Moral Disengagement in Social Work

Jul 14, 2023

social work journal cover

Moral Disengagement in Social Work by Frederic G Reamer (Social Work journal, July 2023)

In recent years, social workers have paid increased attention to ethical issues. The profession’s literature has burgeoned on topics such as ethical dilemmas in social work practice, ethical decision making, boundary issues and dual relationships, ethics-related risk management, and moral injury. This noteworthy trend builds on social work’s rich and long-standing commitment to the development of core values and ethical standards evident throughout its history.

Yet, unlike allied human service and behavioral health professions, social work’s ethics-related literature has not focused on the critically important issue of moral disengagement. Moral disengagement is typically defined as the process whereby individuals convince themselves that ethical standards do not apply to them.

Moral disengagement develops in the form of six principal phenomena:

  • moral justification;
  • euphemistic labeling;
  • advantageous comparison;
  • displacing or diffusing responsibility;
  • disregarding or misrepresenting injurious consequences; and
  • dehumanizing the victim.

In social work, moral disengagement can lead to ethics violations and practitioner liability, particularly when social workers believe that they are not beholden to widely embraced ethical standards in the profession.

An article in the journal Social Work explores the nature of moral disengagement in social work, identify possible causes and consequences, and present meaningful strategies designed to prevent and respond to moral disengagement in the profession.

The author writes, “t is imperative that social workers understand the nature and causes of moral disengagement. Moral disengagement can be addressed by meaningful efforts on social workers’ part to engage in self-care, burnout and impairment prevention, organizational reform, and policy advocacy.”

He recommends that state licensing boards, NASW’s Ethics Committee, and social work programs at colleges and universities make moral disengagement a priority.

Author: Frederic G. Reamer, PhD, professor, School of Social Work, Rhode Island College

About NASW Journals

NASW journals are co-published by NASW Press and Oxford University Press. The journal Social Work is a benefit of NASW membership. It is available online or, at a member’s request, in print. Children & SchoolsHealth & Social Work and Social Work Research are available by subscription at a discounted rate for NASW members, either online or in print. Learn more about NASW journals and subscriptions.

NASW members can also access journal articles through the NASW Research Library.

Members who have questions about log-in information can contact Member Services at 800-742-4089, Monday-Friday 9:00 a.m. – 9:00 p.m. ET, or at membership@socialworkers.org.

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