A Reflection on Ethics, Law, and Values

Printable version here: Ethics Blog Post

A Reflection on Ethics, Law, and Values

Melissa J. Fickling, PhD, NCC, ACS

Assistant Professor, Clinical Mental Health Counseling

The University of Memphis


In light of recent interest in the American Counseling Association (ACA) Code of Ethics by some lawmakers in Tennessee, I feel compelled to reflect on the role of ethics, how ethics interact with the law, and where personal values come into play.

Ethical codes are written by members of a profession. They necessarily operate within the legal context of the professional’s setting and geography. To follow a Code of Ethics without regard for the law would be immensely unwise. Given this interrelationship, I have come to see the law as indicating the bare minimum of behavior that is expected of me as a citizen. The law isn’t meant to prescribe outstanding behavior, but to indicate how to avoid acting criminally or negligently. The Code of Ethics, on the other hand, is positively worded – it defines what I stand for and what I aspire to. It gives me a framework for making complex decisions within the context of the law.

Because I am a human being, my personal values are ever-present. But my values can be more or less salient to my clinical decision making depending on my own awareness. Some decisions are well within my personal value system and cause me no cognitive dissonance. Other decisions are more personally challenging even though they may be as clinically necessary as those “easier” decisions. However, the ease at which I come to a decision about an ethical dilemma does not indicate how “right” that decision is. The key here is my own level of awareness of my values and the focus of my decision making. I know that if my own comfort is of primary importance in my decision making about an ethical dilemma then I am likely on the wrong path and I need to seek consultation and supervision immediately. If I am able to keep my client’s welfare as the focus of my consideration, then I can have more confidence in my ability to minimize bias, though consultation is still prudent. It is important to state that this does not mean that protecting myself is indicative of a lack of care for a client. It means that when I am in the role of professional counselor, the balance shifts in favor of my current and potential clients. Professional counselors never need to put themselves in imminently harmful or unsafe situations.

The issue is complex because, of course, professional counselors are human beings. Our treatments are delivered in the context of a professional relationship. Luckily, our Code of Ethics does not assume that professional counselors are perfect, unchangeable, saint-like creatures. It provides guidance for steps to take when counselors discover a lack of competence, lack of awareness, or professional impairment. As long as we are willing to get help when we need it and give our best effort at resolving any found gap in competence, we are likely doing right by our clients.

Granello and Young (2012) wrote that one purpose of ethics in counseling – after protecting clients and protecting counselors – is to limit government interference in the regulation of the profession. It seems to me that professional counselors are the most qualified group of people to outline the expected behaviors of members of our profession. We share a base of knowledge and fundamental commitment to serving others through our work. This shared foundation gives me faith in our ability to write a Code of Ethics which most adequately protects us and our clients. Government protects citizens; professions govern their members. Professional counselors advocate for each other and for the public whom we serve.

By requiring adherence to the ACA Code of Ethics by Licensed Professional Counselors, Tennessee is a leader in the nation. In 1992, when Tennessee lawmakers voted to adopt the ACA Code of Ethics as the Code for TN professional counselors, they recognized that the world’s largest association exclusively representing professional counselors, ACA, had, and would continue to have, the most articulate Code of Ethics for counselors to work within. This move did not diminish TN law. The current law is clear on how Ethics and Law interact for licensed professional counselors in TN. Section 0450-01-.13 of the Tennessee General Rules Governing Professional Counselors says, “All licensees and certificate holders shall comply with the current code of ethics adopted by the American Counseling Association, except to the extent that it conflicts with the laws of the state of Tennessee or the rules of the Board. If the code of ethics conflicts with state law or rules, the state law or rules govern the matter” (p. 34, emphasis added).

This clarity does not mean that ethical and legal decisions immediately become clear or easy, but rather that care is needed when navigating the terrain of law, ethics, and values. Fortunately, professional counselors have resources available to them if and when they find themselves in a complex decision making process. ACA Members have access to Ethics consultation by calling ACA at (800) 347-6647, ext. 321 or emailing ethics@counseling.org. In addition, I recommend the ACA Ethical Standards Casebook, 7th Edition (2015) by Barbara Herlihy and Gerald Corey. Finally, there will almost certainly be some excellent educational sessions focused on Ethics for counselors of diverse specialties at the ACA Conference in March 2017 in San Francisco. Remember that Tennessee counselors receive FREE conference registration to the ACA Conference this year!

In closing, I want to share that the primary emotion I experience when reading the ACA Code of Ethics is one of pride. I appreciate the clear definition of who we are as professional counselors and what we do. I love that within my profession there is room for diversity of worldviews and approaches – my personal rights and beliefs are not infringed upon by a clear Code of Ethics which holds me to a standard of awareness, growth, and competence. As professional counselors, we model openness and a willingness to admit our limitations and then address them through continuing education. We learn to differentiate between our competence as professionals and our beliefs as human beings. One does not negate the other.

It is an important time for Tennessee counselors to think critically and share their views with each other and with their representatives about what it means to be a professional counselor. The general public needs us to define ourselves; otherwise, we risk being defined by those who do not understand the value professional counselors bring to the well-being of communities.


References & Additional Resources


Granello, D.H., & Young, M.E. (2012). Counseling Today: Foundations of Professional Identity. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc.


Herlihy, B., & Corey, G. (2015). ACA Ethical Standards Casebook (7th Ed). Alexandria, VA: American Counseling Association.


Meyers, L. (2014). A living document of ethical guidance. Counseling Today. Retrieved from http://ct.counseling.org/2014/05/a-living-document-of-ethical-guidance/


February, 2017

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *