Introducing the Universalization Principle

Linking critical thinking, social work ethics, and racial disproportionality

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This article is adapted from the author's chapter in CWLA's new textbook, Challenging Racial Disproportionality in Child Welfare: Research, Policy, and Practice, available online at

Racial disproportionality in child welfare is troubling not merely because it challenges the core ethical principles to which social workers are committed, but also because it violates a fundamental principle of critical thinking, known as the Universalization Principle. According to this principle, similar cases must be treated similarly, and the proper application of the principle results in consistency in the treatment of all people. By examining this principle and exploring the ways in which it can be violated, social workers will gain an insight into the faulty reasoning that can lead to racial disproportionality and can explore ways to achieve a more universally beneficial child welfare system.

Universalization in Social Work

In contrast to concrete moral principles that specify what is right or wrong, the requirement that an ethical decision be universalizable does not tell people which actions have moral worth. It just requires consistency and impartiality in making ethical decisions. Universalization, therefore, is more than a component of any ethical system. It is a principle of critical thinking.

The importance of critical thinking for social workers has been recognized by the Council on Social Work Education and others. "Social workers are expected to critically examine ethical issues in order to come to a resolution that is consistent with social work values and ethical principles and thereby to minimize unethical behavior," writes Otima Doyle, Shari Miller, and F.Y. Mirza in a 2009 article, "Ethical Decision-Making in Social Work." The value of universalization as a principle of critical thinking lies in its ability to make people "focus on the value of every individual person and on the respect owed to a person ... a respect essential to human dignity and one easily undermined in human service settings," Margaret Rhodes writes in Ethical Dilemmas in Social Work Practice. Thus, universalization is a valuable tool that can assist social workers to think critically.

The Johnson and Miller Families

In order to explore the application of universalization in the context of racial disproportionality, consider this example: A worker is assigned to visit two families, the Johnson family and the Miller family. Both require an assessment of the children's safety. Each family has three children--5, 6, and 7 years old--who have been missing school regularly and come to school very hungry. They are chronically tired and far behind in schoolwork.

At first glance, these family situations appear the same, and consistency would require that the same assessment be made for both families. But are the family situations truly the same? In both families, the children are missing school regularly, but what does the term "regularly" mean in each case? For one teacher, it may mean once or twice a month, while to another teacher, it may mean twice a week. So too, do the terms "hungry," "tired," and "behind in schoolwork" mean the same thing in each case? Are the two cases truly similar in all these respects, or are there in fact relevant differences between them? These questions are at the heart of the Universalization Principle, and an exploration of this principle can help guide the assessment of these families.

Philosophers express the importance of universalization in critical thinking with the Universalization Principle: Similar cases must be treated similarly. This principle recognizes that consistency in making decisions is an important requirement for critical thinking. Two cases that are similar in all relevant, meaningful ways must be treated similarly. Consequently, for two cases to be treated differently, there must be at least one relevant, meaningful difference between them. The Universalization Principle is the reason why a social worker must carefully compare the Johnson family and the Miller family. A similar assessment regarding the children's safety should be made only if the family situations are truly similar in all relevant ways.

A person violates the Universalization Principle by failing to treat similar cases similarly. This violation can take one of two forms: employing a double standard or making a faulty comparison. In the first type of violation, known as the Fallacy of Double Standard, a person assesses two cases differently, even though the cases are similar in all relevant ways. In the second type of violation, known as the Fallacy of Faulty Comparison, a person assesses two cases similarly, even though the cases differ in a relevant way.

In order to apply the Universalization Principle, a social worker must collect accurate case data. Standardized risk assessments can help the worker determine the precise meaning of terms such as "hungry," "tired," and "behind in schoolwork," and can therefore provide a basis for determining the true similarities and differences between the family situations. Therefore, let us explore these cases in more detail. When the social worker visits the two families, he or she makes note of the following information:

  • The Johnson family is African American and lives in a public housing project known for criminal behavior, drugs, and gang fighting. Ms. Johnson, who is 27 years old, is a single parent. She works as a nurse's aide at the hospital, generally the 3 p.m. to midnight shift, although the shifts are sometimes reassigned. The refrigerator was well stocked. Her mother, who also lives in the same public housing project, watches the children for her when she works. However, Ms. Johnson does know that the children are not cared for as well as she would like. She is concerned that her mother may have a drinking problem, and she worries that the children are not being fed properly. The 7-year-old explains that the children play outside most of the evening, and then go to granny's refrigerator to find something to eat. The 6-year-old is afraid of playing outside because she sees people getting hurt; she worries that she will also get hurt or "killed dead" one day. The 5-year-old doesn't like getting "waked up" when his mommy comes home from work and takes them back to their place.

  • The Miller family is white and lives in a middle-class neighborhood, known to be safe. Mr. Miller is an airline pilot, frequently away from home. Ms. Miller, who is 34 years old, does not work outside the home, but takes care of the children. At the visit, Ms. Miller appeared to be slightly high, possibly from drug use. The refrigerator was not well stocked, containing mostly beer, diet soft drinks, and carryout packages, some quite old. The 7-year-old explains that they play outside most of the time, and the neighbor, Mr. Jenkins, sometimes comes outside with them. The 6-year-old says she doesn't like Mr. Jenkins, and the 5-year-old says he is tired because his brother and sister stay up too late playing video games and making too much noise.

