This section provides the foundation of all our practice, it sets out some of the key ideas behind what constitutes good practice. It’s there to support us turning our good intentions into good practice, that supports our clients. And within it, there are three approaches to ethics.
There are values, which if you like are an expression of our good intention, in general terms. There are principles, where we convert those good intentions into actions and they combine a statement of value with an action. And there are also the personal moral qualities, which are those aspects of ourselves to which we aspire and hope we can deliver to our clients, they’re a vision of how we want to be with our clients and each section spells out some of the aspects of those different approaches to ethics.
And the ways in which the section can be used by practitioners vary, but I have heard some very successful experiences of people who have used this section in the context of supervision, or as an opportunity to step back from a tricky issue in practice and to think through what are its ethical implications? And particularly just trying to go back to basics and think, what are the principles at stake here? What are the personal moral qualities that I can use to improve the situation? Where there are conflicting values or principles, trying to identify what they are, so you can make a decision between, in favour of one that you may want to prioritise in that particular circumstance and all that can be done in supervision. And it’s a really good use of this section.
Q1: How have our ethics changed over the lifetime of BACP?
A: That’s a good question, because they have changed. In the middle 80s when the ethics started for BACP, we were one of the few professions that really prioritised client autonomy. That has become the expectation of pretty well all professions now and we’ve moved on to an ethic of trust, which, and trust directs its attention to both respecting the wishes of the client and their autonomy, but also how we manage that in a relationship with the client, and what it is we bring to the client to be trustworthy to that person.
So that’s one of the big changes and also we have deliberately moved away, so far as it is possible in a profession or set of ethics, from rules to principles, so we talk in terms of the general ethical issues but leave it to the practitioner to apply them to their particular context, their particular setting, the needs of their particular clients, so we call it a framework rather than a code or a set of rules. It is a framework which is there to help us improve and advance our practice.
Q2: Why do we talk about personal moral qualities rather than virtues?
A: Well virtues are the traditional term in the academic discipline of philosophy, but when we were rewriting the Ethical Framework many years ago, we had a moral philosopher who was an expert in that field and she’s a lady who, a little bit like Miss Marple, who I’ve always imagined lives in a cottage with roses around the door and that sort of wise, perky, sort of style of communication, and when I suggested that we had a section called virtues she said, “You know that’s quaint”, and I thought if, Miss Marple thinks it’s quaint, it may not be a term that’s going to communicate to the modern world very well.
We tried professional moral qualities at one point, but that also missed the point, because it put more focus on the role of the practitioner, rather than the personal qualities that they bring to it and, as it were, ethics embedded in their intentions and what they are trying to do. And although it’s a slightly clumsy term, that’s how we ended up with personal moral qualities. Personal, because it’s what we bring to the relationship, moral, because it is about good and bad or harm, and qualities because it is a quality rather than something you can absolutely define and grab hold of like an object.