Counseling Ethics

The foundations of counseling ethics, as well as broader ethical principles, can be traced back to the realm of philosophy. The term “philosophy” originates from the fusion of the Greek words “philos,” which conveys the notion of love, and “sophia,” representing wisdom. As a result, the exploration of ethics is deeply ingrained in a reverence for wisdom. Despite the frequent interchangeability of the terms “ethics” and “morals,” they do indeed share analogous attributes—both revolve around judgments centered on values, addressing the appropriateness and inappropriateness of human behavior and interactions.

Yet, within the domains of counseling and psychology, a distinction is often drawn between these concepts: “Ethics” or “ethical codes” encompass the set of collectively agreed-upon standards that govern aspirational and obligatory behaviors and practices. These standards are upheld by members of professional associations such as the American Counseling Association (ACA) or the American Psychological Association (APA). These standards serve as guiding tenets, illuminating the professional conduct of association members and nurturing the expectation that counselors will champion the welfare and rights of their clients.

Academic Writing, Editing, Proofreading, And Problem Solving Services

Get 10% OFF with 24START discount code

In contrast, “morals” pertain to actions and behaviors anchored in the distinct cultural or value systems of specific groups. Consequently, morals encompass a more broadly characterized and culturally influenced framework of convictions. Morals are believed to contribute to the general well-being of the majority within a society.

Different Types of Ethics

When delving into the realm of ethics, it’s essential to recognize that counselors encounter a complex array of ethical frameworks. A review of any ethics textbook takes readers on a journey through the concepts of philosophical, principle-based, professional, aspirational, mandatory, and virtue ethics.

Philosophical ethics involves the study of ethical matters from a theoretical standpoint. The choice of theoretical foundation shapes how one evaluates the morality, correctness, or value of specific actions. While philosophically grounded, this type of ethics holds limited practical applicability within counseling contexts. Conversely, principle-based ethics operate on a pragmatic level, centering around moral principles. It comprises a set of obligations and a systematic approach that equips counselors with an immediate method for addressing ethical dilemmas. This process establishes a framework for making ethical decisions and practicing ethical behavior in the future. Principle-based decision-making revolves around aligning one’s actions and choices with socially accepted norms.

Professional ethics encompass the sanctioned practices recognized by a professional organization. These practices are usually formalized by members and serve as guidelines for both aspirational and mandatory ethical paradigms. Aspirational ethics epitomize the pinnacle of ethical conduct. Counselors adhering to aspirational ethics not only comprehend but also put into action the essence of ethical codes. Aspirational ethics beckon counselors to introspect their personal behavior and motivations while ensuring their clients receive services that transcend the anticipated standard of care. These ethics are often labeled as “best practices” within ethical codes.

Mandatory ethics outline the baseline standards that all counselors must uphold. Practitioners at this level deliberate on what they are “required” and “prohibited” from doing, often adhering to the literal content rather than the underlying spirit of ethical codes. Such ethics are frequently described as “standards of practice” within ethical codes.

The final facet to explore is virtue ethics. Virtue ethics pivot around the character attributes of the individual counselor and the aspirational elements of their practice. Unlike merely solving ethical quandaries, virtue ethics prompt counselors to assess whether they are acting in the best interests of their clients. This perspective shifts the focus from duty to what is advantageous for the client. For instance, professionals following virtue ethics aspire to cultivate core virtues like prudence, integrity, respectfulness, and benevolence.

In the realm of counseling, practitioners steer their actions by ethical codes that stem from moral principles and the standards set by their professional associations. At the very least, these codes outline the benchmarks that counselors are obliged to meet, as well as those they may aspire to exceed.

The Purpose of Ethical Codes

Ethics, often encapsulated within an ethical code, constitutes a framework of regulations crafted by professionals to steer their practice within a given field. Within the realm of counseling, various organizations such as the ACA and APA have formulated codes that not only educate their members about expected ethical conduct but also serve broader purposes.

