Hardly a single issue causes as much confusion as ethics. While ethics is often taken for granted, when a complicated problem arises, its principles appear to be quite hard to interpret and apply to a particular situation. To make the matter worse, there are different types of ethics, which should also be taken into account. However, the variety of ethics types serve only the purpose of helping one solve a particular problem with a specific ethical approach. Taking a closer look at the four key ethics types will help specify their significance and learn in which case each is applied.
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There is no secret that most people spend a significant chunk of their lives at work; therefore, it is reasonable enough that professional ethics should be the first type of ethics to have been developed. Also known as mandatory, this kind of ethics prescribes the moral rules according to which a real professional must work. While certain ethical principles are listed in professional regulations for certain specialists, the issue remains somewhat vague, since every single case should be considered separately, and there is practically no book for the right behavior in a specific instance. According to the official definition of mandatory ethics for counseling, “Mandatory ethics entails a level of ethical functioning at which counselors simply act in compliance with minimal standards” (Martin, 2007, 200). However, the given definition raises such questions as to what minimal standards are and whether these standards can provide maximum justice in every single instance. Therefore, mandatory ethics alone does not seem to work efficiently enough, even though it offers decent foil for one’s professional development.
Compared to mandatory, aspirational ethics is defined even more vaguely. In contrast to the previously described type, aspirational ethics does not refer to any particular realm of one’s life and offers general instructions on the right course of conduct. As Martin puts it, “Aspirational ethics pertain to striving for the optimum standards of conduct” (Martin, 2007, 200). Not referring to any sphere, in particular, aspirational ethics offers general information about what is ethical and what is not. On the one hand, the given type of ethics is preferable to the one mentioned above, since it concerns not some particular realm. Still, one’s entire life and, therefore, is more demanding in terms of making ethical choices. The downside of aspirational ethics, though, is that it is even less specific than the mandatory one. Making one pursue some “high ideals (Martin, 2007, 200), aspirational ethics does not describe any, which means that every person has to define his/her ethical model. In its turn, the means above, that the code of one’s aspirational ethics depends on one’s understanding of good and evil.
Another two types of ethics that are worth considering closer, virtue, and principle one, also draw the line between different scopes. As has been mentioned above, the critical problem of mandatory ethics is that it does not involve the idea of responsibility. Still, it only demands to act by minimal standards. The given loophole is, however, compensated with the postulates of virtue ethics and principal ethics. Since the latter teaches how to apply the fundamental principles of the mandatory ethics to specific cases, they can be considered the pillars on which professional ethics rests.
To be more particular about the two types above of ethics, virtue ethics can be defined as the type of ethics that “focuses on the character traits and nonobligatory ideas that facilitate the development of ethical individuals” (Pope-Davis, 2003, 315). In its turn, principle ethics concerns the actions that have already been taken (Pope-Davis, 2003, 315). Therefore, the given two types of ethics complete the idea of mandatory ethics, filling in the logical gaps and making it reasonable. Predictably enough, principal ethics offers a range of principles that can be used as guidance for the evaluations of the actions that have been taken. The critical postulates of the principle ethics include respect for autonomy, nonmaleficence, beneficence, justice, fidelity, and veracity. They are supposed to help figure out if the undertaken approach was ethical enough. It seems that the APA Ethics Code incorporates the elements of mandatory and aspirational ethics, with both the virtue and the principle ethics:
The Preamble and General Principles are aspirational goals to guide psychologists toward the highest ideals of psychology. Although the Preamble and General Principles are not themselves enforceable rules, they should be considered by psychologists in arriving at an ethical course of action. (Ethical principles of psychologists and code of conduct, 2010)
Mandatory ethics and aspirational ethics differ considerably. The former belonging to the realm of professionalism. The latter being instead of the principle of existence, i.e., ethical guidelines in a broader, more general way. However, there are still many things that these two ideas have in common. As it turns out, aspirational ethics takes the principles of professionalism, i.e., mandatory, ethics to a new level, allowing one to use ethical principles as the moral standpoint according to which one can perform his/her professional duties properly. While either of these types of ethics is essential in its realm, together, they help one define one’s professional mission.
Pope-Davis, D. P. (2003). Handbook of multicultural competencies in counseling and psychology. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.
Martin, D. (2007). Principles and practices of case management in rehabilitation counseling. Springfield, IL: Charles Thomas C. Publishing.