The responsibility of the social worker

Ethical implications of theory and practice

by Heinz J. Kersting
translated from German by Monika Broecker

Will be published in: Cybernetic Vol. 34 No 3/4, 2005, pp. 409-418 © Emerald Group Publishing Limited (



To focus an the topic of ethics an responsibility, specifically on the ethical action of the social worker.

Design / methodology / approach

Considers that while ethical questions are discussed in social discourse everywhere, social work in Germany seems to avoid a reformulation of deeply ethical premises. This is perhaps so, because ethics already is implicit in the actions of social work.


The author believes that the implicit dealing with ethics on the part of the social worker is similar to the "implicit ethics" of Heinz von Foerster, which "cannot be articulated", but is immanent in every action.

Originality / value

A consideration of the ethical responsibilities of the social worker.


Cybernetics, Ethics, Social welfare

Paper type

Conceptual paper

I am not a cardinal,
I am not a general,
I am not a voice catcher,
I am a clown,
ein Harlekin,
a bold singer.

I don't have a canon,
I don't have a pistol,
I only have a violine.

I am, what I believe.
Are you what you believe?
Are you what you believe?

(Herman van Veen)

Nowadays, there are no more conferences, where there is not at least one lecture dedicated to the topic of ethics. Almost every professional group concerns itself with this topic, and many professional associations establish committees an ethics. The German government recently established an ethics committee, with very distinguished members, in connection with the problems of stem cell research.

When one looks at the literature, we see a blossoming landscape of ethics, which is semantically innovative, used economically, and politically discussable. Presented linguistically and sometimes already established as morality in technology, business ethics, bio-ethics and until now appearing only in the form of neologisms such as theor-ethics, CybernEthics (von Foerster, 1993b), aesthethics and gene-ethics. Economically rewarding, one finds morality as something for consultants to invest. Politically speaking, morality is often assiduously taxed, as most recently in the discussion for and against the Iraqi war.

Ethical imperatives are very current for business, and increasingly ethical questions, concerns and limitations are also being discussed in relation to scientific research, especially in the fields of gene technology and brain research.

Here I will focus the topic of ethics on responsibility, i.e. on the ethical acting of the social worker. However, the professional group of social workers in Germany seems be immune regarding the topic of its own professional ethics, at least when one looks at the professional literature, browses through the respective magazines and attentively listens to conversations among colleagues. It seems to me that, aside from some exceptions, German social work is little touched by questions regarding ethics. By comparison, social workers in the US and the Netherlands have succeeded in coming up with a "code of ethics", recognized by its professional group.

Perhaps social workers in Germany are mentally too inflexible to pick up on the important developments of the times. Perhaps for them ethical questions are matter of courses in their acting, not warranting big discussions. Perhaps, however, something already shows in their implicit handling of ethics that makes for the standing of ethics in the last years of the second and the first years of the third millennium, thereby pointing to a new and rather useful approach to ethics.

Well I do not think that German social workers are mentally less flexible than the social workers of other countries and the members of the other professional groups. Possibly they perceive the world more pragmatically, need to improvise more, and overload themselves with work so that while they are acting they do not have much time left for explicit ethical reflecting. On the other hand, in many areas, especially those concerning the marginal zones and the vital questions of society, the German social workers have their fingers on the pulse of the times, while seismographically perceiving the problems of the people more clearly than many other professional groups. In addition, social work is the first professional group that invented supervision for its own reflection, which today has been adopted by many other professional groups throughout Europe as a useful consulting tool for its own practice. In the process of supervision, social workers let themselves to be observed by supervisors. They allow a total stranger to look at their cards, which initiates a very effective process of reflection. With supervision, social work has introduced in second-Order Observation into their practice, and institutionalized the supervisor as the observer of the observers long before "cybernetics of cybernetics" or "second-Order cybernetics" (von Foerster, 1993b, pp. 91-94; Bardmann, 1996; Kersting, 1997, 2002, pp. 25-31) was thought about theoretically. Second-Order cybernetics delivered a posteriori the theoretical foundation for the effectiveness of supervision as a reflective tool thus far "only" experienced in practice.

