Ethics is a branch of philosophy that, at its core, seeks to understand and to determine how human actions can be judged as right or wrong. We may make ethical judgments, for example, based upon our own experience or based upon the nature of or principles of reason. Those who study ethics believe that ethical decision making is based upon theory and that these theories can be classified. What follows is a very brief description of four classes of ethical theories (See Garrett, Baillie, & Garrett, 2001):
- Kantian Deontologism
- Natural Law
- Virtue Ethics
Ethical theories that fall under the classification of consequentialism posit that the rightness or wrongness of any action must be viewed in terms of the consequences that the action produces. In other words, the consequences are generally viewed according to the extent that they serve some intrinsic good. The most common form of consequentialism is utilitarianism (social consequentialism) which proposes that one should act in such a way to produce the greatest good for the greatest number.
Deontologism is a position based, predominately, on the work of Immanuel Kant. Most simply, deontologism suggests that an act must be performed because the act in some way is characterized by universality (i.e. appropriate for everyone) or that it conforms with moral law (formal rules used for judging the rightness or wrongness of an act). According to this theoretical position, the rightness or wrongness of some acts are independent of the consequences that it produces and the act may be good or evil in and of itself.
This theoretical position suggests that one may, through rational reflection on nature (especially human nature), discover principles of good and bad that can guide our actions in such a way that we will move toward human fulfillment or flourishing. This position suggests that human beings have the capacity within themselves for actualizing their potential.
Virtue ethics consists of two differing approaches to ethics and can, therefore, be confusing to understand. Very briefly, the first approach to ethics in this theoretical orientation proposes that there are certain dispositional character traits (virtues) that are appropriate and praiseworthy in general and or in a particular role. More formally, virtue ethics represents a “systematic formulation of the traits of character that make human behavior praiseworthy or blameworthy” (Shelp, 1985, p.330).
The second approach to virtue ethics not only identifies the virtues, but focuses on their integration into what can be described as “practical wisdom” or “right reason.” Practical wisdom is the phrase used to describe ones ability to choose patterns of actions that are desirable. These patterns of actions are informed by reasoning that is, in part, influenced by habits of emotional experience or virtues (Baillie, 1988), but also by the depth and breath of experience available to the human being as he or she is placed in society
Ethical principles provide a generalized framework within which particular ethical dilemmas may be analyzed. As we will see later in this module, these principles can provide guidance in resolving ethical issues that codes of ethics may not necessarily provide. What follows are definitions of five ethical principles that have been applied within a number of professions (Beauchamp & Childress, 1979):
- Respecting autonomy
- Doing no harm (nonmaleficence)
- Benefiting others (beneficence)
- Being just (justice)
- Being faithful (fidelity)
The individual has the right to act as a free agent. That is, human beings are free to decide how they live their lives as long as their decisions do not negatively impact the lives of others. Human beings also have the right to exercise freedom of thought or choice.
Doing no harm (Nonmaleficence)
Our interactions with people (within the helping professions or otherwise) should not harm others. We should not engage in any activities that run the risk of harming others.
Benefiting others (Beneficence)
Our actions should actively promote the health and well-being of others.
Being just (Justice)
In the broadest sense of the word, this means being fair. This is especially the case when the rights of one individual or group are balanced against another. Being just, however, assumes three standards. They are impartiality, equality, and reciprocity (based on the golden rule: treat others as you wish to be treated).
Being faithful (Fidelity)
Being faithful involves loyalty, truthfulness, promise keeping, and respect. This principle is related to the treatment of autonomous people. Failure to remain faithful in dealing with others denies individuals the full opportunity to exercise free choice in a relationship, therefore limiting their autonomy.
Ethical principles provide generalized frameworks that may be employed in the resolution of ethical dilemmas in our daily lives. These principles may be applied to our interpersonal relationships as well as to our professional lives. However, as members of a profession, we will encounter more specific codes of ethics that are designed to govern our professional behavior and to offer some guidance for the resolution of commonly faced ethical issues that occur in the practice of our chosen professions. The next section discusses codes of ethics as they relate to counseling and human services professions. More specifically, purposes, definitions, advantages, and disadvantages will be presented. The section will be followed by a section presenting one (but by no means the only) ethical decision-making model that may be useful in assisting you in resolving ethical dilemmas.