Ethical codes play a pivotal role in safeguarding the public by delineating the anticipated standards of behavior and professional conduct. These codes establish a clear benchmark for practitioners to uphold, thereby enhancing the protection and welfare of those seeking their services. Additionally, ethical codes can act as a shield for practitioners facing inquiries about their performance or behavior. When a counselor’s actions align with the stipulations of the ethical code, their conduct is more likely to be perceived as consistent with established standards. Consequently, these codes function as a safeguard that can bolster the reputation and credibility of professionals.

Furthermore, ethical codes contribute to the domain of professional self-regulation. By upholding these codes with a strong sense of fidelity and accountability, the need for external governmental oversight can be mitigated. This self-regulation mechanism not only reinforces the autonomy of the profession but also acts as a deterrent against excessive external regulations.

Lastly, the aspirational elements embedded within ethical codes hold the potential to stimulate growth and advancement in practice. These aspirational components serve as a catalyst for practitioners to aspire to higher levels of sophistication and accountability in their professional endeavors. By setting loftier goals and ideals, ethical codes inspire counselors to continuously enhance their skills, knowledge, and ethical awareness, ultimately leading to an elevation in the overall quality of practice.

In essence, ethical codes in counseling not only educate professionals about expected conduct but also function as protective measures, catalysts for improvement, and instruments of self-regulation within the profession.

Foundations of Ethical Decision Making

Ethical decision-making stands as a cornerstone of professional counseling practice. At its core, the ethical codes established by professional associations are rooted in overarching moral principles that provide a guiding compass for counselors’ conduct within their professional relationships. These principles—autonomy, beneficence, nonmaleficence, justice, veracity, and fidelity—form the bedrock upon which ethical decisions are founded.

Autonomy underscores counselors’ commitment to honoring and nurturing their clients’ right to independently choose actions aligned with their personal desires and intentions. It emphasizes fostering clients’ self-directed decision-making. Beneficence encapsulates counselors’ duty to promote the well-being and general health of their clients, embodying a commitment to positive outcomes. Nonmaleficence, born from the Hippocratic Oath, mandates that counselors avoid causing harm to clients in any manner, even inadvertently.

The principle of justice emphasizes equitable and fair treatment, compelling counselors to practice with impartiality across all client interactions. Veracity dictates that counselors maintain honesty in their dealings with clients, colleagues, and fellow professionals. Lastly, fidelity calls for counselors to operate in a reliable and trustworthy manner, honoring commitments made to clients and fellow professionals.

Presented as a harmonious and interconnected framework, these principles are meant to guide counselors in the best interests of their clients. However, ethical dilemmas can arise when these principles clash. Such conflicts form the very foundation of ethical dilemmas. A genuine ethical dilemma emerges when two or more moral principles are at odds or in competition.

Consider a scenario where a counselor’s client openly expresses intent to harm their intimate partner later that day. The counselor, bound by both legal and ethical obligations, must alert the potential victim of the impending danger—a step that compromises client confidentiality (challenging fidelity) and potentially infringes on the client’s autonomy (requiring involuntary hospitalization). This decision, made to avert harm and promote well-being, exemplifies the delicate balance and potential conflict among ethical principles.

In essence, ethical decision-making in counseling relies on a complex interplay of moral principles that guides practitioners in navigating multifaceted scenarios, even when these principles occasionally collide, giving rise to ethical dilemmas.

Ethical Decision-Making Models

Ethical decision-making models furnish a structured framework that empowers counselors to dissect the origins, essence, implications, and potential outcomes of their actions and attitudes. In the face of ethical quandaries, counselors may experience confusion and uncertainty. Appropriately employed, ethical decision-making models offer a coherent, consistent, and pragmatic pathway through the decision-making process.

These models are shaped by diverse conceptual underpinnings—ranging from theoretical and philosophical foundations to practical approaches—and encompass various schools of thought, such as rationalism, moral reasoning, feminism, social constructivism, and social justice. These foundational principles not only offer a structure but also a specific viewpoint that aids counselors in systematically examining and analyzing potential ethical dilemmas. Within the professional counseling literature, researchers have identified a multitude of ethical decision-making models, and we will explore five of them.