It would sooner make sense to me that ethics is too self-evident for social workers to talk about explicitly. Social work is a "maternal institution" in a "fatherly society", and the women of the middle class women's movement, who in the last third of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century invented social work, and who in Germany, after the First World War saw to it that helping became a profession, defined their ethical ideal as "motherliness". With the help of the principles of motherliness they wanted to shape their work in society, i.e. social work. This principle was also transferred to male professional colleagues, very much in the sense of Bert Brecht, who in his "Caucasian Chalk Circle" points out that the "motherly person" is most important for education, and that this motherly position as an ethical principle is not to be ascribed solely to the female gender. Whoever would like to positively reframe these archaic sounding thoughts today, will find that these initial thoughts of social work continue to live on today in the less emotional slogans that social workers use automatically when reflecting on their practical doings, for example, "the helping professional relationship", "empathy", "rapport". It is perhaps for social workers as for mothers, who usually help without asking questions, without looking for explicit reasons for the ethics of their action. Children and clients are simply there, challenge, scream, need help. One has got engaged with this task, now one has to fulfil it. Because s/he is there at the time, s/he has to leap into the gap.

Perhaps this naive way of dealing with the topic ethics - naive in the sense of original - as is still common among social workers, can transition to a third possibility of dealing with ethics, which in my opinion is trend-setting and which, following von Foerster (1993a, 347 ff.), I would like to call "implicit ethics".

If then at the end of my delivery something like a program were to emerge as to how we could together facilitate the thinking about ethics in social work, I would be very satisfied. If we then were also able to ascertain that this thinking about ethics can become useful and meaningful for social work practice, I would be most satisfied. Should my discussion only be of value to me, I shall be contented with myself. After all, I know that my observations are only the observations of an observer among many other observers. I am an observer who, from his own observer standpoint, with clouded vision and through his own "blind spots", observes his ethical world and that of the social workers. Should my observations not be useful to you as a reader, just ignore them. You will make your own observations that will be more useful to you. Then, the only thing that remains is for me to thank you in advance for your patience and the time that you will dedicate to the reading of my paper.

"Mores" as customs and ethos have characterized successful living since classical antiquity. In the 18th century, one began to observe ethical behavior more intensively as morality, which always also means more scientifically. One took pains at the breakdown of Christian fundamentalism to find new legitimations for morality, which was then attempted with the theory of natural law. The academic discipline in which this knowledge production took place was called ethics. What had preceded was a more than two-thousand-year-old tradition, which understood ethics as the teaching of ethos as the most perfect form of natural living.

They say that ethics has become a problem today. But is that so? As we have seen, it does not seem to apply to social workers. When a social worker - observing others and himself or herself - becomes active, he may find out that people still demand ethical behavior in an unscrutinized way, that clients whine: "How could he, she or it act so wickedly?" What has become questionable is the ethical justification of behavior. For if the social worker inquires further, he will note that most of his clients, his colleagues and perhaps even he himself no longer believe that the reasons for ethics are given within religion itself, and he will further note that the idea of a natural law is too abstract to justify every-day morality once it has become questionable. On the other hand, most people do not want a legal system, constructed in parliaments, to interfere too much in their private and personal life. Today, modern movements of liberation suffer from the fact that they can not find any foundations an which to build new ethics. Ethical imperatives that prescribe a "should" for all human beings are no longer redeemable at a time of "New Obscurity", of which Habermas (1985) already spoke.

My teacher, Professor Dr Dr h. c. Louis Lowy of Boston, told me that during his time of slavery in the concentration camp Auschwitz he could observe how the faithful Christians and the faithful communists at that time had an additional source of survival, missing for the agnostics like himself. Meaning, moral justification, and from outside to be precise, revealed to the person or proven as scientific, for instance by a theory of stable laws of nature, natural law or a philosophy of history, evidently gave support and hope. They strengthened the will to survive. Bat someone like the agnostic, who "knows that we cannot know anything" (as Goethe had Faust say), was in bad shape.

