Social Work Beyond Human Rights

by Steven W. Halady, PhD


Editor’s note: Steven Halady is a current MSW candidate (he entered the program with a PhD in Philosophy) and is the first student to write a guest blog post for SocialWorkSynergy. As Human Rights Day (December 10) approaches, his essay offers an expanded view of social justice and suggests a larger moral compass for the profession.


Human rights provide an important moral foundation for social work. Many social work practitioners, educators, and researchers acknowledge the ways in which human rights are an essential professional value. In its International Policy on Human Rights, the National Association of Social Workers notes that, “Human rights and social work are natural allies.” As Elizabeth Reichert writes:


For too long, social workers have stood aside from human rights, considering discussion of the topic to be more international and legalistic. Fortunately, this reluctance to integrate human rights into social work policies and practices has started to fade. Human rights now cover domestic, as well as international, circumstances, and, in many cases, human rights principles have a direct impact on local social work issues (Reichart, 2011).



Picture: black background with hands raised and labeled with rights: peace, dignity, justice, freedom, equality



I don’t question the fact that human rights are good for social work, but I want to ask, are they enough? Do human rights provide an adequate moral foundation? My answer to this question is, no, they do not.


“Human” limits our conception of moral concern too narrowly for the work that we do. As a profession, we need to expand that circle of concern to include more than just the human world: non-human animals and natural environments must be added.


The social work profession is becoming more aware of this need.



Globe upheld by multi-racial hands and caption "Environmental Justice"



Environmental social work is a growing field for research and education. As just one example, the International Journal of Social Welfare dedicated its July 2012 edition to social work’s engagement with the environmental movement (Coates & Gray, 2012).






This notion may seem to be a radical departure from traditional social work values. Yet every call for an expansion of moral concern has been dismissed as too radical a departure from tradition. Expanding social work’s moral circle to include the non-human world is in fact not radical, but  grounded in our traditional ecological perspective: non-humans and natural environments cannot be separated from the social environment that is the object of social work practice.


Take hunger and food poverty for example. UNICEF reports, “Every 3.6 seconds one person dies of starvation. Usually it is a child under the age of 5″ (UNICEF, 2014). This is clearly a matter that fits within social work’s jurisdiction.


In Animal Liberation, the book that started the modern animal welfare movement, philosopher Peter Singer points out that factory farming is not an ecologically sustainable practice (Singer, 1990, 2009). In the factory farming model, we use more energy – fossil fuels, water, and food plants – in raising livestock than we get back in the form of food. The meat industry is able to survive only through heavy government subsidies. In addition, the massive water use needed to produce meat contributes to drought, while contamination from the animal waste produced is a serious health threat.

Circle of animals surrounding caption: Join the circle of commpassion

Resources could be used to grow plant foods instead of meat, providing more food at lower economic and environmental costs. In factory farming alone, the issues of poverty and hunger, child welfare, government policy, and health are all intimately tied to the ways we treat non-humans and the environment.



Environmental social justice thinkers such as Robert Bullard and Vandana Shiva open up new understandings of the issues that social work has long dealt with; they illustrate interconnections between multiple oppressions and social problems as well as offer possibilities for innovative responses.



blog halady TreeCommunity




Bringing the non-human world into social work’s moral circle does not crowd out the humans. Rather, it expands and enriches our capacity to serve.







So, what can social workers do to broaden our moral foundations to include more than just humans?


First, we can take steps to become more informed about the ethical issues and practical challenges that include the non-human world.

By reaching out to colleagues working in environmental and animal-related fields, we can discover areas of common need. Social work educators can also integrate research on environmental social work and environmental justice into courses. Study in this area can be certified for professional development or continuing education credits. We can expand social work ethics to include animal rights, environmentalism, and other moral concerns regarding the non-human world.


Second, we can collaborate with professionals and activists to develop partnerships for social change, expand our own understanding of diverse forms and methods of social justice work, and create opportunities for shared advocacy.


Third, we can adjust our own practices to make more environmentally-conscious decisions. One way is to make vegetarian or vegan food the default at social work conferences and events. Simply changing the menu raises consciousness about where food comes from and the ethics on our plates.


While human rights is a necessary chapter in social work ethics and identity, it should not be the whole book. Expanding our circle of moral concern to include the non-human world may seem like a radical departure from social work tradition, but it is in fact a natural evolution of the core traditions and values of the profession.


A broader moral foundation that includes non-human animals and natural environments allows social work to come to a fuller fruition.




Photo of Steven W. Halady (headshot0

Steven Halady received a PhD in philosophy from the University at Buffalo in 2010. Over the past ten years, he has taught undergraduate courses on ethics, human nature, philosophy of science, and the history of philosophy at a number of colleges in the Western New York area, including the University at Buffalo, Canisius College, and Niagara University. Steven is currently an adjunct professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Daemen College. He will receive his MSW in 2015.




