This article engages with international concerns about the negative impact of an expanding neoliberal project on the professional values of social work. Examining theoretical debates about human agency, a case is made for cultivating a moral sensibility in the practitioner workforce to resist the excesses of the neoliberal paradigm. Rejecting depictions of the practitioner as 'institutional dope', discussion excavates the early work of classical pragmatist John Dewey to counter assertions that institutional context simply determines practitioner beliefs and actions. A number of illustrative examples are provided from the author's fieldwork in sites of local authority children's services, which challenge a presumed singularity of ethical disposition. Excerpts from practitioners' case deliberations are offered as 'small stories' of hope and illustrate the heterogeneity of frontline practice. The article aims to speak to readers in search of a more hopeful imaginary for social work and who are wary of monolithic accounts of practice.