Cicero, self, and Social Work

Just what does the Roman philosopher, politician and orator Cicero have to do with social work in 2017!? What can the musings of someone from 107 – 44 BCE tell us about life in the 21st century? Well, Cicero’s philosophical writings on the nature of the person and existence have contributed to humanism and this in turn has contributed to ideas around person centered intervention! So there you go! Read on!

What exactly did Cicero have to say? He suggested that people’s sense of self, their sense of who they are, was created by being autonomous, and therefore making their own decisions, and by being free thinking, and therefore able to make their own mistakes! He said people were possessed of rights that define responsibility. This tells us that to be valued, and see themselves as valued, people need to be active participants in society defined by their rights and, as a consequence of those rights, they must take, as far as they can, responsibility for their actions (maybe we can explore this in relation to the Mental Capacity Act at some point…)

Cicero also suggested that the human community is the bond between people. People need to be connected to other people because our sense of self is not only defined by our inner dialogue but also by how people perceive us and we can see how people perceive us through how they interact with, and react to, us. These interactions give us definition and status.

But what are the two things that have often been denied to people who come to social work for some form of intervention? Yes! They are denied the right to make their own decisions and the ability to be part of the broader society. This could be for many reasons. The views of professionals and the misuse of power they hold taking decision making away from people. Or it could be the lack of access to information, knowledge and physical spaces that comes with having a disability. These things erode the ability of people to develop a positive view of ‘self’, denied autonomy, denied freedom, and denied access…. No wonder people kick against ‘the system’!

As social workers we can run the risk of ‘doing to’ people rather than ‘doing with’ especially when time is tight and the demands on us great. We must see people as individuals and part of a community in order to see the full picture and encourage individuals to make their own decisions and take risks. Maybe this needs risk to be redefined in our organisations to include the positive aspects of risk taking more strongly.

The threads from Cicero’s thinking are picked up in existential philosophy which emphasises the existence of the individual person as a free agent determining their own development through acts of will stressing their position as a self-determining agent. People form their ‘essence’ in the course of life resulting from their personal choices. Who you are results from the decisions you make.

There are some assumptions here though. This assumes people are allowed to make their own choices. At best often people are given choices from a very narrow range of options or people are not made aware of all the options that are available. Our job as social workers is to ensure people are fully informed so that they can fully engage. Sometimes people need support, as they are not psychologically in a position to make decisions, even when all of the facts are available. Some people may feel constrained by society’s view of them. Undervalued therefore not worthy of being permitted to make decisions. Disempowered by ‘the system’. This certainly was a theme in the House of Lords Select Committee report into the Mental Capacity Act

Social work clearly has a role here.

We need to support people to make their own decisions so they can own them and develop a sense of who they are and where they ‘fit’. We need to let people take responsibility for their own risks and the consequences when things go wrong without the fear of being held accountable for the capacitated decisions people make (this is a one for the managers and politicians to grapple with though as it often those people who are restricting good social work). Freedom to make your own decisions is both liberating and at times a heavy burden so that means working with people to acknowledge and accept risk and to go with it.

For many ‘existence’ is characterised by powerlessness and helplessness – decision making taken from them. This needs to change if we are to provide truly person centred social work. People need to shape their own lives with support so they can be true to the individual version of themselves they are and want to be. We are shaped by our experiences. We have to give people the opportunity to ‘experience’ so they develop into the best version of themselves that they want to be. Just in the same way we all do.

There is a tension here between the authority and duty that comes with the social work role and being involved in the, what is often, non directive work that is required to help people find their own way with support.  There is a need for people to be given real choice and control so that can move forward in the direction they want to.  What social work needs to do then is support people to engage as citizens, to give people back some power, to support people to grow and develop, maybe to provide opportunities for fulfilment, help people make their own decisions – promote choice. Most of this is not done in the services that are ultimately provided but in the foundation building face to face work we engage in. How we ‘social work’ in the time we are with people is what’s important. Much more important than what we then write about them or provide to them. Personalisation is in the face to face interactions we have and not necessarily just in the flexibility of services.

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