After all of these preliminary remarks, I am now coming to the main part of my remarks. When I prepared myself for this contribution, I noticed that I had chosen an impossible topic, in the sense of not possible. For in Heinz von Foerster's writings I came across the sixth sentence of the Tractatus logico philosophicus that Ludwig Wittgenstein had already written in 1918, and which I had encountered for the first time during my student years. At that time this sentence had very much moved me, for it was useful for my life then. Later, I had forgotten about it.

Wittgenstein comes to talk about the values and says: "It is clear that ethics cannot be articulated" (6.421). Actually, I could end my contribution here and I could end it with another Wittgenstein quote, the last sentence of the same Tractatus: "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent".

You See, I put myself into a dilemma. On the one hand, I find the Wittgenstein statement about ethics plausible and it has been useful in my life. On the other hand, I let myself be challenged to talk with you about ethics, i.e. "to articulate" ethics. So I find myself in a typical paradoxical situation. If I talk about ethics, I do something totally impossible according to Wittgenstein, whose statement I share. If I am silent from now on, I behave in a totally impossible way toward you. So the only thing I can do is to jump into this paradox and try to talk to you about ethics without articulating ethics. Just as a Zen-Buddhist student, who as an answer to his question about the buddhaship gets a koam from his self-elected master: "Speak about the unspeakable?"

Let us get started, let us chew on this koam!

Let us first look at the context in which Wittgenstein (1971) puts this Statement There we find:

"The first thought: while setting up an ethical law of the form "thou shalt ..." is: "And what if I do not do it?" (6.422) Now, I am convinced that not everybody comes up with this thought postulated by Ludwig Wittgenstein. Heinz von Foerster who, like his uncle only in name, Ludwig Wittgenstein, comes from Vienna, thinks that this thought could be related to Wittgenstein's cultural Background (Wittgenstein, 1971).

Let us continue with Wittgenstein: "But it is clear that ethics has nothing to do with punishment and reward in the ordinary sense ... There must be some sort of ethical reward and ethical punishment, but this must lie in the action itself" (Wittgenstein, 1971, p. 112; 6.422).

With this sentence and above all with Wittgenstein's words "in the action itself” I got to a point where it might be possible for me to reflect upon ethics and to articulate the products of my reflecting, while at the same time holding an to Wittgenstein's statement: "It is clear that ethics cannot be articulated".

It gives me the opportunity to add something about second-Order cybernetics in my contribution, about the observer of observers, whom we briefly encountered already a little while ago. For in my opinion, second-order cybernetics helps me manage the problem that I created for you and me, for it quite unexpectedly offers new solutions of the ethical problem.

According to Gregory Bateson, cybernetics is "... a branch of mathematics that deals with problems of control, recursiveness and information" (quoted by von Foerster, 1993b, p. 62; translated by Monika Broecker).

The example mentioned the most is that of central heating with its self-regulating thermostat. The most important characteristic of cybernetics is circularity.

For social workers this was nothing new, because they had always thought in terms of social interdependencies, which already an early charts formed into circles. (It would be interesting to reread the classics of social work, for example, Jane Addams, Alice Salomon, Bertha Reynolds, Felix Biesteck, Louis Lowy, Jim Garland, and Alex Gitterman in that regard.) For science cybernetics represented a true revolution. For cybernetic thinking clearly contravenes the "fundamental principles of scientific discourse ..., which commands the separation of observer and the observed. That is the principle of objectivity: The characteristics of the observer shall not enter the description of the observed ..." (von Foerster, 1993b, p. 64; translated by Monika Broecker). Objective description acts as if the observer who observes did not exist. However, when I observe the observer and when I observe myself as observer while observing something that seems to be outside of me, then the observer is part of the observation itself, then I as the observer am always the observed as well. This strange process, which in my opinion occurs which any scientific research, as "objective" as it may seem, is called cybernetics of cybernetics, or second-order cybernetics. "When the characteristics of the observer, i.e. the characteristics of observing and describing are excluded, there is nothing left, neither the observation nor the description" (von Foerster, 1993b, p. 64; translated by Monika Broecker).

