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Question 18: Should social workers adhere to rules or compassionately evade them?

I am in the final semester of a program that prepares people to serve as caseworkers for county or city welfare departments. One of my courses is a required seminar, conducted by the case study method, on how to deal with various difficult situations. Often we find ourselves discussing whether the law and regulations should be strictly followed, or bent, stretched, even clearly violated, for the sake of a more compassionate outcome.

The professor and many of the students take the latter view. For example, they argue that a caseworker should ignore the fact that an unmarried mother of two, collecting unemployment benefits, is earning twelve hundred dollars a month providing several other children with day care—which she also is not licensed to do. They think it would be heartless to go by the book, force the woman to choose between the unemployment benefits and her earnings, and deprive her of money she needs.

Other students argue that caseworkers should not allow their feelings to get them personally involved with clients, and should go by the book.

I cannot side completely with either view. I agree that the law and rules can be awfully harsh and more ought to be done for the sort of people who will be our clients. But I do not believe it would be right for us, as public employees, to throw away the rule book and write our own. Yet that is what we will be doing unless we limit exceptions to emergencies. At the same time, most of us are going into social work because we want to help the people who will be our clients, and I believe we ought to be compassionate toward them. In fact, I cannot imagine dealing regularly with peoples’ problems and not being emotionally involved.

What do you think?


The question is whether compassion justifies social caseworkers in making exceptions to laws and regulations governing their work. To answer, one must explain what compassion is. The word compassion has two meanings; in one sense it refers to an emotion, in the other to a virtue. Actions motivated by the emotion, as by other normal feelings, can be sinful. Actions motivated by the virtue always conform to other moral requirements. Therefore, social caseworkers should shape the behavior to which their feelings of compassion move them by all relevant moral norms, including the usual norms about obedience to the law and lawful regulations that govern their work.

The reply could be along the following lines:

People in various professions other than social work—including some physicians, lawyers, judges, public administrators, teachers, and pastors—share the view that achieving a more “compassionate” outcome sometimes calls for stretching, bending, and violating laws, rules, and even moral norms against lying, killing the innocent, and so on. Since this view often is held and asserted as if it were self-evident, those who find it unacceptable are more likely to be dismissed as cruel and heartless than offered any rational argument. However, like some other, related positions in normative ethics, the seemingly self-evident view that compassion should prevail over other norms is confused and mistaken—though it contains just enough truth to make it plausible and appealing to morally serious, upright people. Consequently, before responding to your specific question, I shall try to clarify this confusion.

Partly it arises from the fact that compassion has two meanings. In one sense it refers to an emotion and in another to a virtue: mercy. By definition, mercy, as a virtue, is morally good and disposes one only to do what is right. The emotion is neither morally good nor evil in itself. Nevertheless, many people today unquestioningly act as if the feeling of compassion were a moral principle.

As an emotion, compassion is akin to pity. Both are sorts of sympathy. Pity differs from compassion in that it need not incline those experiencing it to do anything to help, while compassion connotes just such an inclination. Sympathy is an emotional response to the perceived condition of others—in principle, to their good or bad condition (one rejoices as well as mourns with others), though nowadays we speak of sympathy only in reference to evils.

Sympathetic persons emotionally react to others’ misery and suffering as if it were their own. This response is natural. Human beings are not isolated from one another, as individualists suppose, but are members of a single, extended family, unified by organic bonds, mutually interdependent, and even linked to subhuman animals. Thus, not only family members and friends but strangers often are moved by compassion to sense and spontaneously respond to one another’s needs, and many people, especially children, wish to help and save injured and hungry animals.

Though compassion, as a natural emotional response, is neither morally good nor evil in itself, it is morally significant in at least two ways. Lack of compassionate feeling, heartlessness, often is a consequence of moral immaturity or selfishness, and sometimes even of hatred. Yet compassion often inclines imprudent people to act unreasonably—and so immorally, even if blamelessly due to lack of sufficient reflection. The unreasonable response can be of different sorts. Very often, compassionate people fail to fulfill responsibilities, so as not to inflict pain or hardship —for example, softhearted people in positions of authority tolerate wrongdoing they really ought to deal with. Sometimes, though lacking adequate skill or resources, compassionate people try to help others, and the well-intentioned effort only makes matters worse—for example, a passing motorist tries to comfort an accident victim whose back is broken and greatly aggravates the injury. Again, and even more seriously, people moved by compassion for someone whose misery and suffering are manifest sometimes condone or take part in serious injustices toward others. Compassion for the oppressed led some people to support left-wing totalitarianism; compassion for unwillingly pregnant women and suffering patients leads some people to condone killing the innocent; compassion for drug addicts, alcoholics, and sexual compulsives leads some people to tolerate and even facilitate their antisocial and self-destructive behavior; and so on.55

