The Ethical Decision Making Tool

Are you reflecting on an ethical dilemma?

This tool includes interactive options to guide Nova Scotia Registered Social Workers through the CASW Code of Ethics and the NSCSW Standards of Practice (2015).

Ethical Decision Making

Our experiences and values influence ethical decision-making. That’s why it’s important for social workers to seriously consider the perspectives of those they work with, the environments they are working in and the influence of the dominant narrative. Throughout the ethical decision-making process, we encourage reflection on one’s own value system, emotions, and positionality in relationship to these broader systems.

Social Work Philosophy & Ethics

Social work values are embedded in principles of social justice and Humanitarianism. The social work worldview is often distinct from the dominant ideology (how issues are represented in our society at large). Dominant values are presented as though they apply to everyone but are often the values of elites or ruling powers in society, such as the state. We still battle prejudices related to race, gender, and class etc.

Social work can act as the conscience of society. As social workers, we bare witness to suffering and help people find their voice. That is the “noble” part of our professional identity. There have always been courageous social workers who “spoke truth to power” and challenged the dominant view (Spencer, Massing and Gough,2017).

Post-modern social work philosophy and ethics are guided by intersectional theory which promotes thinking about multiple identities and how systems of oppression are interconnected through ethnicity, class, and gender… etc which are experienced simultaneously, not ‘one at a time (Mullaly, 2009). The theory holds that each person holds different degrees of oppression and privilege based on our relative positioning along axes of interlocking systems of oppression. Where each of us lies in relation to the center and the margin —our social location—is determined by our identities, which are necessarily intersectional (Hulko, 2004).

Our social location refers to the relative amount of privilege and oppression that individuals possess on the basis of specific identity constructs, such as race, ethnicity, social class, gender, sexual orientation, age, disability, and faith” (Hulko, 2009, p. 5). Differences in class, in social and economic power, in educational opportunity and achievement, in health and physical well-being, are the expression and result of institutionalized inequalities in opportunity and socialization through the narrative of the dominant ideology. Such differences perpetuate and increase the social imbalances in power and thereby serve to maintain all forms of oppression (Mullay,2009).

Intersectional theory informs social workers on how to build professional helping relationships. Rooted first through the concept of empathy, or living in someone else’s shoes, intersectional theories guide social works to understand our shared experience with a client, drive a mutual need to collaborate, while addressing collective problems that have created these issues. Empathy leads to us to work in solidarity with clients towards liberation from oppressive structures (Mullaly, 2009). When we recover the buried memories of our socialization, to share our stories and heal the hurts imposed by the conditioning, to act in the present in a humane and caring manner, to rebuild our human connections and to change our world (Sherover-Marcuse, 2015.)

Intersectionality informs social workers on how to co-create meaning with clients. Traditionally, care is often thought of as flowing one way–from professional to client in the case of social work. The notion of relational ethics helps us to see care as something that happens in the space between us, what some have called the “third space” (Spencer, Massing and Gough, 2017). Care is neither about you nor I alone, but a process of co-creating a better story that happens between us. That is, it brings together a space in which we are all equal in our humanity. In practice, this may mean that as professionals, we take primary responsibility for the helping process but freely share the process of co-creation (Spencer, Massing and Gough,2017). In action this may mean:

  • We put the other’s needs in the forefront for the moment.
  • We are emotionally present to the other, attentive to their story.
  • We resist the urge and need to immediately fix the problem (or what we think is the problem).
  • We help people to empower themselves.
  • We share appropriately how the other’s story touches us.
  • We take responsibility for our ethical practice but share ethical dilemmas with the other as appropriate (Spencer, Massing and Gough, 2017).

Intersectional thinking pushes us to work in solidarity with clients to liberate both the undoing effects and of the causes of social oppression. These changes will involve transforming oppressive behavioral patterns and “unlearning” oppressive attitudes and assumptions (Mullay, 2009).

Dolgoff, R., Loewenberg, F. M., & Harrington, D. (2009). Ethical issues for social work practice.

Gough, J. & Spencer, E. (2014) Ethics in action: An exploratory survey of social workers ethical decision making and value conflicts. Journal of Social Work Values and Ethics vol. 11. 2. (pp 23-39).

Hulko, W. (2004). Social science perspectives on dementia research: Intersectionality. Dementia and social inclusion, 237-254.

Hulko, Wendy (2009). The time-and context-contingent nature of intersectionality and interlocking oppressions.” Affilia 24.1 (2009): 44-55.

Mattsson, T. (2014). Intersectionality as a Useful Tool Anti-Oppressive Social Work and Critical Reflection. Affilia, 29(1), 8-17.

Mullaly, R. P. (2010). Challenging oppression and confronting privilege: A critical social work approach. Don Mills, Ont: Oxford University Press.

Spencer E; Massing, D & Gough, J (2017)Social Work Ethics; Progressive, Practical, and Relational Approaches; Oxford Press.

Questions? Contact the College’s Executive Director/Registrar, Alec Stratford at