are. (What does that mean in terms of the destructive behaviour of, for example, gangsters?)
• Being sincere and honest. Do not cheat.
• Keeping your promises, rather than to break them.
• Listening carefully to what another person has to say, including children and vulnerable groups. Do not talk down to others or silence them.
• Creating safe spaces for open discussions.
• Never ridicule anyone.
• Respect, honour and recognition are important elements in the creation of peace, reliability and stability.
The type of code and behaviour needed is the following: The way we deal with knowledge of all kinds. It includes:
• Acquiring and using knowledge and expertise to understand your society and one’s own role and place in it.
• Telling the truth rather than falsehoods.
• Sharing knowledge rather than withholding it.
• Being teachable and open to learning.
• Openness to interdisciplinary knowledge and to the diversity thereof.
• Openness to more than merely rational knowledge, but also knowledge conveyed through storytelling. Certain cultures, children and vulnerable groups may convey important messages by way of a narrative – which can change dominant forces.
• Be aware of how knowledge is used to create boundaries and smother the needs of others for information. Dominant stories are not the only stories.
• “The larger the island of knowledge and expertise, the longer die coastline of respect, trust and admiration”. (Dr Chris Jones April 25, 2017).
In short: Paul R Lawrence proposes that we translate the four drives into nouns. We can summarise it as follows:
To acquire (verb): prosperity (noun)
Enhancing others’ capacity to acquire the necessary resources
To defend (verb): justice (safety) (noun)
Protecting the other, their loved ones, their property; their humanness
To bond (verb): trust (peace) (noun)
Keeping promises. Seek fair exchange rather than cheating.
To comprehend (verb): knowledge (noun)
Sharing information and insight. Respecting others’ beliefs.
It is important to focus on all four values simultaneously. This is a difficult task, but our highly evolved brain is uniquely equipped to do it.
By going back to the basic drives, we acknowledge and accept that there is a basis to the thinking of all people, an innate moral sense. In our interactions with others we should relate to their innate moral sense, as well as to our own. The question is, what kinds of behaviour and decisions would fulfil these four drives in others as well as in ourselves?
These innate drives need to be translated into the context and culture of the twenty-first century in which we live to help us to formulate ethical codes. At this point I need your help: you know your profession and its challenges best, and are in the best position to translate the drives into a form applicable to the context you work in.
a) To acquire/ prosperity. Enhance others’ capacity to acquire the necessary resources.
What ethical norms and practices would you propose?
b) To defend/ justice (safety). Protecting the other, their loved ones, their property; their humanness.
What ethical norms and practices would you propose?
c) To bond/ trust (peace). Keeping your promises. Seeking fair exchange rather than cheating.
What ethical norms and practices would you propose?
d) To comprehend/ knowledge. Sharing information and insights. Respecting others’ beliefs
What ethical norms and practices would you propose?
a) Confidentiality: How much information can be shared when lawyers request information?
b) Respect: What can be expected from a new NPO that is moving into the same area of another, existing NPO, when the new one offers similar services to the established one?
It can be useful to work with these issues by making a distinction between the concepts of moral conscience and moral norms. It helps us to understand that moral norms change and can also differ between cultures and religions. The evolutionary lens helps us to be on the lookout for universal norms that relate to all people over all generations and cultures.
Total objectivity is not possible for anyone. It seems important to be reminded that, even when we are using the basic drives approach, we are to a certain extent locked into our own cultural and religious framework. We tend to interpret and translate the basic drives in terms of our own understanding of the world. This does not mean that when we are reflecting on the moral norms of our time and situation that this reflection is without value. The challenge is to keep on reflecting on these matters – not only for our own benefit, but for the benefit for all of human kind, also for those that come after us.
A BRIEF SUMMARY OF HISTORY OF ETHICS (Summarized from Short History of Ethics by Rogers, R.A.P., Mac Millan Books First 1911, ed. 1937 Edinburgh) SHORT HISTORY OF ETHICS
Dalai Lama 2001 (1999). Ancient Wisdom, Modern World.
Douma, J 1981. Verantwoord Handelen.
Jones, Chris March 28-29, 2017. The importance of Moral Leadership with regard to gender, race, poverty and sexual orientation.
Jones, Chris April 25, 2017. South Africa needs moral leaders, not those in pursuit of selfish gain.
Killingray, Margaret 2001. Choices. Deciding right and wrong today.
Villa-Vicencio, C & De Gruchy, J 1994. Doing Ethics in Context. South African Perspectives.
Driven to lead: 4 Basic human drives.
4 Basic Human Drives: Leaders are driven, but are they balanced?
Lawrence Paul R May 31, 2010. Moral leadership as shaped by human evolution.

Frederik B O Nel 5 May 2017

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