Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Dignity in Social Work

Desmond Mpilo Tutu
The Indigenous people in the world have a lot to teach us. Desmond Tutu says we must learn from their understanding that we are all in a dependence to one another and to the nature around us. This dependence on each other is called Ubuntu in the African Nguni language. A person is a person through another person. I am a human because I belong to a family, society, tribe, nation, world. Ubuntu is about wholeness and to life itself. Desmond Tutu has newly written a book called "Dignity", where photographer Dana Glukstein embodies Ubuntu in her wounderful pictures of indigenous people around the world. Through these images we can see not just the face, but also dignity essence. Dignity can be seen in the physical, but we are encouraged to attempt to seize the quiet dignity that shines from these people Glukstein has take pictures of in this book. 

Dignity in social workDignity is so important that the International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW) says that social work is based on dignity. They have agreed that:"Social work is based on respect for the inherent worth and dignity of all people and the rights that follow from this. Social workers should uphold and defend each person's physical, psychological, emotional and spiritual integrity and well-being "(adopted in March 2012).This is repeated in the "Professional ethical foundation document for child welfare workers, social workers, social educators and social welfare work" in Norway, where it says that the key concepts of the relationship between the practitioner and their client's is dignity and respect (adopted in November 2002). 

What is dignity?We all have a gut feeling to what dignity is about, but to explain exactly what dignity is, gives most of us problems to define. Dignity is in a way a part of our being, a way of being a part of our lives as human beings. It is perceived as a positive state when we feel our vulnerability as human beings is recognized and accepted, and it is perceived as a painful and negative state when our vulnerability violated. We need knowledge, awareness and skills in order not to violate the dignity of others. In social work practice, it is important that we know how to heal a hurt dignity.This idea that all humans are born with dignity is something we take for granted today. But the idea was actually born in Europe in the late 1700's as a reaction to the medieval belief that life should be full of suffering and that humans are doomed to suffer because of Adam and Eves fall in the garden of Eden. It is only in the afterlife that our suffering will disappear. You all remember of Kant's categorical imperative from 1785? Kant argued that a moral duty for one person must necessarily be a moral duty also for everyone else. This means that one must choose ones policies for actions by the principles one also wishes others to follow. The way Kant explains dignity has been guiding for our views on the concept since the 1700s. But how he explains the term is not clear or easy to understand. Kant uses the German word Würde for dignity. Würde very similar to the German word Wert which means value. And Würde and Wert also has a connection with Kant. Actually using the word Würde is fairly rare in Kants writing, except for his work The Basis for Metaphysical Morality. Here he uses the word Würde a total of 16 times. However, since this work is the most read and studied in Kants work, it has been very important for us in retrospect. Kant says that everything has either value or dignity. It has a value, as opposed to a dignity, can be replaced by something else that is equally worthy. Dignity is about an intrinsic value and not an external value that can be replaced with something else that is equally worthy. Kant says that dignity is an "unconditional and outstanding value." He further says that the basis of all dignity is autonomy (our independence and freedom as human beings). It is important in Kants understanding that he allows for a non-religious understanding of dignity. Before Kant, Aquinas's understanding of dignity prevailed. Aquinas believed that our dignity was related to God and that dignity therefore is in all Gods creation, also in nature, nature is a part of God's creation. Everything that God has created has dignity, even plants. Kant on the other hand reserves dignity to a congenital intrinsic value in humans. 

Dignity and respectAll people deserve that their dignity be respected. But sometimes we harm others, either consciously or unconsciously. This makes it sometimes difficult to respect them for what they have done. On the one hand, we believe that everyone deserves to be respected, and on the other hand, it is impossible to respect them for what they have done. Respect and dignity are not the same. To demand that everyone should be treated with respect can be difficult or even impossible in practice. But to expect everyone to be treated with dignity is not complicated. Everyone deserves to be treated with dignity. Respecting the dignity of others does not mean that you have respect for their actions. We must earn the respect of others through our actions.

Kaare T Pettersen

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