Moral (Principles) Monday


Here at Philosophy Matters, we talk a lot about morals and ethics, so today I thought I’d briefly discuss some of the philosophical principles most of the ethical codes in the helping professions are based upon.  First, I should point out that most professional organizations have some sort of ethical code that members must agree to abide by in order to receive and maintain active membership.  For example, the codes I am most familiar with are those of the American Counseling Association (ACA, 2005) and the American School Counselor Association (ASCA, 2010), but it’s very probable that any large scale organization dealing with people (i.e., mental health or education) has some sort of standards for its members.  Ethical codes are different than the law, but they are definitely interrelated.  Laws are minimum standards enforced by the government that people follow to stay out of jail, whereas ethical codes are created and enforced by a group of members of a professional organization to police the organization itself.  Interestingly enough, many states require licensure candidates to adhere to a professional organization’s ethical codes in order to get a license to practice within that particular state.  For example, many states have adopted into law a requirement for those seeking a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) or equivalent credential to agree to follow the ACA’s Code of Ethics; if one were found guilty of an ethical violation, then one could lose one’s license from the state and also be ejected from ACA.  However, it is equally possible that many could be excommunicated from a professional organization by a panel of peers but still retain their licenses to practice on you…crazy, huh?

Anyway, onward to the moral principles!  Corey, Corey, and Callanan’s (2007) text is a great source for a discussion of ethics and applying them to dilemmas frequent to those working in any of the helping professions.  In the very first chapter, they outline six important moral principles identified by Kitchener (1984) and Meara, Schmidt, and Day (1996).  There are many more one could use—or less for that matter—but we’ll stick to six today, but I must warn you that they are not mutually exclusive in scope.  They are autonomy, nonmaleficence, beneficence, fidelity, veracity, and justice.

Each of these principles is a belief that underlies ethical codes, and I tend to think of ethics as simply making decisions; therefore, these principles are accepted philosophies to use to guide one’s decision making.  Autonomy is respecting the person’s right to make his or her own decisions.  In medicine, patients have the right to refuse treatment, and clients/students also have the right to make decisions regarding their therapeutic or educational progress.  Nonmaleficence is essentially the Hippocratic Oath:  “First, do no harm.”  Actions taken by helping professionals should be screened for the potential damage (physical or emotional) to helpees.  Likewise, beneficence (i.e., acting to benefit clients/students) should also be maximized in choice selection.  Why should we do _____ if it doesn’t really help recipients?

Fidelity means “faithfulness,” and helping professionals should always do what they say they are going to do.  For example, if a teacher indicates that he or she will give feedback to students on their essays before grades are finalized, then the educator should be lenient in terms of deadlines or grading criteria (e.g., giving extra credit) if he or she fails to provide students with ways to improve their work.  Veracity is truthfulness—which is very different than truthiness—, so helpers should always be honest with what their limitations are for helping others.  If you can’t do basic algebra yourself, don’t promise to tutor someone into a making a perfect 36 on the ACT math section.  Finally, justice is just being fair.  Will _____ unfairly treat one group of people differently than another group?

Well, that’s all for now.  Tootles!


American Counseling Association. (2005). Code of ethics. Alexandria, VA: Author. Retrieved from

American School Counselor Association. (2010). Ethical standards for school counselors. Alexandria, VA: Author. Retrieved from

Corey, G., Corey, M. S., & Callanan, P. (2007). Issues and ethics in the helping professions (7th ed.). Belmont, CA: Thomson Brooks/Cole.

Kitchener, K. S. (1984). Intuition, critical evaluation, and ethical principles: The foundation for ethical decisions in counseling psychology. The Counseling Psychologist, 12(3), 43-55. doi:10.1177/0011000084123005

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(1), 4-77. doi:10.1177/0011000096241002

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