Counseling Ethics

Counseling ethics as well as general ethics as a construct has its intellectual roots in the discipline of philosophy. The term philosophy is a translation of the combination of the Greek words philos, meaning love, and sophia, meaning wisdom. Hence, the study of ethics has as its foundation a love for wisdom. The terms ethics and morals are often used interchangeably. Indeed, they do share similar attributes, such as value-based judgments about appropriateness and inappropriateness of human behavior and interactions. Yet, many in the field of counseling and psychology differentiate them as follows: Ethics or ethical codes are the agreed upon standards of aspirational and mandatory behaviors and practices by the members of professional organizations such as the American Counseling Association (ACA) or the American Psychological Association (APA). These standards guide and inform the professional practice of members and promote the expectation that counselors will protect their clients’ welfare and freedoms. Morals are defined as behaviors or actions that are based on particular groups’ culture and or values. Hence, morals are a more generally defined and culturally influenced system of beliefs. Morals are believed to serve the common good for most members of a society.

Different Types of Ethics

No discussion of ethics would be complete without acknowledging that counselors face confusing descriptions of various types of ethics. An examination of any textbook on ethics would lead the reader through a general discussion of some combination of philosophical, principle, professional, aspirational, mandatory, and virtue ethics.

Philosophical ethics describes the study of ethics through the lens of a theoretical perspective. The theory one chooses to use as a foundation determines how one interprets the rightness or wrongness or worthiness of certain behaviors. Because of its theoretical nature, this type of ethics has limited utility in a counseling practice. In contrast, principle ethics are pragmatic in nature. Principle ethics are based on moral principles. They are described as a collection of duties and a process that provide counselors an immediate method they can follow in order to remedy an ethical dilemma, and the process establishes a format for ethical practice and decision making in the future. Principle-based decision making centers on one’s behavior and choices as they relate to socially acceptable practices.

Professional ethics are the agreed upon acceptable practices of a professional organization. These practices are typically codified by the membership and provide a guide for both aspirational and mandatory forms of ethics. Aspirational ethics illustrate the highest standard of ethical practice. Counselors whose practice is guided by aspirational ethics understand and act on the letter and spirit of the ethical codes. Aspirational ethics call counselors to evaluate their personal behaviors and motivation as well as the ethical code to ensure their clients receive services that exceed the expected standard of care. Aspirational ethics are often identified in ethical codes as the “best practices.”

Mandatory ethics are those minimum standards by which all counselors should practice. Counselors who practice at this level are considering what they “must” and “must not” do; this is practicing the letter, but not the spirit, of the ethical code. Mandatory ethics are often identified in ethical codes as “standards of practice.”

The last type of ethics discussed here is virtue ethics. Virtue ethics focus on the character traits of the individual counselor and the aspirational aspects of one’s practice. Virtue ethics are not concerned with solving ethical dilemmas per se. They call upon counselors to examine whether or not they are doing what is best for their clients. Hence counselors focus more on what is desirable for a client rather than on a duty. Meara and colleagues noted that professionals practicing virtuously would aspire to the core virtues of prudence, integrity, respectfulness, and benevolence.

In counseling, practitioners are guided by ethical codes influenced by moral principles and the standards of their profession organization. At a minimum, the codes provide a description of the standards that counselors must meet and those to which they may aspire.

The Purpose of Ethical Codes

Ethics, or an ethical code, is the set of rules professionals develop to guide the practice of the profession. In counseling, numerous organizations like the ACA and APA have established codes that educate all members of the organization on expected and acceptable ethical practice. Yet, ethical codes have many purposes beyond education.

Researchers in counseling and psychology have noted that ethical codes protect the public by publishing the expected standards of behavior and practice of professionals. Second, ethical codes can protect practitioners when their performance or behavior is called into question. If the behavior in question is in compliance with the ethical code, the counselor behavior is more likely to be viewed as conforming to the standards. The ethical codes are a form of professional self-regulation that, when enforced with fidelity and accountability, deter governmental regulation. Finally, the aspirational components of the ethical codes can serve as a catalyst for improving practice by encouraging counselors to seek more sophistication and accountability in their practice.

Foundations of Ethical Decision Making

Ethical decision making is a process fundamental to a professional practice of counseling. Ethical codes of conduct generated by professional organizations rest on the general moral principles that guide counselors’ behavior within professional relationships. Counselors have generally agreed that the moral principles of autonomy, beneficence, nonmaleficence, justice, veracity, and fidelity provide the conceptual underpinnings for ethical decision making. Autonomy means that counselors respect and foster their clients’ right to freely choose their actions or behaviors that would be in harmony with their personal desires and wishes. Counselors foster clients’ independence in decision making. Beneficence means that as professionals, counselors are called to do good and to promote the general health of their clients. Nonmaleficence as a principle means to do no harm. Its origins lie in the Hippocratic Oath that calls upon physicians to avoid any act or practice that may harm a client, even inadvertently. The principle of justice calls upon the counselor to be fair, just, and equitable in all practices with all clients. Counselors are committed to treating all clients equitably. Veracity means that counselors will be truthful in all interactions with clients, colleagues, and professional peers. The final principle, fidelity, calls upon professional counselors to practice in a trustworthy manner by honoring their commitments to clients and other professionals.

These principles are presented to counselors as a unified whole, a set of equally balanced and dynamic concepts that are to be considered in the best interest of the client. Yet, at times, these principles may be in conflict, and hence a potential ethical dilemma emerges. This conflict among the principles is the foundation of the definition of an ethical dilemma. First and foremost, an ethical dilemma exists when two or more of the moral principles are in conflict or competition. Consider the counselor whose client clearly threatens to kill his or her intimate partner later that afternoon; the counselor has the legal and ethical duty to warn the identified victim of the potential for harm. By upholding his or her professional and legal obligations, the counselor will breach the client’s confidentiality (limiting fidelity) and possibly limit his or her freedom (autonomy—client may require involuntary hospitalization) in order to protect the potential victim and client from harm and to do good (reinforcing nonmaleficence and beneficence).

