Ethical and Moral Pluralism in Multidisciplinary Community Service Delivery

A ‘Code of Conduct’ is a pretty stock standard and generic approach within organisations and companies, used to temper the potential vagrancies of human behaviour, in a workplace setting. Nothing new here? 

The fundamental operating principle to having any form of ‘code’; such as the Australian Association of Social Work’s (AASW) ‘Code of Ethics’; is to implement an organisational ‘moral compass’ if you will. It is setting expectations around right and wrong. Evidently the topic of morality and ethics opens a categorical ‘can of worms.

Underneath the bleeding obvious aspects of extreme ‘right’ and ‘wrong’; like murder vs being a hero; are a multitude of philosophical trajectories that have been explored academically for hundreds and thousands of years. These ancient schools or thought; alongside modern institutions for law, justice and a plethora of spiritual or religious belief systems; are striving for virtuous, moral and ethical practices, ultimately to deal with ‘the grey area’s’ of the human condition or dilemma. As developing into adulthood transgresses, the grey areas seemingly; even viscerally; become more and more apparent.

So, what does this mean to us as community services practitioner, who are navigating all of this in order to seek the best outcomes and social justice for the client/group? It means it can be uber confusing sometimes! Don’t worry, we offer methodologies to finding your own personal salve or solution, if you read until the end.

Trying to do what is ‘good’ in a world that isn’t agreed on a universal set of values, is risky at best. Particularly when platitudes in memes, and pop psychology is being shared liberally on media platforms posing as all-encompassing truths, which widely promote the idea that ‘you are the centre of the universe’. If a social worker went into a room full of vulnerable or disadvantaged persons with a self-serving mindset for example, it would be very, very alarming.

Whilst there is definitely something to be said for the importance of self-reliance, positive mindsets and manifesting your dreams as an individual, all the oldest ethical, social and spiritual traditions of the world; including Indigenous Australian traditional cultures; posit morals in stories, scriptures, law, and codes of conduct which promote many parallel virtues; in various expressions. They all also have one thing in common – the method; or the way you go about things; is just as important as the outcome.

Perhaps ‘knowing yourself’ would better replace the ‘centre of the universe’ idea as a meme on Facebook? In knowing yourself; including the imperfections; is first found in admitting wrongdoing. If one cannot admit wrongdoing or imperfection in at least one area of life, one is morally disengaged. The first step in that regard, would be to take steps to reengage the moral compass. Some theorists go so far to suggest that social workers are really ‘ethics advocates’, on all sides (Bowles, Collingridge, Curry, Valentine, 2006).

As social workers and community service practitioners promoting equality around diversity in choices and beliefs, we of course do this with clients or community groups in a way that is non-judgmental and non-imposing of our own inner belief systems or moral code detail. However, the key here is that a moral compass is engaged by us, and the underpinning values are shared around humanity. There is no ONE blanket approach to solve the human condition for all people. But what we do know, is that a morally disengaged person is usually a little lost at best.

The answers for being the best social worker or community service practitioner that one can be, are in both the ongoing cultivation of self with some virtuous trajectory, and concurrently the ongoing development of professional frameworks of practice. Central to the values within the framework, is that inherent power imbalances are offset as much as possible for vulnerable or disadvantaged people (personally, publicly, inter & intra-organisationally), and the focus is on the client’s empowerment and self-determined image of potential (not ours). We need Elders, mentors and leaders to help us to cultivate ourselves and our practice well in this way. We also need something to protect and sustain our big heart.

Madden, S. 

February, 2020


Australian Association of Social Workers (AASW). (2010). The AASW Code of Ethics. Retrieved February 2, 2020, from

Bonner, J. M., Greenbaum, R. L. & Mayer, D. M. (2016). My Boss is Morally Disengaged: The Role of Ethical Leadership in Explaining the Interactive Effect of Supervisor and Employee Moral Disengagement on Employee Behaviors. Journal of Business Ethics, 137, 731-742. Retrieved February 3, 2020, from

Bowles, W., Collingridge, M., Curry, S. & Valentine, B. (2006). Ethical Practice in Social Work: An Applied Approach. Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin.

Moore, C. & Gino, F. (2013). Ethically Adrift: How Others Pull our Moral Compass from True North, and How We Can Fix It. Research in Organizational Behavior, 33,53-77.