Ethics can be considered in a variety of ways: as a set of ethical codes, as a decision-making model, or as a set of principles. There is typically a set of common principles that underlie these perspectives, and these are the moral principles that are commonly accepted. So, for example, many ethical codes rest on the following principles: respect for autonomy (agreeing that another person has the right to think and choose as he or she wishes), nonmaleficence (not harming another person), beneficence (taking positive actions toward another person), justice (equality in the distribution of benefits and tasks), fidelity (meeting one’s responsibilities in a relationship based on trust and commitment), and veracity (truthfulness and integrity). The difficulty with any set of ethics based on principles is that principles can “collide” in an ethical dilemma. So, for example, in informing another person that one’s client wishes to do harm to that person, a therapist is elevating the principle of nonmaleficence over that of autonomy.
Virtue ethics is a contrasting perspective on ethics. Virtue ethics, expanded in large part by Naomi Meara, is the belief that a person’s motivation, character, morality, and ideals are more likely to lead to ethical actions, or the lack thereof, than principles or regulations. Virtue ethics calls individuals to aspire to personal standards of ethics and morality that rise above those of de mimimis actions and represent aspirations or ideals that are striven for. People who are “virtuous” in this sense of the word share common characteristics, according to Meara, Lyle Schmidt, and Jeanne Day. They are “motivated to do what is good, possess vision and discernment, realize the role of affect or emotion in assessing or judging proper conduct, have a high degree of self-understanding, and are connected with and understand the importance of community in moral development and decision making” (pp. 28-29).
One difficulty with this approach is that there is a range of virtues, just as there is a range of principles and of ethical standards. How is a psychologist or counselor to choose from among them? Virtues have differed dramatically over the course of history and from culture to culture. Are there virtues that can be considered as common among humans, let alone psychologists? While there is room for discussion, Meara, Schmidt, and Day selected four virtues as possible common virtues, two of which have to do with how people conduct themselves and two of which pertain to how people interact with others.
The first self-pertaining virtue is prudence. Prudence is defined as the combination of abilities that allows one to make plans, to exercise good judgment, to work hard and with foresight, and to prioritize long-term outcomes over short-term gains. For a counselor or psychologist to behave in an ethical manner, even within codes, standards, or principles, actually requires the virtue of prudence, because ethical dilemmas require prudence for their resolution.
The second virtue regarding the self is integrity. The value of integrity is contained in the ethical codes and standards of any profession, as the value means to perform actions for the right reasons and to avoid actions that are wrong or are performed for wrong reasons. People who have integrity make decisions over a period of time that reflect an integration of a coherent set of moral values and actions.
Respect is the third virtue and the first of two that focus on others. When a person respects another person, the first person gives the second person regard, attention, consideration, and worth. Respect denotes an appreciation for the intrinsic value of the other person regardless of his or her outward signs of value.
The last virtue is benevolence. Benevolence is defined as wanting to do good, to contribute to the well-being of persons and communities, to enhance the welfare of others, and to have social responsibility. Benevolence exists in most ethical codes and principles as well as decision-making models as a prime requirement. For a counselor or psychologist to be oriented toward the client requires benevolence.
Virtue ethics is a significant contribution to discussions on ethics, because it allows a consideration of the role of culture in defining ethical virtues, and it creates a climate in which the interaction of the individual within the community is considered in resolving ethical dilemmas.
- Jordan, A. E., & Meara, N. M. (1990). Ethics and the professional practice of psychologists: The role of virtues and principles. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 21, 107-114.
- Meara, N. M., Schmidt, L. D., & Day, J. D. (1996). Principles and virtues: A foundation for ethical decisions, policies, and character. The Counseling Psychologist, 24, 4-77.
- Punzo, V. A., & Meara, N. M. (1993). The virtues of a psychology of personal morality. Journal of Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology, 13, 25-39.
- Vasquez, M. J. T. (1996). Will virtue ethics improve ethical conduct in multicultural settings and interactions? The Counseling Psychologist, 24, 98-104.