Ethics Education: Recommendations for an Evolving Discipline

Article excerpt

This article describes results of a national questionnaire completed by counselor education program professors regarding their teaching of ethics. The questionnaire asked professors about 5 aspects of ethics education: materials used, instructional methods used, content taught, methods of evaluation used, and professors' goals for the ethics education of their students. Questionnaire results and demographic data about professors and programs are used to describe perceptions and practices of counselor educators who teach ethics.


This study investigated perceptions and practices of counselor educators who teach an ethics course or infuse ethics instruction into other courses and other educational activities. The motivation for this study was curiosity about how students may best learn to make high-quality ethical decisions in their practice in the face of often ambiguous or incomplete information. In their examination of moral development across professions, Rest and Narvaez (1994) pointed out that in the United States, approximately 10,000 applied ethics courses were taught annually in colleges and universities. They suggested that if courses in ethics are worth curricular space and student time, then at least three assumptions must be true: (a) Some ways of deciding what is right are more justifiable than others, (b) there must be some agreement among "experts" on what the more justifiable ethical positions are, and (c) the way students will live their lives as professionals is constructively influenced by ethics courses.

Like other professional disciplines, counselor education would benefit from guidance on what the teaching of ethics ought to entail. However, before counselor education can effectively explore the best teaching methods, it would benefit from baseline information about current teaching practices. Ethics is a profoundly complex domain. It is so for the simple reason that ethics attempts to describe the innate complexity of constantly changing and constantly negotiated human relationships. This complexity has an impact on students, teachers, and practitioners.

There is broad agreement among counselor educators that students should be cognizant of ethically charged issues and should have the capacity to work through these issues (Welfel, 1992). Many studies relating to professional ethics have emerged since the 1980s. Among these, some have focused on instructional practices within a particular ethics course that presume to help counselor education students to become competent counselors (Abeles, 1980; Colby & Long, 1994; Coll, 1993; Eberlein, 1987; Fine & Ulrich, 1988; Lamb, 1991; Zahner & McDavis, 1980). Yet in the absence of a broad framework to organize teaching ethics, it is difficult to appreciate the importance of these studies. Accounts of teaching strategies are invaluable for developing a scholarly focus on teaching ethics, but professional ethics is not limited to one course. As with issues of diversity, ethical issues permeate the entire counselor education curriculum. There has been very little scholarly focus on describing how counselor education programs as a whole address professional ethics.

The purpose of this study was to gather baseline information on pedagogical practices of counselor educators who teach ethics (Hill, 1999). This study aggregated data on perceptions and characteristics of counselor educators who teach ethics; characteristics of participants' programs; materials, methodologies, and curricula used; evaluation practices that counselor educators might use to assess their own impact on students; and goals these faculty members have for their instruction in ethics. Five research questions guided this descriptive study. With respect to ethics education in counselor education master's and doctoral programs that are accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP), these research questions were (a) what materials are used, (b) what instructional methodologies are used, (c) what content is taught, (d) what methods of evaluation of instruction are used, and (e) what goals do counselor educators consider vital to teaching ethics to achieve the ethical competence of their students? …