7 Basics of Ethical Behavior

By , February 3, 2010 9:10 am

Psychologist Ken Pope posted this to his mail list:

Melba Vasquez and I compiled the following list. We tried to come up with what we considered 7 of the most basic assumptions about ethics — about thinking through our ethical choices and deciding what to do.

We published the list in our first ethics book back in 1991 and have continued to present and discuss it in each edition up to the recent 3rd edition (*Ethics in Psychotherapy and Counseling: A Practical Guide*).

Here are 7 fundamental assumptions about ethics:

1) Ethical awareness is a continuous, active process that involves constant questioning and personal responsibility.

Conflicts with managed care companies, the urgency of patients’ needs, the lack of adequate support, the possibility of formal complaints, mind-deadening routines, endless paperwork, worrying about making ends meet, exhaustion, and so much else can block our personal responsiveness and dull our sense of personal responsibility. They can overwhelm us, drain us, distract us, and lull us into ethical sleep. Our work requires constant alertness and mindful awareness of the ethical implications of what we choose to do and not do.

Maintaining ethical awareness includes acknowledging and taking into account our very human lack of perfection. All of us have weaknesses, vulnerabilities, and blind spots. The dramatic differences are not so much between those who have many human imperfections and those who have few but between those who are freely open–to themselves and to others– about how their own short-comings affect their work, and those who tend to see others as inferior versions of themselves.

The ability to maintain ethical awareness also depends on our ability to take care of ourselves, to recognize when being tired, bored, unhappy, angry, scared, demoralized, or anxious hampers our work, and to do something about it. The chapter on “Creating Strategies for Self-Care” offers ideas on how we can recognize when our lack of enthusiasm, resilience, meaning, and joy in our work begins to make us less effective, and the steps we can take to prevent that from happening or to turn things around it when it is happening.

2) Awareness of ethical codes is crucial, but formal codes cannot take the place of an active, thoughtful, creative approach to our ethical responsibilities.

Awareness of ethics codes is crucial to competence in the area of ethics, but the formal standards are no substitute for an active, deliberative, and creative approach to fulfilling our ethical responsibilities. Codes prompt, guide, and inform our ethical consideration; they do not shut it down or replace it

Ethical practice never means following a code in a rote, thoughtless manner. Each new client, whatever his or her similarities to previous clients, is unique. Each situation is unique and constantly changing — Time and events do not stand still. Our theoretical orientation, the nature of our community and the client’s community, our culture and the client’s culture, and so many other contexts shape what we see and how we see it. Every ethical decision must take these contexts into account.

The codes may steer us away from some clearly unethical approaches. They may shine a light on important values and concern. But they cannot tell us what form these values and concerns will take. They may set forth essential tasks, but they cannot spell out the best way to accomplish those tasks with a unique client facing unique problems in a specific time and place with limited resources.

3) Awareness of relevant legislation, case law, and other legal standards are crucial, but legal standards should not be confused with ethical responsibilities

One of the most common ethical rationalizations is to excuse some clearly unethical act by saying, “What I did broke no law.” Ethical awareness avoids the comfortable trap of aiming low, of striving only to get by without breaking any law. Practicing “defensive therapy” — making risk management our main focus — can cause us to lose sight of our ethical responsibilities and the ethical consequences of what we say and do.

Though often compatible, the legal framework is different from the ethical framework. Ethical awareness requires clearly distinguishing the two, and alertness to when they conflict with each other.

4) We believe that the overwhelming majority of therapists and counselors are conscientious, dedicated, caring individuals, committed to ethical behavior. But none of us is infallible.

All of us can — and do — make mistakes, overlook something important, work from a limited perspective, reach conclusions that are wrong, hold tight to a cherished belief that is misguided. We’re aware of many barriers between us and our best work, but we may underestimate or overlook some of those barriers. Part of our work is questioning ourselves. “What if I’m wrong about this?” “Is there something I’m overlooking?” “Could there be another way of understanding this situation?” “Are there other possibilities?” “Could there be a more creative, more effective, better way of responding?”

5) Many of us find it easier to question the ethics of others than to question our own beliefs, assumptions, and actions. It is worth noticing if we find ourselves preoccupied with how wrong others are in some area of ethics and certain that we are the ones to set them right, or at least to point out repeatedly how wrong they are.

It is a red flag if we spend more time trying to point out other peoples’ weaknesses, flaws, mistakes, ethical blindness, destructive actions, or hopeless stupidity than we spend questioning and challenging ourselves in positive, effective, and productive ways that awaken us to new perspectives and possibilities. Questioning ourselves is at least as important as questioning others.

6) Most of us find it easier to question ourselves on those intriguing topics we know we don’t understand, that we stumble onto with confusion, uncertainty, and doubt. The harder but more helpful work is to question ourselves about our casual certainties. What have we taken for granted and accepted without challenge? Nothing can be placed off-limits for this questioning.

Certainties can be hard to give up, especially when they’ve grown to be part of us. They become landmarks, helping us make sense of the world, guiding our steps. But perhaps an always-reliable theoretical orientation begins distorting our view of a new patient, leading us to interventions that make things worse. Or having always prided ourselves on the soundness of our psychological evaluations, we keep rereading our draft report in a case in which an unbiased description of our findings may bring about a tragic injustice, harming many innocent people, and begin to wonder if our feelings for the client led us to shade the truth. Or the heart of our internship has been the supervision and we’ve made it a point to tell the supervisor everything important about every patient, except about getting so aroused every time with that one patient, the one who is not very vulnerable at all and doesn’t really need therapy, the one we keep having fantasies of asking out after waiting a reasonable time after termination and then, if all goes well, proposing to.

We must follow this questioning wherever it leads, even if we venture into territories that some might view as “politically incorrect” or– much more difficult for most of us– “psychologically incorrect” (Pope, Sonne, & Greene, 2006).

7) As psychologists, we often encounter ethical dilemmas without clear and easy answers.

As we seek to help people who come to us because they are hurting and in need, we confront overwhelming needs unmatched by adequate resources, conflicting responsibilities that seem impossible to reconcile, frustrating limits to our understanding and interventions, and countless other challenges. We may be the only person a desperate client can turn to, and we may be pulled every which way by values, events, limited time, and limited options. Our best efforts to sort through such challenges may lead us to a thoughtful, informed conclusion about the most ethical path that is in stark contradiction to the thoughtful, informed conclusion of a best friend, a formal consultant, our attorney, or the professional groups we belong to. The personal responsibility each of us has for our ethical decisions and our acts cannot be shifted to someone else or to a professional group. There is no legitimate way to avoid these ethical struggles. They are part of our work.


Pope, K.S., Sonne, J.L., & Greene, B.G. (2006). What Therapists Don’t Talk About And Why: Understanding Taboos That Hurt Us And Our Clients. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Pope, K.S., & Vasquez, M.J.T. (2007). Ethics in Psychotherapy and Counseling: A Practical Guide, 3rd Edition. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, An Imprint of Wiley.

PLEASE FORWARD THIS MESSAGE to any lists or individuals who might be interested in this area.

Ken Pope

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