Eye on Ethics: Pattern Recognition Theory and Social Work Ethics

Frederic G. Reamer, Rhode Island College


Social workers have come to understand that professional work often produces exceedingly complex moral and ethical challenges that demand keen insight, astute analysis, and skilled management. In some instances, social workers reach quick consensus about the most appropriate course of action. In the most challenging cases, however, thoughtful, principled, and earnest social workers who have a firm grasp of the pertinent facts may disagree about what is ethical. That is, reasonable minds may differ.

When I sort through complex ethical issues, often I find myself identifying key dilemmas, principles, and standards that were relevant in other cases I have encountered. One major advantage of experience in any line of work is that one can draw on lessons learned from accumulated precedents, other scenarios that required somewhat similar analysis. Although the fact pattern in other cases may differ somewhat, sometimes key elements resemble pertinent facts in a new situation. Researchers refer to this as pattern recognition.