Ethical Decision Making Process

Often a dilemma can be easily solved through applying basic problem solving concepts and/or by looking at relevant ethical codes. There are times when neither process will be sufficient to address the scope of a dilemma. When this arises, an ethical dilemma or problem may be approached from a number of frameworks.  Two approaches are considered in this article:

  1. Ethical Principles
  2. Ethical Decision Making Framework

In all aspects of ethical problem solving, it is best to take a clear systematic approach avoiding ambiguity.

Ethical Principles

Ethical principles are one framework that can be used to work through an ethical dilemma. All principles are considered equal with generally, no one holding greater weight or importance than another. Application of the ethical principles may provide sufficient scope and information to either clarify the dimensions of the problem or even, formulate an acceptable action to address an ethical dilemma.

There are five (5) ethical principles considered relevant to counselling:

  1. Respect for Autonomy
  2. Non-maleficence
  3. Beneficence
  4. Justice
  5. Fidelity

Respect for Autonomy

The freedom of clients to choose their own direction – respecting that the client has the ability to make choices free from the constraints of others (Welfel, 1998; Corey, Corey and Callanan, 2007). The role of the counsellor is to acknowledge client autonomy and to respect this right.

An autonomous action is one that cannot interfere with the autonomy of another. An individual is to be aware of the choice taken and the effect/consequences it has on others (Welfel, 1998).

Limitations to client autonomy apply to those clients who are currently unable to understand the repercussions of their action – for example children and mental health patients (Welfel, 1998).


This term means to do no harm. It is a concept derived from the medical profession. Autonomy relates to the individual client, non-maleficence refers to the abilities of the counsellor. Counsellors have a responsibility to avoid utilising interventions that could or have the potential to harm clients (Welfel, 1998; Corey et al., 2007).

In practice counsellors are expected to undertake thorough evaluation of the client’s concerns and apply appropriately determined and explained interventions.


Considered the responsibility to do good and to contribute to the welfare of the client (Forester-Miller and Davis 1996). The counsellor is expected to do the best for the client and if unable to assist, to offer alternatives as appropriate.

Welfel (1998, p36) also asserts that beneficence ‘requires that counselors engage in professional activities that provide general benefit to the public.’


Justice means to act in a fair or just manner. It is expected that counsellors will act in a non-discriminatory manner to individuals or groups. Forester-Miller and Davis (1996) suggest that although justice instructs counsellors to act fairly it does not mean treating all individuals the same rather it relates to equity. It is the counsellor’s ability to acknowledge inequity and apply intervention to suit.


This principle deals with the trust relationship between the counsellor and their client. The interests of the client are placed before those of the counsellor even if such loyalty (towards the client) is inconvenient or uncomfortable for the counsellor (Welfel, 1998).

A client needs to be able to trust that the words and actions of the counsellor are truthful and reliable. The counsellor however, does not need to share every fleeting thought or reaction.

In summary

  • Application of ethical principles may provide a counsellor with solution to an ethical dilemma.
  • Counsellors acknowledge client autonomy and respect this right unless it interferes with the autonomy of others.
  • Non-maleficence is the principle of ‘do no harm’ in which counsellors do not undertake and actively avoid activities that could be detrimental to clients.
  • Beneficence involves doing good both within the counselling relationship and as a member of the greater community.
  • Justice entitles client to treatment based on fairness and equity. The counsellor acting a manner that is non-discriminatory.
  • Fidelity is based on trust within the client-counsellor relationship.