Ethical Principles Revisited

By Freeman, Stephen J. | Journal of Professional Counseling, Practice, Theory, & Research, Summer 2011 | Go to article overview
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Ethical Principles Revisited


Freeman, Stephen J., Journal of Professional Counseling, Practice, Theory, & Research


The 2005 ACA Code of Ethics places less emphasis on the rules members should follow and more emphasis on members aspiring to the highest standards of the profession. The five ethical principles discussed in this article constitute one part of a tripartite foundation necessary for critical evaluations involved in ethical reasoning and decision making. Professional codes, represent another part of the foundation, and, are in large part the result of how the ethical principles are defined and currently applied.

Ethical codes as well as common morality ethics rely on shared moral beliefs (principles) for their content. The principles rooted in these shared moral beliefs are generic and therefore shared by rival ethical theories and codes. Beauchamp and Childress (1979) and others (Levy, 1974; Kitchener, 1984; Freeman, 2000; Freeman, Engels, & Altekruse 2004; Freeman &c Francis, 2006) posited that questions stemming from the lack of concrete guidance offered by codes might be resolved by reference to higher distilled moral beliefs called principles. Beauchamp and Childress in their seminal work, Principles of Biomedical Ethics, presented a distilled aggregate of four principles: respect for autonomy, nonmaleficence, beneficence, and justice. Kitchener (1984) added a fifth principle, fidelity, and applied these principles to ethical concerns in psychology stating that "principles are more general and fundamental than moral rules or codes and serve as their foundation" (p. 46). Ethical principles are normative generalizations that guide actions but are less specific in content than rules or codes and leave room for judgment in specific situations.

In the ACA (2005) Code of Ethics Preamble professional values are posited as important in living out an ethical commitment. The purpose, therefore, is to inform principles and guide behavior. Thus, professional values are born out of personal dedication, rather than the mandatory requirement of an external organization. Elucidation continues under ACA Code of Ethics Purpose (4) stating that the code serves as an ethical guide. Introductions to each section of the code discusses what counselors should aspire to. It therefore appears that the 2005 ACA Qde of Ethics places less emphasis on the rules members should follow and more emphasis on members aspiring to the highest standards of the profession.

The five ethical principles discussed in this article constitute one part of a tripartite foundation necessary for critical evaluations involved in ethical reasoning and decision making. Professional codes represent another part of the foundation and are in large part the result of how the ethical principles are defined and currently applied. Revisiting the ethical principles may assist aspirational practitioners in bringing moral judgments into reflective equilibrium.

Respect for Autonomy

The concept of autonomy recognizes the human capacity for self-determination and dictates that the autonomy of persons ought be respected. However, the capacity for self-determination carries with it several minimal requirements. First, to be autonomous an individual must be free from undue influence (e.g., concupiscence, ignorance, threat, or violence from others). When the individual's interpersonal relations are the result of unrelenting coercion, forceful persuasion, or manipulation by others, then the individual has little or no capacity for autonomy (Benn, 1988; Haworth, 1986). Autonomy also requires that the individual have an adequate range of options. Coercion and manipulation limit options; options are also limited by social and physical environment (Raz, 1986). Finally, autonomy also requires the capacity for rational decision making (Childress, 1990; Dworkin, 1988), which bears with it its own minimal assertions. Therefore to act autonomously is to act voluntarily.

Threats to Voluntariness

Respect for autonomy requires an awareness of threats that undermine voluntariness.

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