Positive Ethics and Counseling Psychology

2012-08-04 22.15.21 EDITEDPositive ethics is a new approach to conceptualizing ethics that fits well with the values of counseling psychology. Knapp and VandeCreek (2013) note that this approach challenges psychologists to consider ways to enhance their performance rather than simply avoiding client harm, as one finds with floor-based approaches.  They argue that while ethical standards outline limitations, they can go further and provide inspiration to fulfill one’s highest professional potential. Rather than settling for a floor-based conceptualization of ethics, Knapp and VandeCreek (2013) advocate for an aspirational approach to ethical psychological practice.

Knapp and VandeCreek’s (2013) aspirational approach accurately captures the way counseling psychologists think about professional activities. The aspirational ethical model enables the values of counseling psychology, including prevention, holistic case conceptualization, and social justice (Gelso, Williams, & Fretz, 2014) to be put into practice. If a professional focuses on avoiding punishment and mistakes, a great deal of energy is expended, yet these efforts do not always guarantee ethical errors will not occur. Additionally, practicing in fear potentially interferes with clinician self-care and can prevent competent practice. Thus, floor-based approaches may prevent ethical breaches through cautious work, but do not guarantee avoiding consequences. Additionally, they sap the energy, motivation, and fulfillment related to practice, leading to impairment or burnout. Application of positive ethics does not differ from floor-based approaches in avoiding ethical issues, but can serve to reduce anxiety and tension related to potential ethical concerns. Aspiring to reach one’s full potential can prevent clinicians from becoming disenchanted with their work and captures counseling psychology’s spirit of prevention.

Reflecting on the value of holistic conceptualization (Gelso, Williams, & Fretz, 2014), positive ethics allows psychologists to be aware of potential ethical dilemmas they may face while striving to achieve their best level of clinical practice. Rather than focusing only on negative potentials of various cases or agency issues, viewing ethical situations through a lens of positive ethics allows clinicians to acknowledge potential for unfavorable outcomes in a given situation, while exploring options that would allow for the best possible outcome for client, rather than what will prevent the psychologist from being uncomfortable or punished. Thus, applying positive ethics allows clinicians to view the “big picture” and identify the best intervention for their client, instead of focusing on personal protection.

In consideration of the role of social justice within counseling psychology (Gelso, Williams, & Fretz, 2014), positive ethics encourages clinicians to reach their highest potential, which may lead psychologists to situations that feel risky or uncomfortable such as gaining multicultural competence or advocating for oppressed populations. These situations are typically outside the scope of staying out of trouble presented by the floor-based approach and may create ethical dilemmas of their own (e.g., encountering a client who is offended by one’s public LGBT advocacy efforts). Positive ethics’ call for psychologists to practice at their highest potential encourages clinicians to get out of their comfort zone to enhance their clinical skills and interactions. Thus, clinicians who incorporate aspirational ethical principles into their lives may experience anxiety or discomfort during social justice efforts. However, given the guidance provided by positive ethics, along with the ethical standards put forth by the American Psychological Association (2010), justice is part of psychologists’ duty to their clients, particularly clients who are disadvantaged in some way. Relinquishing some of our privilege and power is risky, but it advances the wellbeing of society, in addition to individual clients.

Knapp and VandeCreek’s (2013) conceptualization of positive ethics presents an ongoing issue within mental health service provision- avoiding dilemmas and staying out of trouble. However, this approach to clinical work limits the flexibility of the practitioner and the clients’ experience of their therapist. Approaching ethical situations from the perspective of positive ethics enables clinicians to identify the potential for negative outcomes in a given situation, while considering decisions that could facilitate the best outcome for the client, rather than protection of the clinician. It seems positive ethics interface well with the values of counseling psychology and offer fewer limitations.

amanda-vandevender headshotAbout the Author:

Anna W. Vandevender, M.S.
Doctoral Student
Counseling Psychology Graduate Program
Radford University


American Psychological Association (2010a). Ethical principles of psychologists and code of conduct (2002, Amended June 1, 2010). Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/ethics/code/index.aspx

Gelso, C.J., Williams, E.N., & Fretz, B.R. (2014). Counseling psychology (3rd Ed.). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Knapp, S.J. & VandeCreek, L.D. (2013). Practical Ethics for Psychologists: A Positive Approach (2nd Ed.). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

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