Kitchener’s 1984 principle or rational model stands as one of the more widely embraced paradigms. Derived from psychiatric ethical literature, this model emphasizes that personal value judgments or intuition are insufficient. Kitchener proposed that explicit ethical guidelines were necessary for sound decisions. This model urges decision-makers to engage in a structured process of critical thinking and systematic logic, rather than relying on personal or emotional responses. It encourages an understanding of the continuum of thinking, from absolutism to relativism, as decision-makers contemplate the facts at hand.

Rest’s 1994 four-component model is grounded in empirical research on moral and developmental behaviors, building upon works by figures like Kohlberg. This model includes four components: interpreting actions in relation to their impact on others, devising a moral course of action, selecting the most ethical choice, and implementing the chosen action. Rest’s model draws from a broad body of research on moral development and serves as a basis for further exploration in moral education.

Feminist scholars have critiqued existing ethical decision-making models, highlighting their potential bias toward the White male worldview. They argue that these models may be overly linear, detached, and rational, neglecting the contextual, personal, and cultural aspects of both decision-makers and clients. This criticism challenges the philosophical foundations and universality of earlier models based on rationality and moral development.

Social constructivist viewpoints emphasize the interactive and co-constructed nature of reality. Instead of assuming an objective reality detached from individual perceptions, social constructivism suggests that reality emerges from social interactions and perceptions. Ethical decision-making within this paradigm involves collaborative deliberation, negotiation, and mutual determination of the most suitable course of action in tandem with another person.

The social justice and multicultural perspective scrutinize the applicability and cultural sensitivity of traditional ethical decision-making models. They advocate for a model grounded in social justice principles, emphasizing cultural competence, collaboration, and virtue ethics. This approach recognizes the value of diverse decision-making processes and encourages counselors to engage in ethically sensitive interactions and decisions, reflecting an awareness of social justice considerations.

In sum, ethical decision-making models offer structured paths for counselors to navigate complex scenarios. These models draw from a range of philosophical and theoretical viewpoints, guiding practitioners in a systematic examination of ethical dilemmas while considering various dimensions and perspectives.

Ethical Decision-Making Skills

Counselors, as professionals, are expected to possess a specific set of skills derived from their training, experience, and education. In order to navigate ethical decisions with confidence, counselors must exhibit a deep comprehension of the implications, significance, and pertinence of their actions.

Cottone identified six crucial decision-making skills or attitudes that counselors should cultivate. Firstly, counselors need to embrace their roles as decision-makers and willingly shoulder the appropriate responsibilities for their clients and practice. Shifting decision-making responsibilities to others displays a lack of professionalism and personal accountability. Secondly, a thoughtful intellectual disposition is essential to grapple with the intricacies of human interactions in a methodical and systematic manner.

Thirdly, counselors must actively seek, acquire, and retain up-to-date and accurate professional knowledge to effectively aid their clients. Relying on the professional literature sets professional counselors apart from those without formal training. Continuing education constitutes the fourth skill, extending learning beyond formal education through conferences and trade journal readings. Ignorance of field advancements or changes is not an acceptable defense for unethical practices.

The fifth skill pertains to utilizing a decision-making framework that showcases thoughtfulness, sound judgment, competence, and credibility. Employing a systematic decision-making process underscores professionalism and accountability. Lastly, counselors must exhibit a sustained commitment to their profession. This entails adherence to the ethical code and professional practices of their field, coupled with the continuous maintenance and enhancement of their skills over the course of their professional careers.

Ethical decision-making is integral to the conscientious execution of a counselor’s duties. The process should be orderly and transparent, ensuring that the rationale behind decisions is comprehensible to any reasonable individual. Embracing a recognized decision-making model serves as a testament to 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.

See also: