The distinction between ethics and morals is subtle, but it can be critical for practitioners of certain professions. Legal, medical and educational professionals face ethical dilemmas often, and counselors, as mental health care workers, are no exception. A clear understanding of the difference between ethics and morals can help counselors solve difficult dilemmas wisely and appropriately.
An individual's morals define his sense of right and wrong. Morals are usually instilled during childhood through a person's upbringing: His parents and other adults teach him what is good and what is bad, using either a personal code or a religious code. A person's conscience reflects his morals. For example, a counselor may feel it is morally right to use any available resources to help his patients; it is right to do everything he can to benefit the patients and wrong to leave avenues untried.
While morals deal with issues of right versus wrong, ethics deal with issues of right versus right. Ethical dilemmas arise when morals are not enough to determine the best course of action because there is no way to satisfy all elements of a person's moral code. For example, a counselor who feels she must use every resource to help her patients but also feels she must keep their issues confidential may not be able to decide whether she can morally discuss them with other counselors. Many professions have standardized codes of ethics to address the dilemmas that arise most often in their particular fields.
Purpose of Ethics
Standardized codes of ethics exist to give professionals an objective system for solving dilemmas. Morals are, by definition, subjective -- each individual has his own moral code. One counselor may morally prioritize confidentiality, while another may feel that beneficence, doing all possible good, is more important. A professional code of ethics removes an individual's moral responsibility to make these decisions and establishes an official set of guidelines for what is most right in right versus right dilemmas.
Ethics in Counseling
Because morals are personal, a counselor may find that her moral code disagrees with the American Counseling Association's ethical code. When such a conflict arises, it is her duty to follow her profession's standardized code over her own personal code. The ACA's ethical code includes instructions on the appropriate relationship between counselors and their patients, the rules of confidentiality, details of counselors' professional responsibilities, guidelines for relationships with other counselors and systems for making choices in other ethical dilemmas.