Do you agree that social work should “expand our circle of moral concern to include the non-human world”? Please share your thoughts – we welcome your comments.






Bullard, R.D. (1993). Confronting Environmental Racism: Voices from the Grassroots. Boston: South End Press.


Coates, J. & Gray, M. (2012). The environment and social work: and overview and introduction. International Journal of Social Work, 21(3), 230-238.
DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-2397.2011.00851.x


National Association of Social Workers. (2014). International policy on human rights. Retrieved from


Reichert, E. (2011). Social Work and Human Rights: A Foundation for Policy and Practice, 2nd Edition. New York: Columbia University Press.


Shiva, V. (2010). Staying Alive: Women, Ecology, and Development, 2nd Edition. New York: South End Press.


Singer, P. (2009). Animal Liberation, Updated Edition. New York: Harper Collins.


UNICEF. (2014). Goal:Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger. Retrieved from:




  • Here is a timely article from the NY Times: “Chimps Don’t Have Same Rights as Humans, Court Says”

    • Pat – Thank you for sharing that link. It is a great example of some of the questions that I had in mind when writing this post. I suspect that questions like these will become more and more common ethical and policy concerns, and I believe social workers’ person-in-environment approach offers valuable insight into how we should handle them. This is a great example!

  • Reblogged this on Stuck on Social Work and commented:
    One of the many reasons why I love being on social media is the many perspectives that people have to offer. Great article that certainly expands the “Person and Environment” lens of social work.

  • This is a timely article from a perspective I discuss with MSW field students. Many social workers from indigenous backgrounds are quite familiar with recognizing non-human communities. I identify with this group, yet find my cultural upbringing and frame of reference have seemed foreign in the classroom. The ongoing discussion of race, class and perspective continue. Environmental justice is becoming mainstream, but this has been an issue in marginalized communities for a very long time. I agree that its time embrace taking a moral stand and kick our effectiveness as practitioners to the next level.

    • Thank you for your comments. I agree completely that this is an issue that requires a moral stand and an engagement with a wide range of perspectives on ethics and morality that may seem foreign at times. I also appreciate the way you connect this issue with race, class, and indigenous perspectives. My own thinking has been strongly inspired by ecofeminism, which holds that issues of racism, sexism, and ethnocentrism are deeply interconnected with environmental destruction and speciesism. “No one is free until everyone is free.”

      Sadly, I am not as familiar with the range of indigenous perspectives on ethics and the non-human world. I would love to learn more, and would be grateful if you could recommend any good sources on the subject to look into.

      Thank you again!

  • Reblogged this on The Empowerment Project and commented:
    The first thing we acknowledged in planting our community garden was that we were planting into an already established community in the natural world, and we spent nearly 2 years developing our relationship with the land and its inhabitants before we planted anything into it. As a land based entity, our relationship with our garden and the forest we have planted guide all of our decisions. Here’s an interesting piece about the importance of expanding the concept of human rights to the non-human world.

  • Two years? Wow! That is amazing – the devotion and care it must take to build that relationship with the land before acting upon it is inspiring!

    I worry that many in social work (and other professions) will not be in a place where they can take that much time and energy to dedicate to a project that doesn’t lend itself to “measurable outcomes assessment”. How do you measure “relationship with the land and its inhabitants” in actionable terms?

    I have the same concern regarding the bigger ethical shift that a more encompassing embrace of the non-human world within social work would require. But I suppose this blog is a nice first step!

    If you are willing to share, I would love to hear more about this project and how you were able to implement your community garden project, especially with such a long development prior to planting. I suspect there are important insights that this community would greatly benefit from in that story!

  • Thank you, I would love to share. The word “intersectionality” comes to mind, because as we begin to unravel one form of oppression, eventually we will confront them all. We really had to focus on the land first, because we had a lot of human trust building to do as well. We have remained a small, grassroots entity, in large part so we could hold on to as much autonomy as we can. We founded our organization with a certain intention- one of them being that we would be careful when and where we accept money. We have accepted very little money over the years, which has created its share of problems, but the flip side is through loving and committed volunteers and key donors, we have been able to keep the work going, without major hassles. We are able to draw a line in the sand, and can practice from a place of authenticity. We use a participatory action research model, so the volunteers and community stakeholders determine what the desired outcomes are, based on our overall mission. Let’s share information and talk in the new year. I look forward to learning more about the work you are doing with such conviction and compassion.

    • Sunya, Thank you for your reply! It sounds like you have some wonderful things happening in your organization, right from its founding! I can see what you mean you say that your model comes with both blessings – authenticity – and challenges – relying in volunteers and key donors. That is no small challenge in an era where for-profit business models seem to dominate every profession, but the pay-offs sound like they are worth it.

      I wish I could say what work I am doing – my life and work have been in transition for some time now, and I am still working to figure out where and how I will land. But yes, let’s continue the conversation!

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