Can a ‘good’ social worker vote for [fill in the blank]?

As you know, I don’t see any possibly defensible argument for social workers to not vote.

We signed a Code of Ethics that includes a requirement to “engage in social and political action that seeks to ensure that all people have equal access to the resources, employment, services, and opportunities they require to meet their basic human needs and to develop fully. Social workers should be aware of the impact of the political arena on practice and should advocate for changes in policy and legislation to improve social conditions in order to meet basic human needs and promote social justice.”

Voting seems like a pretty low threshold for living up to that obligation.

There’s no excuse for not showing up.

But what about FOR WHOM to vote?

Our Code of Ethics also includes mandates to:

  • “act to expand choice and opportunity for all people, with special regard for vulnerable, disadvantaged, oppressed, and exploited people and groups” AND
  • “promote conditions that encourage respect for cultural and social diversity within the United States and globally. Social workers should promote policies and practices that demonstrate respect for difference, support the expansion of cultural knowledge and resources, advocate for programs and institutions that demonstrate cultural competence, and promote policies that safeguard the rights of and confirm equity and social justice for all people” AND
  • “act to prevent and eliminate domination of, exploitation of, and discrimination against any person, group, or class on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, color, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, age, marital status, political belief, religion, immigration status, or mental or physical disability.”

Do those strictures tell us for whom to vote?

Are certain candidates unacceptable, across the board, to social workers, because of the statements they make or the stances they espouse?

Or is our only obligation to engage in the process, using our own ethical lens to determine which party(ies), or which candidate, best lives up to our ethical ideals?

Can you be a “good” (read: ethical, embodying social work values) social worker and vote for a candidate who supports strict voter ID laws that many civil rights leaders believe will erode these constitutional rights? Or one who opposes equal marriage rights for GLBT couples? Or one who opposes equal pay policies for women?

I don’t believe that our Code of Ethics tells us precisely how to respond to all of the dilemmas that can come up in practice, or in policy.

We are professionals, bound to a Code, but we are not robots.

I believe that ethical social workers can have legitimate disagreements about the policies to best support families living in poverty, or end child hunger, or help people who are unemployed, or protect our natural environment.

But my question, as we approach this critical election, is whether there are some candidates, and some issues, that really should be beyond the pale for social workers, even if, in some instances, the Code of Ethics runs contrary to our own personal beliefs, or what would benefit us as private individuals.

I know what the answer is for me, and for how I interpret our Code and live as a social worker.

But, for you, as you look at our profession, what do you think? Can ‘good’ social workers vote for anyone on Tuesday, as long as they’re voting?

Or does our Code point the way?

6 responses to “Can a ‘good’ social worker vote for [fill in the blank]?

  1. I have to believe that our Code points the way, that we are taught to advocate for those with less, who are considered less, and who are legally less. With only one candidate who is in support of legalizing equality, I don’t see another alternative to vote between the two main candidates.

    As for other candidates, they may be on this same page, but a vote for one of them, unfortunately, is a vote not useful right now, making it a vote not for Obama.

    • I think you’re right. It really highlights the divisions within our profession–and how they mirror those in our society–but our ethical mandate is not to find common ground, or to build professional unity. It is, as you said, to stand up and stand with those who are marginalized. On some issues, that distinction is perhaps not so stark, but on some, like marriage equality, it is dramatic. I do question, more, whether we should be pragmatic, in terms of candidates whose values align with social work but who may not be electorally ‘viable’–where are we to draw the line, there, and how can we create real alternatives if we don’t pave the way? That’s a question, perhaps, for the days after tomorrow, but it’s one I think social workers have to consider. Thanks for reading, and for your comment!

  2. Does a Social Worker have an obligation to participate in a system s/he finds disgusting, oppressive, and stifling of true political dialog and activity? I don’t think so. If you disagree, you may only disagree by degree. For instance, if you were working to destroy Nazism, would you do so by voting for Mussolini because he’s not as bad as Hitler? Or do you decry the absurdness of this “choice” and reject the mechanisms of a political system designed to violently resist all peaceful reform. If you’re working to destroy capitalism, as I believe all social workers (and all allies of the oppressed) are ethically bound to do, then voting in a faux election that merely reinforces the regressive path we’re on (regardless of who wins) is the lowest priority on a list of viable political activities. If you feel you must vote, fine, I can repsect that, because I see no serious damage done by it. But I don’t think we can build solidarity across the profession and greater movement for social justice when you claim there is no excuse for not voting. I don’t need to provide you with an excuse; I am informed enough to understand my ethical obligations.

    • Certainly I didn’t mean to imply that anyone owed me an excuse! I would never pretend to be a police for the profession; I am just excited and honored when my commentary can provoke discussion. When I read the Code of Ethics, particularly Section 6 (particularly 6.02 and 6.04), I take it to require social workers, as part of our ‘political and social action’ and ‘public participation’ to vote. I would agree completely with what I think is central to your argument–that our political participation needs to be far more than just casting a ballot. We absolutely cannot content ourselves with, essentially, consuming one from a variety of options, every 2 or 4 years or even every 6 months (including school board and local elections). And I would agree that neither of the two major party candidates, certainly, are going to bring about the changes in the economic and social systems that are part of my vision for our country–and our world–and what I think those we serve deserve. But I cannot agree that social workers can, in good conscience, abstain from voting, when our Code calls us, for example, to “expand choice and opportunity for all people, with special regard for vulnerable, disadvantaged, oppressed, and exploited people and groups”–certainly the outcome of tomorrow’s election will affect the choice and opportunity afforded to those who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered, for example, and my absence at the polls would be, to me, a luxury, of sorts, that many in our society cannot afford. The political process is messy and imperfect and incomplete. It won’t bring a revolution, and it can’t be the sum total of our political action. But nor do I believe that I can wash my hands of the whole affair, when elections do have consequences, and people’s lives will be affected by those consequences. It is, therefore, to me, an important piece of what I hope is a life that utilizes many paths to social change. As always, I value, so much, your passion and eloquence. I am grateful for you.

      • Thanks for your thoughtful (and dare I say loving) reply. Your argument makes perfect sense to me, and I hope every makes the decision to vote and thoughtfully and as with as much purpose as you.

        To me, casting a ballot is participating in a lie (at least, what I see as a lie). I do not wish to wash my hands of the process as much as acknowledge that no one in power cares what the people I serve think, and that to tell them otherwise through words or actions is to participate in the system that will oppress them regardless of the outcome. Now as someone who is comfortably middle or upper middle class (and is white, and straight, and able bodied) I can see my own interests reflected in the dialog, while the straightforward measures that could do a lot of good for others are swept under the rug in the name of political pragmatism. I can’t say that elections don’t have consequences, but whatever gains we can make always come at a cost. The cost in my mind is disempowerment; the decision to vote is a tacit agreement that a system that makes decision for us is worth participating in. Embedded in this action is the lie that we live in a democracy, and that the choices we are presented with are valid ones. This, as opposed to a social movement that could achieve the same results (and much more), which would contain the essential ingredient of being forced into being by the actions of the oppressed and their allies. This is essential because it stokes the fires of a wider social movement, as opposed to dampening, pacifying, and narrowing.This is why cost benefit analysis for me rests on the side of fighting against, not participating within, this political system and it is not, in my view, ideologically or practically possible to do both.

        Thank you for your blog, and thanks for giving me a chance to provide by my point of view.

  3. I love reading your posts, Melinda. Thank you for your insight, as always!

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