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A Practitioner’s Guide to Ethical Decision Making
Holly Forester-Miller, Ph.D.
Thomas Davis, Ph.D.

Copyright © 1996, American Counseling Association. A free publication of the
American Counseling Association promoting ethical counseling practice in service to the
public. — Printed and bound copies may be purchased in quantity for a nominal fee from
the Online Resource Catalog or by calling the ACA Distribution Center at 800.422.2648.

ACA grants reproduction rights to libraries, researchers and teachers who wish to copy
all or part of the contents of this document for scholarly purposes provided that no fee for
the use or possession of such copies is charged to the ultimate consumer of the copies.
Proper citation to ACA must be given.

Counselors are often faced with situations which require sound ethical decision making
ability. Determining the appropriate course to take when faced with a difficult ethical
dilemma can be a challenge. To assist ACA members in meeting this challenge, the ACA
Ethics Committee has developed A Practitioner’s Guide to Ethical Decision Making. The
intent of this document is to offer professional counselors a framework for sound ethical
decision making. The following will address both guiding principles that are globally
valuable in ethical decision making, and a model that professionals can utilize as they
address ethical questions in their work.

Moral Principles
Kitchener (1984) has identified five moral principles that are viewed as the cornerstone
of our ethical guidelines. Ethical guidelines can not address all situations that a counselor
is forced to confront. Reviewing these ethical principles which are at the foundation of
the guidelines often helps to clarify the issues involved in a given situation. The five
principles, autonomy, justice, beneficence, nonmaleficence, and fidelity are each absolute
truths in and of themselves. By exploring the dilemma in regards to these principles one
may come to a better understanding of the conflicting issues.

1. Autonomy is the principle that addresses the concept of independence. The
essence of this principle is allowing an individual the freedom of choice and
action. It addresses the responsibility of the counselor to encourage clients, when
appropriate, to make their own decisions and to act on their own values. There are
two important considerations in encouraging clients to be autonomous. First,
helping the client to understand how their decisions and their values may or may
not be received within the context of the society in which they live, and how they
may impinge on the rights of others. The second consideration is related to the
client’s ability to make sound and rational decisions. Persons not capable of
making competent choices, such as children, and some individuals with mental
handicaps, should not be allowed to act on decisions that could harm themselves
or others.

2. Nonmaleficence is the concept of not causing harm to others. Often explained as
“above all do no harm”, this principle is considered by some to be the most
critical of all the principles, even though theoretically they are all of equal weight
(Kitchener, 1984; Rosenbaum, 1982; Stadler, 1986). This principle reflects both
the idea of not inflicting intentional harm, and not engaging in actions that risk
harming others (Forester-Miller & Rubenstein, 1992).

3. Beneficence reflects the counselor’s responsibility to contribute to the welfare of
the client. Simply stated it means to do good, to be proactive and also to prevent
harm when possible (Forester-Miller & Rubenstein, 1992).

4. Justice does not mean treating all individuals the same. Kitchener (1984) points
out that the formal meaning of justice is “treating equals equally and unequals
unequally but in proportion to their relevant differences” (p.49). If an individual is
to be treated differently, the counselor needs to be able to offer a rationale that
explains the necessity and appropriateness of treating this individual differently.

5. Fidelity involves the notions of loyalty, faithfulness, and honoring commitments.
Clients must be able to trust the counselor and have faith in the therapeutic
relationship if growth is to occur. Therefore, the counselor must take care not to
threaten the therapeutic relationship nor to leave obligations unfulfilled.

When exploring an ethical dilemma, you need to examine the situation and see how each
of the above principles may relate to that particular case. At times this alone will clarify
the issues enough that the means for resolving the dilemma will become obvious to you.
In more complicated cases it is helpful to be able to work through the steps of an ethical
decision making model, and to assess which of these moral principles may be in conflict.

Ethical Decision Making Model
We have incorporated the work of Van Hoose and Paradise (1979), Kitchener (1984),
Stadler (1986), Haas and Malouf (1989), Forester-Miller and Rubenstein (1992), and
Sileo and Kopala (1993) into a practical, sequential, seven step, ethical decision making
model. A description and discussion of the steps follows.

1. Identify the Problem.
Gather as much information as you can that will illuminate the situation. In doing
so, it is important to be as specific and objective as possible. Writing ideas on
paper may help you gain clarity. Outline the facts, separating out innuendos,
assumptions, hypotheses, or suspicions. There are several questions you can ask
yourself: Is it an ethical, legal, professional, or clinical problem? Is it a
combination of more than one of these? If a legal question exists, seek legal

Other questions that it may be useful to ask yourself are: Is the issue related to me
and what I am or am not doing? Is it related to a client and/or the client’s
significant others and what they are or are not doing? Is it related to the institution
or agency and their policies and procedures? If the problem can be resolved by
implementing a policy of an institution or agency, you can look to the agency’s
guidelines. It is good to remember that dilemmas you face are often complex, so a

useful guideline is to examine the problem from several perspectives and avoid
searching for a simplistic solution.

2. Apply the ACA Code of Ethics.
After you have clarified the problem, refer to the Code of Ethics (ACA, 2005) to
see if the issue is addressed there. If there is an applicable standard or several
standards and they are specific and clear, following the course of action indicated
should lead to a resolution of the problem. To be able to apply the ethical
standards, it is essential that you have read them carefully and that you understand
their implications.