It makes sense to me that science wants to hold on to this principle of excluding the observer with his characteristics, because it is afraid of paradoxes, for example, such paradoxes, in which we just got caught up. And here we are again, unwittingly, in the land of morality. Out of fear of self-reference, out of fear of the observer including himself in the observation, that he would become the implication of research, out of fear of having to talk about himself, this paradox was forbidden in science. At least since we concerned ourselves with cybernetics, we know that all our scientific theories are based on a belief and are only possible because an angel with a burning sword keeps away the paradoxes that occur through circular, self-referential thinking.

Scientific theories usually assert their claim to truth. They operate according to the Aristotelian logic with the distinctions "true/false" and "right/wrong". They cannot deal with paradoxes. The statement "All Cretans are liars", said by the Cretan Epimenides, creates a problem that can not be solved with Aristotelian logics. In the middle ages one told the following little story to the beginners in philosophy, in which Epimenides enters the scene; only in form of a barber: A barber can shave all inhabitants in his little village who can’t shave themselves. But what does the barber do with himself? If he wants to shave himself he can't shave himself. For if he agrees to the statement that says that he can only shave those who can’t shave themselves, he can't shave himself even though on the other hand he can shave himself as he is a barber.

Western science was indeed unable to logically deal with paradoxes. And what does one do when one can’t logically deal with a thing or a person? One tries to ridicule him or her and imposes a ban. And both did in fact happen. Throughout the entire Middle Ages one made fun of the lying Cretan and of the constantly growing beard of the barber. Or, just as juggling was forbidden in some areas of Europe for religious and moral reasons, one imposed a ban on paradoxes because they were seen as infringing upon the laws of God and of nature. The devil was considered the father of the paradox, because as a fallen angel, he represented a contradiction in himself, which then Goethe lets Mephisto answer to Faust’s question as to who he was: A "part of that power that would always work evil, but always engenders good".

To pronounce the modern scientific verdict about paradoxes was left to Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead in the Principia Mathematica, and with that science saved itself in modern times conclusively on the side of the seemingly safe ground of morality.

Faithful to Christian Morgenstern's motto, who lets his Poem "Die unmgliche Tatsache" ("The impossible fact") [1] end with the logical conclusion of Palmstrm: "Weil, so schliet er messerscharf, nicht sein kann, was nicht sein darf". (And he comes to the conclusion: that, which must not, can not be [2]) (Morgenstern, 1998, p. 105).

Ever since Russell's and White head's work it has become apparent for any upright logician - and Kurt Gdel already (Gdel, 1931) proved it in 1931 for this awe-inspiring logical edifice, the Principia Mathematica - that rigorous science and dogmatics are more connected to each other than one commonly assumes, and that in their root they are identical. Perhaps the difference between those who believe in God and those who believe in science, both of them claiming to make true statements, lies merely in that the religious people know that they believe, whereas scientists believe that they know.

Back to our questions about the impossibility of articulating ethics. I approach the problem which a theorem, which in 1989 Heinz von Foerster worded as follows: "Only the undecidable questions, we can decide" (von Foerster, 1993a, p. 351, translated by Monika Broecker). Now, all questions that we can decide have already been decided That two times two is four has already been decided, that it is four and something in the afternoon has already been decided. That I am sitting at my desk in front of my computer has already been decided, that you hold the book in your hands has already been decided, for you are holding it in your hands.

However, how the universe came into being is in principle undecidable. Some people think it came into being through a big bang about 30 million years ago. Others say it came about through a Singular act of creation. The Eskimos, the Incas, the Maoris again have different views on the origin of the universe. "We are not liable to any coercion, not even that of logic when we decide in principle undecidable questions While free in that, we must however, assume responsibility for our actions" (von Foerster, 1993a, p. 552, translated by Monika Broecker).

That is a very important ethical implication: We are free but responsible for our decisions.

