Journal Article

Towards a Proportionist Social Work Ethics: A Habermasian Perspective

Terence Lovat and Mel Gray

in The British Journal of Social Work

Published on behalf of British Association of Social Workers

Volume 38, issue 6, pages 1100-1114
Published in print September 2008 | ISSN: 0045-3102
Published online March 2007 | e-ISSN: 1468-263X | DOI:
Towards a Proportionist Social Work Ethics: A Habermasian Perspective

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In this paper, we offer an innovative alternative to the deontological and utilitarian approaches which tend to dominate social work ethics, instead proposing a proportionist ethics drawing on the work of Jürgen Habermas. Flyvberg (1998) claims that Habermas ‘distanced himself from phronesis and neo-Aristotelianism’, both of which he is purported to have ‘rhetorically . . . associated with neo-conservatism’ (p. 225) and Varela (1992) places Habermas squarely in the Kantian tradition. In this paper, we present an alternative interpretation of Habermas’s ethical stance, which is based on our perception of him as a keen observer of and commentator on modern life, not least about human intersubjective relations and communication, and our practical attempts to deal with the intractable problems of difference in an increasingly pluralistic world. Moreover, we see a form of proportionist thinking in Habermas which suggests a close alignment with Aristotelianism and, indeed, Thomism. For social work, an approach of this sort seems particularly urgent as the field tends increasingly towards, on the one hand, technological, rule bound, deontological frameworks, such as codes of ethics and ethics audits (Reamer, 2001) and, on the other hand, ideologically based ethics of care approaches, both of which tend to stultification and obstruction of the practical action appropriate to the age.

Keywords: Habermas; proportionism; social work ethics; ethical theory; virtue ethics

Journal Article.  6643 words. 

Subjects: Social Work

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