Academic journal article Family Relations

The Ethics of Relationality: The Moral Views of Therapists Engaged in Marital and Family Therapy

Academic journal article Family Relations

The Ethics of Relationality: The Moral Views of Therapists Engaged in Marital and Family Therapy

Article excerpt

The Ethics of Relationality: The Moral Views of Therapists Engaged in Marital and Family Therapy*

This article suggests, on the basis of a national survey (N=1,035), that therapists engaged in marital and family therapy endorse a common ethic of relationality. In contrast to a prevailing cultural view of therapists as promoting an ethic of individualism, the survey suggests that for families they place primary value on mutual and caring interpersonal relations. This ethic holds across therapist gender and in therapists' particular views on divorce, gender relations, and child rearing.

Recent years have seen an increase in literature on the ethical values that guide, or should guide, therapists involved in marital and family therapy. Much of the literature focuses on respect for the dignity, rights, and needs of individual family members. The language of "respect" and "dignity" is associated with Kant's strong emphasis on treating all persons as ends and never as means (Kant, 1990). Nowhere is this Kantian ethical language more clearly expressed than in the American Psychological Association's (APA's) official guidelines for therapists. The APA's 1981 Ethical Principles of Psychologists begins with the sentence: "Psychologists respect the dignity and worth of the individual and strive for the preservation and protection of fundamental human rights" (Rosenbaum, 1982, pp. 439-51). Its 1992 revision of this code, Principle D, which deals with therapy, reads, "Psychologists accord appropriate respect to the fundamental rights, dignity, and worth of all people" (APA, 1992). Furthermore, the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT), in its 1991 AAMFT Code of Ethics, relies on the same kind of ethical language of individual "rights": "Marriage and family therapists advance the welfare of families and individuals. They respect the rights of those persons seeking their assistance, and make reasonable efforts to ensure that their services are used appropriately" (AAMFT, 1991).

This focus on individual dignity and rights is taken up by many theorists on the ethical dimensions of family and marriage therapy. K. S. Pope, Tabachnick, and Keith-Spiegel (1987) represent a strong voice in the therapeutic ethics literature when they posit the moral norm, "treat people with respect for their dignity as human beings" (see also K. S. Pope & Vasquez, 1991). Haley (1987) uses classical Kantian language when he claims that "a major goal of therapy [is] . . . helping a person achieve autonomy. Therapists often say they seek to have their patients achieve individuality and independence and make their own choices in life." (See also Haley, 1996). Zygmond and Boorhem (1989) likewise use Kantian language of "universalizability"-act in such a way that the needs of all affected individuals are taken into consideration-and argue that the best way to deal with "conflicts" of needs is to "avoid harm" to any one individual.

This major focus in the therapeutic ethics literature on the needs and rights of individuals is not surprising, given the wide influence of Kantian ethics in the West. Recently, however, a growing number of marital and family therapists have critiqued this approach under the broad umbrella of a "systems" or "relational" ethic. Becvar and Becvar (1993, p. 8) argue that "systems theory directs our attention away from the individual and individual problems and towards relationships and relationship issues [and] . . . patterns of interaction." Minuchin and Nichols (1993, pp. 35-36) claim that family therapy should be "directed toward changing the organization of the family, on the grounds that when family organization is transformed, the life of each family member is altered accordingly." Likewise, Wendorf and Wendorf (1985) view the family as a "system of influence" aimed ultimately at "the best interest of the entire family system." While these and other systems approaches (Carpenter, 1987; Fishman, 1993; McGoldrick, Anderson, & Walsh, 1989) do not necessarily dispute the need to respect the rights and needs of individual family members, they place a higher priority on the well-being of the family system. …

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