It also applies to our decision for or against a theory. I can sort theories by how they understand the observer: as one who looks through a peep-hole into the world, thus an objective observer; or as one, who is part of the world (von Foerster and Broecker, 2002). When I do something, for example, when I observe, I change myself and the world. Or I can sort theories by how they see causes. The first kind of theories: The world is the primary cause, i.e. what I experience is caused by the world. The second kind of theories: My experience is the primary cause, i.e. the world is a product of my experience. The world is my construction, which is why some people who think in such a way call themselves constructivists. Both threads of theories I can condense into questions:

The first pair of questions then runs like this: Am I apart from the Universe or am I a part of it? The second pair of questions runs like this: Is the world the cause for reality or the construct of my experience?

These questions belong to those questions that are in principle undecidable. So I can decide. In both cases, I chose the second position. Others may decide differently. I decided this way as this position irrevocably entails my having to take responsibility for my actions (von Foerster, 1993a, p. 352). Here you can see that the epistemological problem of cybernetics, of paradoxes largely coincide with those of ethics, and with that those who contemplate the world through cybernetic eyes have to assume the responsibility of participating in the solving of the ethical problems of this world.

Let's begin with that! In Order to do that let's go back to Wittgenstein one more time. When I try to articulate ethics, then it expresses itself in a "you should!" Or, to use the words of Heinz von Foerster in a conversation with Theo Bardmann in 1993: "As soon as we talk about ethics we slip into the position of a moralist ... Ethic then becomes morality" (Bardmann, 1997).

I turn implicit ethics, which means personal responsibility, into explicit ethics. Instead of meaning myself, I begin to mean others, "to beat them over the head with instructions, inundate them with prescriptive, prospective or descriptive advice". The ethical form of "I shall" then becomes the moral form of "you should" (Bardmann, 1994). By saying "you should!", I leave the self-referential structure of my theory, which always already includes me as a part of the universe.

Now it is time to talk about the title, which I gave to my contribution. As a consequence of my work around this topes I must now correct it. It is not possible for a representative of implicit ethics, of ethics that can only set rules for itself, to talk about the responsibility of the social worker. The title suggests explicit ethics. As if I were in the position to set imperatives for my colleagues. Sort of like the finger of God writing Moses' tablets on Mount Sinai. In my own defense I would like to state that I originally wanted to begin my paper with the ethical imperative of Heinz von Foerster (1993a, p. 49); "Act always so as to increase the number of choices.". In the conversation mentioned above Heinz von Foerster said that with the ethical imperative, which he created more than 20 years ago, he himself slipped into the role of a moralist. Any ethics, which sets rules of morality directed at others is other-referential and does not include the prescribe of the prescriptions.

The title of my contribution should now be: "My Responsibility as a Social Worker". Today, I shall reword the ethical imperative of Heinz von Foerster in the following way: "In all my work as a social worker, in all my scientific work and talk, I shall assume responsibility for always increasing the number of choices for myself and others". Such an imperative, directed at myself, and in addition to taking responsibility for myself and the world, implies work on my own freedom and the freedom of others. I prescribe for myself not oppression, but liberation, not restriction but development.

Therefore, at the end of my paper I would like to add a few words to my program as a social worker and as a scientist: All theories offered regarding social work I examine with an eye to what kind of possibilities for freedom they give to me. A science, which claims truth for itself becomes more and more useless for me. It is too rigid, too inflexible. Today, I am only interested in those sciences for social work that also include their own reversibility. For as a social worker I need flexible, reversible decision-making possibilities. People who lost their flexibility frequently become moralists. Morality in their hands is often the hammer that forges the same thing over and over again.

There are theories that in my opinion claim too much. They critically look at today's world, but critically then frequently means negatively. They measure my presence even when I do not have any other than this my presence, too often against the ideal picture of a future world, finally completely liberated, emancipated, or even classless, a world, in which there is a perfect rational discourse, where everything is safe and sound. Such theories are useless for me. They idealize the absent and frequently discredit the possibilities of my present world. With the help of these ideals such theories frequently construct horrible worlds. And throughout the centuries, since the beginning of the so-called "modern times", Europe has sadly experienced and frequently enough had to suffer the results of where those exaggerated expectations always landed in the course of history: in inhumanity. The inhumanity of Christian fundamentalism found its culmination in the burning of witches and heretics by Catholic and Protestant inquisitors. The inhumanity of rationalism was fulfilled in Joseph Stalin, the inhumanity of irrationalism and racism in Adolf Hitler.

