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Ethical Dilemmas: The Moral Virtue of Care

Welcome to our new column, Ethical Dilemmas, where we hope to give you clear-cut answers for complicated problems. While “Jude” is keeping her identity a secret for now, we can assure you that with a PhD in Ethics, she’s a pro at examining two sides of a story carefully and weighing each move with a cautious code of morality.

Hey Jude,

I just finished an internship in the mental health/social work field. During my internship, I had to work with an employee who was awful—she had a very in-your-face personality. Then I observed that when she met with clients, she was abrasive, aggressive, and pushy. So pushy that I felt she was actually doing harm to them (they are vulnerable, and she seemed to be forcing them into certain decisions). I don’t want my boss to think I am a trouble-maker, but at the same time I feel I should report her behaviour. Should I?

[female, 37, Kitchener]

This is a good question, because often it is easy to make fear-based decisions when we are personally involved in an ethical dilemma. In this case, you’ve identified two seemingly conflicting interests: your interest in being a “good” (i.e., silent?) intern, and your interest in protecting vulnerable clients. So here’s what I think: I think that these aren’t actually conflicting interests. They are compatible. I’ll explain why.

Most professions are governed by a professional body, and in your case—since you mentioned you were in a social work/mental health field—your governing body might be the Ontario College of Social Workers and Social Service Workers (OCSWSSW). Most governing bodies have a readily available Code of Ethics for situations exactly like these. So the first step here is to check out the Code. Below are excerpts from the OCSWSSW “Code of Ethics & Standards of Practice” that I think are particularly relevant and may point you to the appropriate decision:

#1: “A social worker or social service worker shall maintain the best interest of the client as the primary professional obligation;”

#8: “A social worker or social service worker shall not provide social work or social service work services in a manner that discredits the profession of social work or social service work or diminishes the public’s trust in either profession;”

#9: “A social worker or social service worker shall advocate for workplace conditions and policies that are consistent with this Code of Ethics and the Standards of Practice of the Ontario College of Social Workers and Social Service Workers;”

#10: “A social worker or social service worker shall promote excellence in his or her respective profession;”

#11: “A social worker or social service worker shall advocate change in the best interest of the client, and for the overall benefit of society, the environment and the global community.”

So, your co-worker seems to be violating all of the above by coercing vulnerable clients into decisions that may or may not be in their best interest. If you failed to report her to the governing body, you would (in my opinion) be violating all of them as well.

It can certainly feel uncomfortable and risky to report people to the governing body for ethical violations, but since you have witnessed her harmful behaviour first-hand, I believe it is your duty to report her. You can go straight to the governing body with your complaint rather than to your boss, if you feel more comfortable that way. It can often be done anonymously, but even if you have to give your name, I would recommend doing so for the reason I mentioned in the beginning: your interest in being a “good” intern and your interest in protecting vulnerable clients are not mutually incompatible. Being a “good” intern requires that you protect your vulnerable clients. So go do that.

Hey Jude,

I have been with my partner for two years. I want to end the relationship for many reasons but am worried he might do something serious to himself if I do. He is depressed and has struggled for his whole life. Our relationship is dysfunctional and I want out, but I don’t want to hurt him or for him to hurt himself. Is it wrong to leave him? I am stuck and need some advice.

[female, 27, Toronto]

This is a very difficult situation to be in. Mental illness can be painful, not only for those who experience it directly, but also for those who are in close relationships with them. It can hold many people in its grip.

You are asking if it is “wrong” to leave your partner. Another way to ask this would be, “Do I owe it to my partner to stay?” Those questions are so difficult to answer. What do we truly owe our romantic partners in a moral sense? And what do they owe us? Do the answers to those questions change during times of crisis or suffering?

One way of answering the moral aspects of this question is to draw on feminist ethicist Carol Gilligan’s wonderful book, In a Different Voice. When I read this book, I felt like my eyes had been opened to an entirely new world. Gilligan argues that men and women approach moral reasoning differently: traditional European (read: male) ethics tends to focus on the moral virtue of justice, whereas women (according to Gilligan) tend to focus on the moral virtue of care as the basis for making ethical decisions. Feminist care ethics, which is what this strand of ethics is called, is more relational (i.e., it takes relationships into consideration as relevant for moral decision-making).

Gilligan says women’s moral development matures along three hierarchical levels, least-developed to most-developed:

  1. Women overemphasize their own interests
  2. Women overemphasize others’ interests
  3. Women weave together and balance their interests with those of others

As you face this difficult decision, I would encourage you to strive for a Level 3 understanding — try to balance his interests with your own, but do not let his interests overwhelm your own. Along those lines, one of the main critiques of feminist care ethics is that it essentializes women as carers, and therefore implies that the duty of care is solely women’s responsibility. Even more harmful, it may imply that women should continue to care, even when it is detrimental to their own well-being. In that respect, women could compromise their own moral integrity because they feel they must be caretakers or caregivers.

So, take heed: do not let your feelings of care or duty towards your partner cause you to behave in a way that is detrimental to your own well-being. Again, try for a Level 3 approach: take care of your own needs and interests while being sensitive to your partner’s. Put on your own oxygen mask first, otherwise there’s no chance of you helping anyone.

This is my advice: contact one or two of your partner’s closest friends or family members — people you know he trusts. Tell them you’re planning on ending your relationship with your partner, and that it is important to you that he have a strong support network to lean on during this time. Tell them when you are going to end it, and ask that they reach out to him (in person, ideally) very soon after to check on him. You can also let them know that you are concerned about what his reaction will be and that suicide may be an option for him. Chances are, if they are close with him, they will know about his struggles with depression already. They may have suggestions as to how they can step in and offer assistance.

When you have the break-up conversation with your partner, speak to him from a place of compassion (but not condescension). Now is not the time to list off every single reason your relationship has failed; it is a time to communicate to him that—while you value him and care about him—you have decided you’re no longer healthy and happy in a romantic relationship with him. If you are comfortable saying this, tell him that you would like to meet at a later time to check in. Remind him that he has a strong support network of people that care deeply about him and that you hope he will reach out to them.

Gauge his response. If he is spiraling, call friends or family and ask them to join the two of you. If you feel as though you are in danger, leave immediately and call 911. If you feel like he is a danger to himself, call 911.

Lastly, I think it would be very useful for you to call a helpline and ask a professional for advice on this issue. ConnexOntario’s mental health helpline is 1-866-531-2600.

Do you have an ethical dilemma you need help with? Send your question to heyjudeadvice@gmail.com.