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The ethics and rights debate in the helping professions

By Chris James - posted Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Most people in the helping professions will be aware of the proposal to have counsellors and psychotherapists appropriately trained and registered. On the surface this sounds like a good idea. Currently just about anyone can call themselves a counsellor or psychotherapist.

This can be good and bad. On the one hand it provides the public with a wide variety of options but it also means a lot of poor operators go unregulated and unconstrained.

So far people like me have relied on the fact that we can demonstrate our qualifications and experience and we build reputations on good practice. However, very gradually, over the past few years governing bodies have been established and they have been calling for memberships and developing registries with the aim of weeding out the perceived unsuitable operators and giving legitimacy to the profession.


These organisations generally provide membership along three main categories: those who are interested in the helping professions (they need to demonstrate why they are interested); those who are working in the field but are not clinical workers; and those who claim the status of clinical practitioners. Membership ranges from $100 to $200+ per year.

What do members get for their money? They get opinion, reviews, advertising in a newsletter, and networking. They are also kept informed and are given the opportunity to participate in the required ongoing professional development. This is where the real money changes hands. In order to legitimately maintain one’s professional practice, one must engage in ongoing professional development and gain a number of points over the year. This usually happens in one or two-day workshops and it can cost the professional hundreds and thousands of dollars. It is big business!

The overall aim for the professional then must be to grow their practice to meet the costs but does this benefit their clients? Fast capitalism may not be viewed as best practice or conducive to the rights of the client but this in turn is offset by imposing a voluntary system of ethics. It begs the question; can one be ethical in a system of free markets? In my view the “ethics” discourse serves to undermine the “rights” discourse. It leads people to believe they are protected from malpractice when they are not.

Ethics: theory and practice

Given that a counsellor can now get a job after completing a one-term TAFE course (or a one-year postgraduate diploma from a university if they want to supervise) it stands to reason that ethics is not going to be given the attention it deserves. What is usually taught is a system of rules and mandates but the issues involved are not always clear cut and unequivocal. Ethics has its origins in philosophy. It is a complex and precise discipline that cannot be conveyed through crash courses and minimum standards. People who call themselves ethicists are people who solve problems at the highest level of intellectual analysis. They are also governed by certain principles.

I will begin by describing the two schools of thought in modern philosophy as they might relate to the current debate in ethics. One school of thought takes the Marxist and Hegelian view that humans are intrinsically good and the system corrupts them. The other comes from the Freud where the view is that humans are driven by the deep, dark forces of the unconscious desires and fantasies. Humans are therefore inherently bad (the primal horde) and need to be tamed.

The evolutionary view of benevolence/altruism/ethics is that it is underscored by human interests. Or put differently, the instincts of survival. This does not preclude attempts at best practice. A universal system of ethics is necessary for a universal system of law and the reverse is also true, but neither can stand alone. Without effective laws - and the material means for ordinary people to access the judicial system - a discourse of ethics is meaningless.


Narratives of ethics, compliance and law

Modern counselling and psychotherapy draws on an old idea. It was the 18th century public sphere that gave birth to the therapist and narrative as a means of a cure for all the social ills. Freud (1929) was the main pioneer. Control of the primal horde through narrative/counselling/analysis is an old methodology: it didn’t work before I don’t expect it to work now. Language does not travel in a direct line from A to B. Language has language frames, schemata, and conceptual views. Further, the narrative discourse assumes that all people can become rational and exchange ideas, I do not hold to this view.

The revitalisation of the public sphere and “talk” as a means of curing the social malaise is both enabling and constraining. Dialogue as an integral component of democracy was given credence by the world renowned philosopher and social theorist Jurgen Habermas in his Theory of Communicative Action (1987). Therapeutic practices were viewed as being democratic and a way of levelling the power relations between the therapist and client. While Habermas was very careful to separate himself from the post-structuralist/postmodernist transcendent discourses, the “helping professions” have taken these depoliticised discourses on board. This means power is carried through discursive means ipso facto into forms of management counselling as opposed to counselling for social change. This mode of counselling serves the hegemonic forces of neo-liberalism not the interests of the client. I do not regard this as best practice.

It was Kant in his Aesthetic Judgement who devised the 18th century public sphere and Kant who alerted us to the aesthetic (imaginative) nature of capitalism. What this means is almost everything is marketable. Counselling is marketable and an “ethics” discourse is also equally marketable. Markets are malleable. The question remains; can we rote learn a system of ethical rules and make our practices inherently ethical? Can we be ethical in a system that is fundamentally and ethically flawed?

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About the Author

Dr Chris James is an artist, writer, researcher and psychotherapist. She lives on a property in regional Victoria and lectures on psychotherapeutic communities and eco-development. Her web site is

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