This moral ambiguity of compassionate feelings often is overlooked today. Our culture has been influenced by secularism, which always denies original sin and usually regards altruistic sentiments as a sound guide to right and wrong. Popularized versions of utilitarianism are prevalent, so that pain and suffering are widely regarded not only as intrinsically evil but as the worst evils, even the only ones, while pleasure and enjoyment are regarded as intrinsically good and even as the only or the highest goods. Morality is reduced to doing what one can to minimize pain and suffering, and maximize pleasure and enjoyment.

Because utilitarianism locates the ultimate principles of morality in human experience rather than beyond it, people who do not believe in God find it congenial. They also like the way it displaces traditional morality’s focus on intelligible goods—the integrity of the bodily and spiritual person, fidelity, human life, marriage itself—and makes way for a permissive new morality regarding sex, marriage, and killing the innocent. Many believers also uncritically accept secularist ideas, fail to distinguish the feeling of compassion from the virtue of mercy, and regard compassion as a virtual moral absolute. Thus, many people would regard the view of your professor and the students who agree with him or her as simple common sense.

In many places in the Old Testament, especially in Psalms and Isaiah, God is said to be compassionate and his people often appeal to his compassion. But even though the words used certainly signify feelings of sympathy, when said of God by analogy they refer not to emotions, which cannot be ascribed to him, but to an aspect of divine perfection: God’s mercy, which is the form his goodness, benevolence, graciousness, and faithful love take in forgiving and saving his people.56 In the New Testament, Jesus’ actions often are said to be motivated by compassion, and here the word plainly does refer to his human feelings for the hungry, the sick, and the spiritually lost (see Mt 9.36, 14.14, 15.32, 20.34; Mk 6.34, 8.2; Lk 7.13). However, just as Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane subordinated his fear of death to his commitment to do the Father’s will, so throughout his life he subordinated every feeling, including compassion, to that same overriding purpose. Thus, Jesus’ compassion was integrated with and governed by the merciful love by which he laid down his life for us.

Like Jesus, we should not be hardened by selfishness or by antipathy toward anyone. Everyone’s misery and suffering should touch us, make us wish to give comfort and help. But we also must be like Jesus in deciding what to do and doing it: dedicated above all to pleasing God, committed to the true good of neighbors afflicted and enslaved by evil, aware that sin is a far greater evil than pain, respectful toward others’ rights, ready to sacrifice ourselves and serve others unselfishly. In short, when moved by feelings of compassion, we must conscientiously decide what to do and do it out of love of neighbor, taking the form of mercy (see LCL, 360–71). Since love fulfills all the commandments (see Rom 13.8–10), in judging and acting out of love we never will condone others’ sins, or ourselves violate any moral requirement. Virtuous compassion will not lead us to violate justice by sacrificing others’ legitimate interests and just claims to bring about a seemingly more compassionate outcome for those whose plight moves us. Rather, true compassion will be allied with confident hope in God. Keeping always in mind the limits of our ability and responsibility to overcome evil and refusing to overstep them, we shall trust God’s wisdom and love to protect or achieve the good for whose sake we cannot rightly act.

Very often, the intense emotional component of virtuous compassion energizes creative intelligence. Love becomes the will that finds a way—not a way extending evil by some facile moral compromise, but a way both legitimate and effective. Unless integrated with the virtue of mercy, compassionate feelings cannot bring practical wisdom into play, and all too often lead people to the folly of trying to achieve good by doing evil.57

Your assessment of the opposing views of the seminar participants seems to me sound. Though caseworkers must not become too emotionally involved in their clients’ problems, lest their own emotional well-being and their job performance both suffer, a cultivated detachment blocking normal feelings of compassion would be incompatible with an authentic commitment to help these needy people. Social work then would become a mere technical handling of cases, without genuine, human care for and service to those in need. Moreover, caseworkers would lack the emotional motivation to do dedicated work and the stimulus for creativity on behalf of the people they serve.

At the same time, social workers, like other citizens, should obey all just and applicable laws and lawful regulations (see LCL, 874–78). This duty of civic obedience is reinforced for them, as government employees, by the duty to fulfill the responsibilities of their job. Setting aside applicable laws and rules to follow feelings also will result in different treatment for clients with similar problems and situations, and such unevenness in treatment not only will be unfair to clients but will subvert the sense of security and order that would help them act reasonably despite their problems.