Ethical Decision-Making Models

Ethical decision-making models provide a systematic framework that counselors can use to examine the origins, nature, impact, and potential consequences of a professional’s actions and attitudes. Counselors challenged with an ethical decision may feel perplexed and apprehensive. Ethical decision-making models, if used properly, can guide them along the process of decision making in a logical, consistent, and practical manner.

Ethical decision-making models are based on different conceptual foundations (e.g., theoretical, philosophical, or practice-based) and various schools of thought (e.g., rationalism, moral reasoning, feminism, social constructivism, and social justice). Models derived from these foundations provide an organization scheme and particular perspective that give counselors a method from which to work through and analyze potential ethical dilemmas. According to numerous researchers, there are at least nine documented ethical decision-making models in the professional counseling literature. This entry examines five of them.

Kitchener’s 1984 principle or rational model is one of the more widely used paradigms. This model was drawn from the ethical literature in psychiatry. The premise of the rational model is that relying on personal value judgments, or intuition, was not sufficient, and that clear ethical guidelines were a must for sound decisions. Kitchener, and others, noted that decision makers needed to understand and consider the continuum of thinking, from absolutism (dichotomous, rational, non-contextual) to relativism (multiple influenced, relational, contextual) as they critically considered the facts at hand. Therefore, decisions were derived from a structured process of critical thinking and systematic logic rather than a personal or emotional response.

In 1994, Rest devised the four-component model, which was touted as one of the most empirically grounded approaches to analyzing moral and developmental behaviors via the works of Kohlberg and others. According to Rest, because the four-component model was based on a large body of existing research on moral development, it could drive further research and instruction in moral education. The four components include (a) interpret one’s actions relative to the potential impact on others; (b) devise a moral course of action that would distinguish the moral ideal; (c) select the more moral outcome from the choices generated; and (d) act or implement one’s choice.

Feminist researchers noted, when they examined models of ethical decision making, that most of them rested on a culturally encapsulated view of the White male’s worldview. Much like the criticisms that surrounded Kohlberg’s work in the 1970s and 1980s (i.e., that the stage model of moral development and reasoning were based solely on White male experiences), feminist scholars warned that the then current ethical decision-making models suffered from a similar flaw. They stated that these decision-making processes may be too linear, dispassionate, and rational, which would ignore the contextual, personal, and cultural considerations of decision makers and clients. The criticism offered by feminists directly questioned the philosophical underpinnings and universality of the earlier rational and moral development models.

Social constructivists have posited that ethical decision making should rely on the interactive and mutually constructed nature of reality rather than the traditional beliefs in an objective reality that exists independent of individual perceptions. Social constructivism asserts that there is no objective reality and that reality is the result of social interactions, system influences, and the resulting perceptions. Therefore, the ethical decision-making process will occur with at least one other person who will engage the other in examining and clarifying the information at hand, so that they can negotiate and mutually determine the best course of action.

Social justice advocates and multicultural scholars have also questioned the utility and cultural sensitivity of the traditional models of ethical decision making (e.g., rational and moral development). They recognized that the traditional models excluded or appeared to devalue decision making not grounded in the logical positivist tradition. Herlihy and Watson presented a model of ethical decision making based on a social justice paradigm. Counselors using this model would engage in culturally sensitive and competent interactions that were grounded in collaborative decision making and an awareness of virtue ethics.

Ethical Decision-Making Skills

Counselors are professionals, and there is an expected set of skills that they should acquire from their training, experience, and education. In order to make sound ethical decisions, counselors must possess and demonstrate an understanding of the impact, importance, and relevance of their actions.

Cottone identified six decision-making skills or attitudes necessary for counselors. First, counselors must be willing to be decision makers and accept the appropriate responsibility for their clients and practice. Delegating or deferring decisions to others demonstrates a lack of professionalism and personal accountability. The next expected skill is that of an intellectual attitude to deal with the complexities of human interactions in a deliberate and systematic manner. Third, counselors must seek and retain current and accurate professional information in order to be of assistance to clients. The reliance on the professional literature is also a characteristic that distinguishes lay counselors from professional counselors. Fourth, counselors continue their learning beyond their formal education and also engage in continued professional development at conferences and by reading trade journals. Ignorance of changes or improvements in the field is not a valid defense of unethical treatment. Fifth, professionals use a framework for decision making that demonstrates thoughtfulness, sound judgment, competency, and credibility. Systematic decision making demonstrates professionalism and accountability. Finally, counselors must be invested professionally. This means that counselors abide by the ethical code and training practice of their profession and that they maintain their skills over their professional lifetime.

Ethical decision making is critical to the professional execution of a counselor’s or a psychologist’s duties. The process is meant to be orderly and transparent, so that any reasonable person can understand the rationale for the decisions made. Using a recognized model of decision making demonstrates a counselor’s professionalism.


  1. Burian, B. (2000). Social role-dual role relationships during internships: A decision-making model. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 31, 332-378.
  2. Cottone, R. R., & Tarvydas, V. M. (2007). Counseling ethics and decision making. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson/Merrill Prentice Hall.
  3. Houser, R., Wilczenski, F. L., & Ham, M. (2006). Culturally relevant ethical decision making in counseling. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  4. Kitchener, K. S. (1984). Intuition, critical evaluation and ethical principles: The foundation for ethical decisions in counseling psychology. Counseling Psychologist, 12(3), 43-55.
  5. Rest, J. R., & Narvaez, D. (Eds.). (1994). Moral development in the professions: Psychology and applied ethics. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

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