Kitchener's Principle Ethics: Implications for Counseling Practice and Research

Article excerpt

This extensive literature review examining the influence of K. S. Kitchener's (1984) introduction of principle ethics on counseling and psychology ethics notes the ultimate practicality of principle ethics, The authors maintain that although a strong influence of principle ethics in the area of counselor education emerges through the review, there is little clear evidence of influence in the areas of counseling research or practice. A primary reliance in the counseling professional literature on K. S. Kitchener's original work has likely resulted in a static understanding of the concepts and a concomitant theory-to-application knowledge gap. Implications include a more thorough and ongoing bridging between counseling ethics, philosophical ethics and practice, and a more overt presence of principle ethics,


Kitchener's (1984) article "Intuition, Critical Evaluation, and Ethical Principles: The Foundation for Ethical Decisions in Counseling Psychology is a highly influential work in professional literature regarding how counselor educators and counseling students understand professional ethics. With her work, Kitchener initiated an important bridging process between the philosophical discipline of ethics and the helping professions of counseling and counseling psychology. This bridge is now more than 20 years old, and a review of Kitchener's adaptation of principle ethics seems timely and important in maintaining and reinforcing this bridge while seeking enhancements. Thus, the goal of this article is to trace the provenience and influence of Kitchener's original work in principle ethics for the purposes of discerning key implications of principle ethics for counseling preparation, practice, and research.

Kitchener's Principle Ethics

In 1984, Kitchener presented an overall model of moral reasoning consisting of several hierarchical levels. One level of the model, the level of moral principles, has garnered the most attention in counseling and psychology literature. In discussing this level and its ultimate utility in ethical decision making, Kitchener presented the principle ethics model originally developed by Beauchamp and Childress (1979) for use in biomedical ethics. This model consists of the moral principles of autonomy (freedom of action and choice), beneficence (doing good), nonmaleficence (avoiding harm), and justice (fairness). Kitchener (1984) proposed the addition of fidelity (loyalty) as an additional moral principle of interest for ethical decision making in counseling psychology.

In her 1984 article, Kitchener defined these principles and sought to provide examples from the practice of counseling psychology, which highlighted key aspects of each principle. In addition, she supported Beauchamp and Childress's (1994) proposition of the principles as being prima facie valid, meaning that each principle constitutes "an obligation that must be fulfilled unless it conflicts on a particular occasion with an equal or stronger obligation" (p. 33). Thus, she rejected an outright rank ordering of the principles or an acceptance of the principles as being absolutely valid in all circumstances.

Although Kitchener successfully bridged the disciplines of philosophical ethics and counseling and psychology ethics, she did not clearly articulate a methodology by which to use the principle ethics framework in ethical decision making. In principle ethics, when principles conflict, the practitioner must carefully weigh, balance, sift, and winnow competing principles to determine which principle has precedence. It is this important issue that raises considerations about the influence and implications of Kitchener's work for counseling ethics.

Influence of Kitchener's Approach

Indicators in the counseling literature support the foundational role Kitchener's (1984) principle-based, ethical decision-making approach plays within the ethics landscape of counseling and psychology (Kitchener, 2000; Urofsky, 2000). …