Of course, sometimes a law or regulation is truly inapplicable, in the sense that applying it would be contrary to the reasonable intention of the authority that issued it. This would constitute what you call an “emergency.” In an emergency, you should seek a superior’s authorization, if possible; you also should note in the record an indication that you made an exception and why you considered it necessary. The possibility that a law or regulation might be unjust presents a more difficult problem. One should begin by assuming that laws and lawful regulations are just, and not judge them unjust without careful inquiry and conscientious reflection. Note, too, that the common good or other responsibilities often require complying even with an unjust law or regulation (see LCL, 880–81).

Nevertheless, one must not comply if that would mean doing something in itself immoral: “We must obey God rather than any human authority” (Acts 5.29; cf. DH 11). For example, if a regulation required caseworkers to urge pregnant, unmarried women to obtain abortions, one could not comply. One would not be obliged voluntarily to report one’s noncompliance, but even in such a case it would be wrong to lie about it. Therefore, social workers must be prepared to give up their jobs rather than comply with laws and regulations requiring any sort of wrongdoing by them.

You propose an interesting example: An unmarried mother receives unemployment benefits but earns twelve hundred dollars a month doing day care, for which she also is unlicensed. Should the caseworker ignore this breach of the law or compel the woman to choose between her unemployment benefits and her earnings? Since you are asking this question, I assume dealing with the client’s unreported income falls within the responsibility of the caseworker. If so, it cannot be ignored. Nothing suggests that the situation is an emergency or that relevant laws and rules will require the caseworker to do anything in itself immoral. Moreover, condoning an unlicensed day care operation could risk the children’s health and safety. So, the caseworker should go by the book, while also seeking legitimate ways of helping the client in order to mitigate the hardship for her and her children.

Someone might argue that the relevant laws and rules are a product of social injustice, either because affluent people use their political power to block tax increases and public programs transferring a fair share of their resources to the needy, or because the whole welfare system is an overly ambitious governmental attempt to save people from themselves and manage their personal and family lives. I think much can be said for both views. But even if so, caseworkers will not rectify the injustices by setting aside relevant laws and rules. Indeed, though public funds may be unfairly limited, the laws and rules may well be distributing the available money fairly, so that ignoring the unreported earnings of someone receiving unemployment benefits might well be unfair to someone in still greater need. And even though governments may have taken more responsibility for people’s welfare than they should have, people who depend on the existing system should receive their fair share of its benefits. Therefore, caseworkers who consider either their clients or tax payers or both to be victims of injustice should not ignore the laws and rules governing their work. Rather, they should use other, legitimate means of working for social justice, such as political action and publicity.58

55. Lawrence A. Blum, Moral Perception and Particularity (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 173–82, provides a phenomenology of compassion considered as an emotional attitude, and points out (182): “Compassion can also be misguided, grounded in superficial understanding of a situation. Compassion is not necessarily wise or appropriate. The compassionate person may even end up doing more harm than good.” C. Daniel Batson et al., “Immorality from Empathy-Induced Altruism: When Compassion and Justice Conflict,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 68 (1995): 1042–54, report experiments showing that people stirred to compassionate feelings manifested partiality in allocating resources in a way they themselves admitted to be less fair and less moral than the alternative chosen by the control group.

56. See Ceslas Spicq, O.P., Theological Lexicon of the New Testament, trans. and ed. James D. Ernest (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1994), 1:471–79.

57. The preceding analysis of compassion draws on, but freely recasts and develops, helpful insights of Edmund D. Pellegrino, “The Moral Status of Compassion in Bioethics: The Sacred and the Secular,” Ethics and Medics, 20:9 (Sept. 1995): 3–4.

58. Barbara Garson, The Electronic Sweatshop: How Computers Are Transforming the Office of the Future into the Factory of the Past (New York: Penguin, 1989), 73–114, describes and sharply criticizes one jurisdiction’s attempt to transform professional social workers into—or replace them with—clerks who unthinkingly follow a system of rules, some unreasonable in themselves and others unreasonable in many of their applications. Someone might cite her account as evidence that some social workers today cannot serve their clients without evading and breaking rules. But Garson’s description makes it clear that evading and breaking unreasonable rules actually contribute to the system’s workability and therefore to its persistence. This sort of complicity in an irrational, and therefore unjust, system might be necessary to keep one’s job but is hardly required by mercy toward clients.