The theory that I have chosen with its implicit ethics does not claim commitment to any truth and does not require loyalty to some master, guru, secretary general, or redeemer. Even what important constructivist teachers like Heinz von Foerster, Humberto R. Maturana, Ernst von Glasersfeld, Paul Watzlawick und Niklas Luhmann say or said is interesting for me only as long it is useful in the process of making rigid situations flexible. If it is not useful in that: respect it: does not interest me!

My responsibility as a social worker means to me precisely an increased attention and precisely this intelligent flexibility. Responsibility means being attentive, being present with myself and my clients means dissolving constancy in the solution of increased possibilities, means a freeing from certainty, only to offer solutions, as an offering and not as a command.

As a further form of the ethical imperative I can say to myself: "Heinz (Kersting), be sure that an event remains an event and does not become part of what remains constant. Or worded more paradoxically: Heinz, see to it that an event becomes a persistent event!"

In this sense it is part of my opinion of social work that it confuses restricting "world views" that have become useless, or expressed more methodically, more elegantly, that it planfully confuses (Bardmann et al.,1991; Kersting, 1992, translated by Monika Broecker). "Einstrzende Neubauten" (collapsing new buildings) and "Erste allgemeine Verunsicherung" (first general alienation) are the names of two musical groups in Germany, whose names fit this activity. To my understanding social work's job is not only to irritate but also to motivate and to develop. But beware of the term "develop". Coming from pedagogy it is suspect. Developing is not to be thought of as progress. Development is not meant to be linear but circular. I want to understand de-veloping in the oldest form of the meaning of the word, which then connotes in the German language diaper, swaddling wrapping, diaper Babies, in-volving, en-veloping.

Understood like this the word de-veloping belongs to the vocabulary of liberation. Developing liberates from progressive thinking. In history, pedagogy understood itself too frequently as the production of diaper babies.

My new responsibility, my new answer is: I want to de-velop diaper babies, unwrap them from their diapers, free them from their diapers. At the same time, I want to lay open their excoriated asses and reveal the shit. Of course, this stinks for a moment but washing has a cathartical function. Maybe the developed one can then use his shit for another purpose but to hide it from himself or herself and others. After all we know that in some cultures shit is used as burning material or fertilizer. When one reframes it shit often becomes useful.

To this social work activity the names of other music bands fit quite well: "The Cure", "The Sisters of Mercy" or "The Mamas & the Papas", with which the circle loses upon the beginning of my paper, where I talked about the possibly long-established implicit practice of ethics among social workers as "motherly people“. It is important that I as a social worker does not put new diapers on the one who has been de-veloped.

Here too I remember sentences from the time when social work was fairly young. Colleagues talked about the "self-determined right of the client" and about the "help to self-help". Perhaps the de-veloped one searches in his wardrobe for other clothes, or goes for a while "in the emperor's new clothes", naked as the holy Francis of Assisi, who laid his childhood clothes at his father's feet, when the latter accused him of disobedience before the tribunal of the bishop.


[1] The complete Poem "The impossible fact" of Christian Morgenstern (1998, p. 105):

Palmstroem, old, an aimless rover,
walking in the wrong direction
at a busy intersection
is run over.

"How," he says, his life restoring
and with pluck his death ignoring,
"can an accident like this
ever happen? What's amiss?

"Did the state administration
fall in motor transportation?
Did police ignore the need
for reducing driving speed?

"Isn't there a prohibition,
barring motorized transmission
of the living to the dead?
Was the driver right who sped ...?"

Tightly swathed in dampened tissues
he explores the legal issues,
and it soon is clear as air:
Cars were not permitted there!

And he comes to the conclusion:
His mishap was an illusion,
for, he reasons pointedly,
that which must not, can not be.

[2] Translated by Max Knight, available at:


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Morgenstern, C. (1998), "Gedichte - Verse - Sprche", Lechner Publishing, Limasol.

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Verffentlichungsdatum: Juni 2005

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