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The call to care

I’ve been interviewing candidates for social work training over the past couple of weeks. I’m struck by how idealistic and enthusiastic they are. It’s hard not to look ahead, though, and wonder if in a few years time they’ll still be so enthusiastic and committed. Or will they have joined the ranks of social workers who have had that initial enthusiasm knocked out of them, their idealism drained by the current realities of social work training and practice? What is it we do wrong that saps their initial call to care?

My own answer to this question is in some respects pretty dispiriting. The very concept of care, it seems to me, is fundamentally misconceived in the way that professional social work has developed. It is conceptualised as a technical/rational task rather than the essentially moral one it is and must be. I wrote last month about my developing interest in philosophy. When we want to explore what care is all about, I’d argue that it is philosophy rather than the social sciences that we need to turn to in the first instance. What is it that calls us to care for others?

Francis Hutcheson, who was professor of moral philosophy at the University of Glasgow in the early 18th century argued that human beings have an innate moral sense, a quality he terms benevolence, which leads them to reach out to others. This notion of a natural sense akin to the other human senses, has been taken up by a number of philosophers, most powerfully perhaps by Emmanuel Levinas, one of the foremost intellectual figures in France in the last century. Now Levinas doesn’t come easy. Having come across a summary of his work I sought to take it a bit further, so I bought a book, Levinas: a guide for the perplexed. I’m afraid I still am; but I’ve learned enough to make me think that there’s something there that’s worth persevering with. Levinas writes about an ethic of responsibility or an ethic of encounter; what happens when we come face to face another human being? According to Levinas, the ‘face’ (the term he uses to convey the transcendent being of the other) ‘summons me.’ I am called to respond to the needs of the other. I may not like them, our relationship may be conflictual but I nevertheless have a responsibility towards them; a responsibility that is infinite and demands nothing in return. When self meets other the encounter is a face to face one without intermediaries.

I wonder if, when we institutionalise care within organisations or professions, we limit our liability to care and introduce intermediaries to our human encounters. We call this 'procedure' or even 'professionalism'. Obvious retorts to any philosophy premised on an innate human benevolence are that it is hopelessly utopian or that it allows for indiscriminate and possibly exploitative professional relationships. On the other hand, it seems that the way care services are currently structured is essentially misanthropic; based on a presumption that human beings are innately flawed and need a panoply of rules and regulations to keep them in line. We are suspicious of good intent; we consider it unprofessional or worse. But in terms of relationships, an ethic of responsibility does not countenance a free for all; rather, it demands that we re-personalise our encounters with those we work with. We can no longer hide behind the bureaucratic strictures that limit our call to care. We need to connect in authentic ways always putting our responsibility to the other at the forefront of our relationships.

Where I become dispirited, I suppose, is that I find little in current discourses of care which come close to addressing the heart of the matter. We seem to be introducing more and more intermediaries to the practice of care. It’s little wonder then that bright-eyed and bushy tailed students soon become grumpy and burnt out practitioners; they are confronted with an experience of social work training and practice that doesn’t reflect the aspirations they came into the profession with.

Students and those who work in the human services need to move beyond the technician role they are increasingly cast in. They need to be allowed to explore some of these philosophical issues beyond the narrow rule-bound Kantian approaches that currently define social work ethics. Philosophy used to be the cornerstone of Scottish higher education; students required a compulsory first degree in philosophy before they could proceed to more specialist study. Increasingly, I think that training for social work or for child and youth care needs to start with philosophy, reclaiming the moral imperative to care.