Ethical Dilemmas and Social Change in “Just Mercy”: Pursuing Justice and Empathy
Self-Awareness in Social Work
Within my role as a Community Health Worker, I am often faced with ethical dilemmas which require conflicting values and policies. The balance of what is morally right and wrong is constantly in my heart and mind when it comes to the vulnerable populations I work with. However, this module’s material has given me a deeper insight into what it actually means to be a self-aware social worker. I have always believed myself to be in tune with my own personal values and belief system, but now I realize that was only on a surface level. As a social worker, it is of the utmost importance to cast any judgments, biases, and assumptions about clients aside. According to Abramson, “the morally aware social worker will want to know what generates self-esteem, empowerment, and self-approval in him- or herself.”
She included numerous self-assessing questions that helped me understand my own morality, competency, and ethical viewpoints. Understanding my own self-worth, self-esteem, and ethical principles will allow me to view clients’ ethical dilemmas in a more empathic way. Previously, I attempted to take myself out of the equation and look at the client’s problem from their point of view. Now I am aware that everyone has their own individual experiences, beliefs, morals, and insights. It is impossible for me to “walk in someone’s shoes” or even see something from a client’s viewpoint because that is not my lived experience. However, I can focus on myself, the social worker making an ethical decision while concentrating on my ethical beliefs, which leads to truly being empathic and supportive.
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Advocacy Inspired by Historical Voices
I am passionate about advancing human rights and eradicating social injustices. Reading King’s Letter from the Birmingham Jail resonated with me. One of the most powerful statements in that letter is, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” King’s profound words immediately reminded me of what I think of as a current civil rights issue: mass incarceration.
The Influence of “Just Mercy”
According to the Equal Justice Initiative’s website, “The United States incarcerates its citizens more than any other country. Mass incarceration disproportionately impacts the poor and people of color and does not make us safer.” Bryan Stevenson, attorney, founder of EJI, and author of Just Mercy, has saved one hundred twenty-five wrongfully convicted Americans from death row. Just Mercy, Stevenson’s TED Talk, and other various articles have inspired me to learn all I can about criminal justice reform and the blemish on society our prison and criminal court system has become. A colleague and I discuss Stevenson’s work over lunch whenever we can, and we have vowed to see him speak any time he is nearby. Reading Just Mercy actually reminded me of the court system in the small rural county I am from. Stevenson states, “America’s prisons have become warehouses for the mentally ill.”
Addressing Injustice in Modern Courtrooms
Similarly, in November of last year, the Lexington Harold-Leader, reported a Circuit Court judge “ordered a 51-year-old man — poor, mentally ill, unable to read, with an extensive history of alcohol abuse — to act as his own defense lawyer.” These kinds of injustices go on significantly more than the general public realize. As a social worker, I aspire to speak out and make a change in our criminal justice system. Leading by King’s example and simply reminding others that injustices in our prisons and courtrooms are a threat to justice everywhere feels like a moral place to start.
- Abramson, M. (1996). The Social Worker as Moral Agent: Self-Esteem, Competence, and Ethical Decision Making. Journal of Social Work Values and Ethics, 3(2), Article 6.
- King, M. L., Jr. (1963). Letter from the Birmingham Jail.
- Stevenson, B. (n.d.). Biography.
- Stevenson, B. (2014). Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. Spiegel & Grau.
- Lexington Herald-Leader. (2018, November 10). Judge Orders Lexington Murder Suspect To Defend Himself In Court. Retrieved from