Feelings of moral obligation are often cited by social workers as reasons for entering the field. These feelings ranked high on my own list of reasons for pursuing a social welfare degree. In reflecting on the van Brakel and Saunders article, I considered what it would be like for me to be in Turnbull’s shoes, observing the Ik, starving and “depraved.” I tried to consider what frame of mind I would have to put myself in to observe the Ik without intervening. The only way that I was able to understand how one could limit themselves to observation in this case would have been to consider the Ik as something other than human-even other than animal. For me, moral obligation is connected with a visceral, physical feeling-a “gut” instinct of what Turnbull referred to as “where the spades are going to be turned” (van Brakel and Saunders, 1989, p. 266).
After considering this and convincing myself that I would have to step far outside of my usual way of thinking to observe the Ik without intervening, I was reminded of a man that I see on my commute to work each morning. He sleeps on a stain on the sidewalk on Beverly Boulevard, sometimes shivering, always filthy. I have seen him there every day for months-and kept on driving by-as do the thousands of other people that pass by him every day. While I found myself initially judging the anthropologists who criticized Turnbull with disgust, I was forced to remind myself the depravity that I choose to observe without intervention on a daily basis.
To me, I will define myself as a social worker by deciding where my “spades” are going to be turned. For me, morality in practice is closely related to empathy, and the need (my need?) to communicate to another human being that they are not alone. Within my work in social services and particularly in mental health over the last few years, I have observed many cases of what I call “depression.” I consider it a moral obligation to help try to alleviate the depression because I would want someone to try to alleviate my depression if I felt it. Perhaps, for me, part of fulfilling moral obligations is connected to what I hope that another human will do for me. Perhaps it has more to do with my own desire to change what I observe in my environment to match how I process the world internally.
The social work job that I have gained the most satisfaction from has been my work on a national suicide hotline. There are many times that I have observed that a counselor’s empathy completely alters the conceptual scheme in which the suicidal caller exists. I believe it is a moral obligation to attempt to alter this scheme simply because I believe that many people who call the line are suffering from a sort of “empathic starvation” that I feel obliged to “patronize.”
As I have begun to awkwardly and tentatively construct my own theory of practice, the one principle I have officially accepted as “my own” is one of Putnam’s as well: that every person is deserving of respect. I have heard total desperation subside in callers when she (the caller) learns that she is valued and respected by another human being (the counselor)-simply because she is human. In considering why I have chosen to work at the hotline over many years, I believe it is because I have observed transformations in the internal worlds of callers when they are afforded respect and empathy. I know that I must continue to consider the sense of empowerment that I feel from fulfilling this moral obligation, as well as my motivations for participating in a “helping profession.”