Foundations for Ethical Standards and Codes: The Role of Moral Philosophy and Theory in Ethics

By Freeman, Stephen J.; Engels, Dennis W. et al. | Counseling and Values, April 2004 | Go to article overview

Foundations for Ethical Standards and Codes: The Role of Moral Philosophy and Theory in Ethics


Freeman, Stephen J., Engels, Dennis W., Altekruse, Michael K., Counseling and Values


Ethical practice is a concern for all who practice in the psychological, social, and behavioral sciences. A central problem is discerning what action is ethically correct in a particular situation. It has been said that there is nothing so practical as good theory, because theory can help counselors organize and integrate knowledge. It seems, therefore, that a sound means to facilitate ethical competence in counseling would be through a knowledge and understanding of foundations and theories of ethics. Much of this pragmatic foundation is found in moral philosophy and related ethical theory.

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Those who practice in the psychological, social, and behavioral sciences regularly make moral/ethical judgments about the appropriateness or inappropriateness of particular actions, but what is the basis for such judgments? How are they to be justified? The ethical codes or standards formulated by professional associations represent a consensus of the membership's normative values, beliefs, and concerns about ethical behavior. Levy (1974) provided a succinct description of the nature and function of codes of ethics:

   Codes of ethics are at once the highest and lowest standard of
   practice expected of the practitioner, the awesome statement of
   rigid requirements, and the promotional material issued primarily
   for public relations purposes. They embody the gradually evolved
   essence of moral expectations, as well as the arbitrarily prepared
   shortcut to professional prestige and status. At the same time, they
   are handy guides to the legal enforcement of ethical conduct and to
   punishment for unethical conduct. They are also the unrealistic,
   unimpressive, and widely unknown or ignored guides to wishful
   thinking. The motivation to create a code of ethics may be a zeal
   for respectability. However, occupational groups are most often
   moved by genuine need for guides to action in situations of
   agonizing conflict and by a sincere aspiration to deal justly with
   clients, colleagues, and society. (p. 207)

The need for a moral perspective that provides professionals with the means to deal with practical problems results in the establishment of codes of ethics. Reflecting the standards of both the community and the profession, codes are the attempt to define the specific acts that all decent people or members of a profession would agree are right or wrong. This represents a lofty objective, possibly too lofty, which tries to be all things to all people. Mabe and Rollins (1986) expressed a fear that too many professionals may consider a code of ethics to be the sole basis for defining responsibility for the members of their profession. Various professional organizations have established codes of ethics for their members. In similar professions, the codes of ethics and allowable conduct can vary greatly. Indeed, ethics codes are fairly nonspecific and may create conceptual confusion in their attempt to be all things to all people (Clouser, 1973). Codes of ethics may be seen as outlining some prima facie duties for practitioners but offering no specific guidance in concrete situations.

An understanding of theory provides the professional practitioner with the why, who, what, when, where, and how. An explanatory theory gives direction to practice. A well-developed ethical theory is essential for practicing professionals. It provides a framework from which practitioners can reflect on the acceptability of their actions and can evaluate moral/ethical judgments. An understanding of ethical theory allows for the construction of an organized system of principles, facilitates systematic reflection, and provides sound justification for action. In an increasingly complex world, it seems highly likely that competent, ethical decision making in the twenty-first century will require a knowledge and understanding of moral philosophy and ethical theory.

It has been said that what separates a professional from a technician is a knowledge of theory. …

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