Tuesday, August 03, 2010


They say that when a Hopi child did something bad, he was not punished nor was he ignored. Someone simply said mildly, “That’s not the Hopi way.” And since the child wanted to belong, he tried to be a good Hopi and do what they did.

Because I might be asked to “distance teach” through the computer a class in “Ethics in the Helping Professions,” I’ve been thinking about this favorite little story. There have probably been other times and periods when ethics were so contradictory and helping each other was so problematic as well as needed, but that’s not much comfort. In 1978 when I took my first formal class in the subject, Don Browning taught it quietly but intensely. I have my notes and text, but some things have been alive in my mind ever since.

There are no answers, really, because everything changes all the time. One of the first things you have to give up is the comfort of knowing you are right and assurance that what you say or do is really helpful. Most of the issues must be worked through in terms of approaches that contrast if not flatly contradict each other.

For people in a basically Abramic culture (Christian, Jewish. Islamic) it’s the big shift from RULE ethics to PRINCIPLE ethics that is embodied (enscriptured, anyway) in the change from the “Old” Testament to the “New” Testament. That is, the change from the Ten Commandments to Jesus’ idea of doing unto others as we would have ourselves done to. This shift wasn’t just in the Middle East -- over the millenia most sophisticated religions come to some version of this. It’s part of the shift from thinking in terms of one tribe -- that stays in one place where one can assume everyone is “on the same page,” whether it is about what to wear or how to treat your parents -- to a far more global journey where the food is unfamiliar, the people are unrelated, and you don’t know what the rules are.

In this particular context (Blackfeet Community College) an even more compelling dyadic tension is between the “ontological” and the “teleological” -- that is, where things (you) came from in your essential nature and where you are trying to go, your idea of what the future might be. For an autochthonous people (close to the land, aboriginal) that means a lively dialogue between beginnings and goals, both as individuals and as a tribe.

What is the original essence of being Blackfeet? (The Blackfeet “Way.”) This is a question much more easily asked than answered because there are so many ways of trying to find out. Does one go home and ask parents born in 1980? Does one check out the library books written by anthropologists who came in 1930? Or read books by Jesuit missionaries who came fifty years earlier? Does one study the land and the artifacts -- maybe try doing a vision quest in the old way?

That’s almost easy compared to figuring out what future is being aimed at. We’re living in what the Abramic peoples would consider apocalyptic times: the planet itself is in danger. War is not straightforward but a matter of explosive terrorism on the one hand and famine on the other. The first duty is to survive economically, and to avoid self-destruction. This means that the helping professions ARE the line of battle, pulling people back from drugs, alcohol, violence, and ignorance.

But we don’t want to snuff out the wildness, the growing edge of exploration and non-conformity. This means that a counselor is always balancing the individual against the whole tribe: what is good for this young person might not always be what the family or community want. What the larger group demands might not be good for that one person. This leads to what is sometimes called “situation ethics” in which one tries to look at the web of circumstances and sort out which plan of action does the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Some people think of it as an “easy out,” but in fact it can be harsh. Medical decisions -- when to “pull the plug,” imposing cures that may be worse than the disease -- are life and death issues. Budget allocations -- fix that dangerous place in the road or put more money into pre-school education?

What are the corrupters that destroy the ethics of those in the helping professions? The same as usual, especially in a place under economic stress. Even the money-poorest person can trade in sex or secrets, which often twine together, as anyone who reads the daily paper will know. One of our abiding principles of behavior is that the strong people who are in charge of weaker people (parents, teachers, policemen, soldiers, religious leaders, counselors, doctors, lawyers, senators) must not use their power to take advantage of those who depend upon them.

A corollary principle is that the consent of the weaker person must be given. Easy to say, hard to do. Sometimes it’s hard to understand which is the stronger and which is the weaker person. Which was the stronger person, Bill Clinton or Monica Lewinsky? It is a counseling truism that the person with the least to lose is the one in the stronger position and more inclined to “game” the system.

What are the sources of protection for all concerned? One is mentoring, when an older experienced person is asked to give advice. Aretaic ethics means identifying someone worthy of admiration and then emulating them to the best of one’s ability. Another is colleague covenanting, in which teachers or social workers or ministers gather in professional groups to think through what is best practices. Anyone in the helping profession needs to belong to a peer group and to accept such discipline as well as questioning others if they don’t comply, always remembering that situation ethics might mean an exception to rules.

Keeping a journal in which one writes down facts (one might call it a case study), action or advice, consequences, future alternatives, is an excellent practice, but then the problem of confidentiality arises, because files can be read or heard by others or subpoenaed as evidence in a court trial. One needs to know the state laws on the subject. In some states clergy are protected from having to disclose counseling material and in other states they are not. In some states married spouses are protected and in other states they are not. A few states will protect a parent from indicting a child. People in the helping professions are often dealing with matters of law, even when they are not lawyers, judges or jailors. We don’t often see the last category as a “helping profession.”

Helping each other is a natural impulse: we all hold the door for someone burdened or try to comfort someone upset. Ethics are what distinguish the Professional Way.

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