Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Humanism, Social Work and the Caring Society

David Graeber
In response to a question about what can be done to stem the tide of rising inequality, anthropologist and Occupy philosopher David Graeber said, “I think we need to attack the core of the problem, which is that we have an economic system that, by its very nature, will always reward people who make other people's lives worse and punish those who make them better. I'm thinking of a labor movement, but one very different than the kind we've already seen. A labor movement that manages to finally ditch all traces of the ideology that says that work is a value in itself, but rather redefines labor as caring for other people.”

In an effort to redefine labor, Graeber proposed starting “…with classic ‘women's work,’ nurturing children, looking after things, as the paradigm for labor itself and then it will be much harder to be confused about what's really valuable and what isn’t.”

What comes to my mind in considering Graeber’s words are fields such as nursing, elder care, teaching, child care and Social Work. If a society’s values can be determined in some measure by where it allocates its rewards and resources, then it becomes painfully obvious that we value hedge fund managers over teachers, CEOs over nurses, and lawyers over social workers. With elder care often falling to minimum wage employees, we can draw the conclusion that we hold elder care in the same regard as fast food.

In determining what kind of philosophical and political realities would be best suited to engender the kind of world Graeber proposes, I decided to examine the philosophy behind Social Work. Social Work has over 100 years of practical experience and science behind it. Social workers seem already engaged in the kind of work that Graeber defines as “caring.” Social Work must pay special attention to educational and healthcare outcomes. Also, the more I examine the values and goals of Social Work, the more I see it as a practical extension of Humanist philosophy.

Frederic G Reamer’s The Philosophical Foundations of Social Work (1995), is the best introduction to the little examined question of the philosophical basis of Social Work. Reamer writes, “…little recognition has been given to the philosophical roots and assumptions embedded in contemporary statements about the role of government in social welfare.”

When we do examine the “philosophical roots and assumptions” of Social Work (especially as a possible basis of Graeber’s “Caring Society”) we quickly realize, as Reamer notes, that “…publicly sponsored social welfare activities are ultimately shaped by deep-seated beliefs about the goals of government, the rights of citizens in relation to the state, the obligations of the state towards its citizens, the nature of political or civil liberty, and the nature of social justice.” (Reamer)

Reamer’s view of social work is that it rejects “a highly centralized form of rule” as might be suggested by Plato, whose “perspective clearly clashes with most social workers’ vision of government, the importance of individual self-determination, and the value of social services designed to enhance individual skill, opportunity, and capacity.”

Instead, Reamer finds that, “among the clearest precursors of social workers’ contemporary thinking about the welfare state and about the common good was Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s eighteenth-century writings, particularly his Social Contract.” According to Reamer, “Rousseau recognized that property rights lead to inequality and that enhancing equality is one of the principle challenges of a civilized society.”

Rousseau’s brand of “humanism” had a direct influence on Thomas Hill Green, a British philosopher whose work laid the foundation for the modern British welfare state and contributed to the philosophical underpinnings of liberalism. “…Green favored a strong centralized role for government in the provision of health care, housing, education, employment relief, and town planning,” according to Reamer, but I should note here that Green believed, according to Wikipedia, that, “…the state must be careful when deciding which liberties to curtail and in which ways to curtail them. Over-enthusiastic or clumsy state intervention could easily close down opportunities for conscientious action thereby stifling the moral development of the individual. The state should intervene only where there is a clear, proven and strong tendency of a liberty to enslave the individual.” (I'd also call attention to Humanist philosopher John Dewey's interest in Green.)

Finally, Reamer gives some consideration to Karl Marx. I’ll note here, without attempting to ascribe any motives to Reamer, that in 1993, when The Philosophical Foundations of Social Work was first published, Marx’ philosophies were considered by many in the mainstream to be dead on arrival. The economy was humming and the great recession was just under a decade away. Capitalism seemed unbeatable. Without minimizing the influence of Marx, Reamer notes that, “although only a small percentage of social workers identify themselves as ideological Marxists, Marx’s work has unquestionably had a significant influence on social work throughout its history.”

Reamer continues, “Marx’s economic theory contains the seeds of what has evolved into growing concern among many social workers about baneful by-products of capitalism, where a profit-driven society has minimal regard for employment security or the welfare of the masses.” Which appear to be exactly the conditions that spurred the comments made by David Graeber at the top of this piece.

Classical economics, as proposed by Adam Smith and later sharpened into a weapon by David Ricardo, believed that “poverty ‘was the natural state of the wage-earning classes’” and that laws enacted to help the poor were “an artificial creation of the state which taxed the middle and upper classes in order to provide care for the needy.” (Reamer, quoting Walter I. Tratner’s From Poor Law to Welfare State, 2nd ed. 1979)

Because of this, “poor relief was designed to increase “fear of insecurity, rather than to check its causes or even to alleviate its problems. At best, it would prevent starvation or death from exposure, but it would do so as economically and unpleasantly as possible.” (Reamer)

Of course, there are echoes of this today. From mandatory drug testing as a prerequisite for receiving aid to substandard housing for the poor to the endless bureaucratic hurdles that must be cleared before assistance can be won, the welfare state in the United States is not immune to being overly economical or unpleasant.

Here we get to the great divide over the propriety of welfare. “Conservatives argue that the welfare state encourages personal and social irresponsibility more than it provides some measure of defense against poverty, unemployment, sickness, and so on. From this perspective, generous welfare benefits encourage sloth, teenage pregnancy, and other forms of dependence," says Reamer, before quoting Neil Gilbert's Capitalism and the Welfare State (1983). Gilbert notes that some on the left perceive the welfare state as a “cunning device that takes just enough of the edge off the hardships of capitalism to keep the masses in check without altering the basic inequalities of the market economy… The low dose of collectivism injected through the welfare state acts to preserve rather than transform the capitalist order.”
Thomas Hill Green saw the problem as a values conflict between the common and the private good, what we might see as individualism versus collectivism. A caring society, as suggested by Graeber, would look very different. In a caring society the individual’s wellbeing would be a collective concern and would include maximal freedom for self-realization. A caring society would seek to broaden the scope, even as it seeks to identify the limits, of human rights.

I will continue this essay shortly.


  1. That was great to know! I have once worked for Elderly Care Services, I love that work. Thanks for sharing. Keep exploring.

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