The social worker can now clearly see the ways in which the two family situations are similar. More important, he or she is now in a position to identify important differences between the two family situations. However, it is not enough simply to identify these differences; the social worker must be able to determine the importance of these differences. Which differences affect the children's safety? Do any of these differences justify removing one set of children and placing them in foster care, while leaving the other set of children with their family?

In applying the Universalization Principle, it is essential to realize that no two cases, however similar, are ever exactly identical; differences always exist between any two cases under consideration. In order to assess the two cases reasonably and responsibly, a person must be able to determine which of the differences are relevant to the assessment, and which of the differences are irrelevant. Then, a consistent and impartial assessment can be made by concentrating on the relevant differences and ignoring the irrelevant differences.

It is important to note that the Universalization Principle itself cannot help in making this determination; it does not specify any criteria for deciding the relevance or irrelevance of differences. It merely requires that a person be consistent in his or her decisions about relevancy.

Racial Disproportionality and Violations of the Universalization Principle

Because the Universalization Principle requires people to focus on the specific properties of the cases under consideration and to determine the relevance of any differences among these cases, it is an important and powerful tool of critical thinking. It can be applied at any level of decisionmaking and, if properly applied, it can reduce the incidence of racial disproportionality in child welfare.

Violations at the Worker Level

A worker new to the agency, with little background in child protective services (CPS), a college degree in English, no prior experience with families in public housing, and little training in cultural competence may find the Johnson family in danger sufficient enough to remove the children, but may view the Miller family as needing a plan of service that allows the children to remain home. If, however, the children in the two families are in equal danger, they are similar in a fundamentally relevant way. By treating these cases differently, the worker would be employing a double standard, and thus would be violating the Universalization Principle. As a result, three African American children would have entered into foster care, contributing to racial disproportionality.

On the other hand, this worker might assess the cases as essentially the same relative to child safety, and keep both sets of children in their homes. However, if the Miller children are actually at risk of serious harm from access to drugs, from the possibility of food poisoning, or from unsupervised visits with the unknown Mr. Jenkins, then the two cases are different in a fundamentally relevant way. By treating the cases similarly, the worker would be committing a faulty comparison, and thus would be violating the Universalization Principle. This error keeps three white children in danger in their homes, and if abuse and neglect occur at similar rates across races, leads to racial disproportionality by failing to remove from their homes white children who are in danger.

Violations at the Agency Level

In order for decisionmakers to arrive at the best decision, the agency needs to be sure that decisionmakers at every point in the case can assess situations accurately, determining whether the cases are essentially different relative to child safety. Because child deaths have occurred in public housing projects in the past, agency-level bias may remove children who live in public housing. Even hiring workers without social work training can contribute to errors in judgment and disproportionality.

However, excellent hiring policies, adequate pay, training in critical thinking and cultural competence, and training to recognize personal, organizational, and community racism will help the agency avoid errors and reduce or eliminate disproportionality and disparity of outcomes. In addition, adequate agency resources can help the agency assure that parenting can be evaluated similarly by equalizing environmental concerns.

Violations at the Community Level

There are many levels of disparate treatment across multiple systems, each of which increases the probability for applying a double standard or for arriving at a faulty comparison, therefore violating the Universalization Principle. Are the communities themselves acting impartially toward both families? Do they provide both families access to the same kinds of resources necessary for protecting and nourishing families? Does Ms. Johnson face greater struggles than Ms. Miller? Has Ms. Johnson faced racial barriers that Ms. Miller never encountered? Did they have the same access to education and the same opportunities in hiring? Do they have the same access to safe housing? Depending on the answers to these questions, it is possible that Ms. Johnson, because of her race, has not had essentially the same access to resources as Ms. Miller. The Universalization Principle would then require workers to treat the two cases differently in order to compensate for these differences.

Critical Thinking, Ethics, and Racism

Errors in critical thinking that lead to racial disproportionality and disparity of outcomes in child welfare often compound themselves as the case progresses. Placing children in foster care places extra stress on all members of the family. The children could become difficult to parent, particularly when separated and/or sent to different schools while in foster care. The parent has to juggle additional responsibilities, such as parenting classes, visits to the children, and court and CPS appointments, in addition to the emotional repercussions of being linked to child welfare. The original error in critical thinking that led to an unjustified removal is compounded when decisionmakers in any sector overtly or covertly, intentionally or unintentionally, act in a racist fashion--i.e., in a fashion that treats the cultural values or cultural practices of one race as inferior to those of another race. A racist stance is not just one error, or even multiple errors, in critical thinking. Rather, it violates the ethical values of social justice and the dignity and worth of the person, as well as the principles and standards resulting from them, and is therefore fundamentally unethical.

Owen M. Smith, an associate professor of philosophy and classical studies at Stephen F. Austin State University, became interested in the application of philosophical principles to issues in social work through conversations with his colleague Kathleen Belanger, one of the editors of the recently released Challenging Racial Disproportionality in Child Welfare.

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