If the problem is more complex and a resolution does not seem apparent, then you
probably have a true ethical dilemma and need to proceed with further steps in the
ethical decision making process.

3. Determine the nature and dimensions of the dilemma.
There are several avenues to follow in order to ensure that you have examined the
problem in all its various dimensions.

o Consider the moral principles of autonomy, nonmaleficence, beneficence,
justice, and fidelity. Decide which principles apply to the specific
situation, and determine which principle takes priority for you in this case.
In theory, each principle is of equal value, which means that it is your
challenge to determine the priorities when two or more of them are in

o Review the relevant professional literature to ensure that you are using the
most current professional thinking in reaching a decision.

o Consult with experienced professional colleagues and/or supervisors. As
they review with you the information you have gathered, they may see
other issues that are relevant or provide a perspective you have not
considered. They may also be able to identify aspects of the dilemma that
you are not viewing objectively.

o Consult your state or national professional associations to see if they can
provide help with the dilemma.

4. Generate potential courses of action.
Brainstorm as many possible courses of action as possible. Be creative and
consider all options. If possible, enlist the assistance of at least one colleague to
help you generate options.

5. Consider the potential consequences of all options and determine a course of
Considering the information you have gathered and the priorities you have set,
evaluate each option and assess the potential consequences for all the parties
involved. Ponder the implications of each course of action for the client, for
others who will be effected, and for yourself as a counselor. Eliminate the options
that clearly do not give the desired results or cause even more problematic
consequences. Review the remaining options to determine which option or

combination of options best fits the situation and addresses the priorities you have

6. Evaluate the selected course of action.
Review the selected course of action to see if it presents any new ethical
considerations. Stadler (1986) suggests applying three simple tests to the selected
course of action to ensure that it is appropriate. In applying the test of justice,
assess your own sense of fairness by determining whether you would treat others
the same in this situation. For the test of publicity, ask yourself whether you
would want your behavior reported in the press. The test of universality asks you
to assess whether you could recommend the same course of action to another
counselor in the same situation.

If the course of action you have selected seems to present new ethical issues, then
you’ll need to go back to the beginning and reevaluate each step of the process.
Perhaps you have chosen the wrong option or you might have identified the
problem incorrectly.

If you can answer in the affirmative to each of the questions suggested by Stadler
(thus passing the tests of justice, publicity, and universality) and you are satisfied
that you have selected an appropriate course of action, then you are ready to move
on to implementation.

7. Implement the course of action.
Taking the appropriate action in an ethical dilemma is often difficult. The final
step involves strengthening your ego to allow you to carry out your plan. After
implementing your course of action, it is good practice to follow up on the
situation to assess whether your actions had the anticipated effect and

The Ethical Decision Making Model at a Glance

1. Identify the problem.
2. Apply the ACA Code of Ethics.
3. Determine the nature and dimensions of the dilemma.
4. Generate potential courses of action.
5. Consider the potential consequences of all options, choose a course of action.
6. Evaluate the selected course of action.
7. Implement the course of action.

It is important to realize that different professionals may implement different courses of
action in the same situation. There is rarely one right answer to a complex ethical
dilemma. However, if you follow a systematic model, you can be assured that you will be
able to give a professional explanation for the course of action you chose. Van Hoose and
Paradise (1979) suggest that a counselor “is probably acting in an ethically responsible
way concerning a client if (1) he or she has maintained personal and professional
honesty, coupled with (2) the best interests of the client, (3) without malice or personal

gain, and (4) can justify his or her actions as the best judgment of what should be done
based upon the current state of the profession” (p.58). Following this model will help to
ensure that all four of these conditions have been met.


American Counseling Association (2005). Code of Ethics. Alexandria, VA: Author.

Forester-Miller, H. & Rubenstein, R.L. (1992). Group Counseling: Ethics and
Professional Issues. In D. Capuzzi & D. R. Gross (Eds.) Introduction to Group
Counseling (307-323). Denver, CO: Love Publishing Co.

Haas, L.J. & Malouf, J.L. (1989). Keeping up the good work: A practitioner’s guide to
mental health ethics. Sarasota, FL: Professional Resource Exchange, Inc.

Kitchener, K. S. (1984). Intuition, critical evaluation and ethical principles: The
foundation for ethical decisions in counseling psychology. Counseling Psychologist,
12(3), 43-55.

Rosenbaum, M. (1982). Ethical problems of Group Psychotherapy. In M. Rosenbaum
(Ed.), Ethics and values in psychotherapy: A guidebook (237-257). New York: Free

Sileo, F. & Kopala, M. (1993). An A-B-C-D-E worksheet for promoting beneficence
when considering ethical issues. Counseling and Values, 37, 89-95.

Stadler, H. A. (1986). Making hard choices: Clarifying controversial ethical issues.
Counseling & Human Development, 19, 1-10.

Van Hoose, W.H. (1980). Ethics and counseling. Counseling & Human Development,
13(1), 1-12.

Van Hoose, W.H. & Paradise, L.V. (1979). Ethics in counseling and psychotherapy:
Perspectives in issues and decision-making. Cranston, RI: Carroll Press.

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