Comparing Ethics Codes for Professional Counselors
This article looks at the differences between the codes of ethics presented by three professional counseling organizations; The American Counseling Association, The American Association of Christian Counselors and the American Association of Pastoral Counselors. The article examines the differences in the memberships of the organization, the resulting differences in the organizations’ code of ethics and discusses one missing element in each code.
General Observations on the three Codes
The codes discussed below were published by the American Counseling Association (ACA, 2005), the American Association of Christian Counselors (AACC, 2004), and the American Association of Pastoral Counselors (AAPC, 1993).
The ACA Code of Ethics is revised every 10 years and was last revised in 2005. The code has eight sections: the counseling relationship, confidentiality, professional responsibility, relationships with other professionals, evaluations, supervision and training, research, and resolving ethical issues. Counseling Today summarized the Code’s recent changes to include: increased emphasis on multiculturalism; allowing dual relationships if it includes potentially beneficial interactions; broadened acceptable use of technology in research, record keeping and counseling; more detail language on counselor impairment and transfer of clients; and finally, changes in various terms but not the meaning as an example “tests” are now referred to as “assessments”. (Highlights of ACA Code of Ethics, 2005)
The AACC code was finalized in 2004 after 10 years and 4 provisional codes. This is the longest of the three codes. The Code’s major sections are: applicability of the code, introduction and mission statement, Biblical foundation principles, ethical standards, and procedural rules. The ethical standards section is divided between the various categories of membership. The AACC Code includes the most extensive section on resolving conflicts and handling of complaints.
The AAPC is the shortest of the three codes. The code was last revised in 1993 and at this time the procedural section was separated from the Code of Ethics (Beck, 1997). The Code has seven sections: prologue, professional practices, client relationships, confidentiality, supervisee, student and employee relationships, interprofessional relationships and advertising.
Background of organizations
The ACA, AACC and AAPC, as organizations, have different charters and membership.
The ACA is an organization geared toward providing services to professional licensed counselors from all backgrounds and world-views. For example, a member could have a world-view based in atheism, Buddhism, Islam or Christianity. The ACA cannot assume any similar ethical belief or background among its member.
The AACC membership has a broad aspect in the definition of counselor and a narrow aspect in that the members are Christian. The AACC Code of Ethics encompasses sections applicable to professional licensed counselors, pastoral counselors, and lay helpers.
The AAPC has the narrowest of memberships. Full membership in AAPC requires the member have an M. Div and be ordained by a denominational organization. The denominational organization does not have to be a Christian denomination. The AAPC Code in the Prologue section specifically states the counselors are also subject to their dominations code of ethics.
Ethical Descriptors Comparison
In comparing two Christian codes from the American Association of Pastoral Counselors and the Christian Association for Psychological Studies with two secular codes from the American Counseling Association and the American Psychological Association, Beck the uses the 23 key ethical descriptors. The descriptors are from Williams Index of Ethical Code Terminology that was identified by Austin, Moline, and Williams (1990) as contained in the six codes they examined (Beck, 1997). Table 1 includes the 23 descriptors, additional terms identified and cross-references the respective codes sections to each descriptor or term.
The ACA Code contains all of the 23 ethical descriptors discussed by Beck and most of the additional terms. The only section that the ACA Code does not include is the special care sections included in the AACA Code related to substance abuse, abortion, divorce, client sexual affairs, and homosexual behaviors.
The AACC Code covers all the descriptors except for refusal of treatment, fraud, techniques and like the AAPC Code does not include the additional descriptors related to the use of technology, consultation and forensic evaluation.
The AAPC Code includes the least descriptors of the three codes. It does not include the descriptors related to measurement testing, protection, reporting colleagues, multicultural clients, groups, specific care situations, technology, consultation or forensic evaluations.
Even though the codes may include sections related to each descriptor, it does not follow that each Code provides for similar treatment of the descriptors. Two examples of descriptors that are handled differently are suicide and dual relationships.
Section A.9 of the ACA Code discusses suicide. This section leaves the decision to support or not support assisted suicide up to the counselor and states that the counselor should strive to “enable clients to exercise the highest degree of self-determination possible”. The AACC Code discusses suicide in section E1-127. The AACC Code provides counselors must refuse to “condone or advocate for active forms of euthanasia and assisted suicide”. The AAPC Code does not deal with this subject. A counselor who is a member of the ACA and AACC would be subject to conflicting Codes of Ethics in the area related to counselor actions in regards to assisted suicide.
The difference related to dual relationships are not as clear as in suicide, but the language of the three codes does seem to present of spectrum of advice on dual relationships.
The ACA Code, in 2005, was changed to lessen the restriction on dual relationships. Section A.5.d of the ACA Code now allows a dual relationship if the relationship is beneficial to the counseling relationship. The ACA wording seems indicate an acceptance of dual relationships. Section ES 1-140 to 1-146 of the AACC Code state that some dual relationships are unethical. The AACC Code does allow for an exception but states that is imperative for the counselor to document the dual relationship and to clearly document the logic for the relationship in the client notes. The language used in the AACC Code appears to be less supportive of dual relationships than the ACA Code. The AAPC Code appears to be the most restrictive in stating in Principle III E. ” We avoid dual relationship with clients… which could impair our professional judgment”. The AAPC Code does not acknowledge a positive dual relationship or provide guidance on how to determine or handle a positive dual relationship.
Hathaway (2001) raises the question of what basis is provided to support the ethics code? He goes on to observe that Christian and secular professional codes are similar on many significant points. He reasons that this is due to the fact that all mental health professionals are trained in the same or similar training programs, work in the same environment and work toward the same goals. A similar question is raised by Freeman, Engels, and Altekruse (2004) when they stated, ” those who practice…behavioral sciences regularly make moral/ethical judgments about the appropriateness or inappropriateness of particular actions, but what is the basis for such judgment? How are they justified?” The one element missing from all three models is the basis for the ethical decision-making. This leaves the practitioner without a supportive framework to reference in situations that do fall exactly into the norm or where sections of various codes conflict as noted above. The Tarasoff case as referenced by Freeman et al. (2004) is a good example of this problem. The three codes require the counselor to maintain confidentiality of information related to the counselee and counseling sessions. But how does the counselor know when a competing element of the code, such as do no harm, would outweigh another section without a sound understanding of the theoretically underpinnings of the code and/or a defined decision-making model.
As the decision making model is left up to the authors of the codes, these code will be subject to continuous redrafting to meet changing examples of ethical issues that are presented.
American Association of Christian Counselors. (2004). AACC Code of Ethics. Alexandria, Va.
American Association of Pastoral Counselors. (1993). Code of Ethics. Fairfax, Va.
American Counseling Association. (2005). ACA Code of Ethics. Alexandria, Va.
Austin, K.M., Moline, M.E., & Williams, G.T. (1990). Confronting Malpractice: Legal and Ethical Dilemmas in Psychotherapy. Newbury Park, Calif.: Sage.
Beck, J. (1997). Christian Codes, Are They Better? Christian Counseling Ethics (pp. 313-325). Downers Grove, Illinois: Intervarsity Press.
Freeman, S., Engels, D., & Altekruse, M. (2004, April). Foundation for ethical standards and codes: The role of moral philosophy and theory in ethics. Counseling and Values, 48, 163-174.
Hathaway, W. (2001). Common Sense Professional Ethics: A Christian Appraisal. Journal of Psychology and Theology, 29, 224-233.
Highlights of ACA Code of Ethics. (2005, October). Counseling Today, 1,16-17,63.