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Ethics and Morality

Positive Ethics: Beyond Sex with Clients and Students

Ethics is more than keeping your pants on

This post was co-written by Sharon K. Anderson, who writes the "Ethical Therapist" blog.

Sex education has apparently come a long way. When Mitch's father was in school in the '30's, somebody came into his gym class one day and said, "You got a zipper on your pants? Keep it zipped!" That was it! Mitch's own sex education in school consisted of several class periods in "hygiene" that went into some more detail, but still consisted mostly of things it wouldn't be good to do. We trust that sex education today devotes some time to helping students make choices based on good knowledge and important values.

Ethics education has followed a similar evolution over the years. It used to be that ethics education in psychology began and ended with codes of ethics, laws, rules, and regulations. These rules often came across as a list of prohibitions: Don't screw your clients or students. Don't violate confidentiality. Don't practice outside your area of competence. Don't, Don't, Don't. Katherine Morris, a graduate student at Antioch University Seattle, put it eloquently when she posted this to an ethics listserv: "I have had to sit through countless boring classes where the teacher preaches about how easy it is to lose our license if we violate laws or ethical codes. This is necessary to know, but it never goes beyond the 'scare tactics.'"

Ms. Morris is right. This fear-based approach contains necessary information but stops way short of encouraging students to think about how to live their professional lives in proactive, virtuous ways. After all, in our graduate school applications we didn't write, "My professional goals are to not lose my license and never to be sued for malpractice."

More recently, many authors have been paying attention to what choices psychologists should make beyond following rules and avoiding trouble. Mitch, Sam Knapp, and Michael Gottlieb called these efforts positive ethics. They wrote: "The goals of positive ethics are to shift the ethics of psychologists from an almost exclusive focus on wrongdoing and disciplinary responses to ... encouraging psychologists to aspire to their highest ethical potential" (Handelsman, Knapp, & Gottlieb, 2002, p. 731). Psychologists can use ethics to choose between adequate (following rules, staying out of trouble) and exceptional behaviors. This is essentially what we talk about when we discuss ethical excellence and ethical green flags. Put another way: OK, so you're NOT screwing your clients or students. That's good! AND, what ARE you doing to help them?

The American Psychological Association (APA) recognized the need for a more positive approach. Starting in the 1990's the APA ethics code has had a section devoted to aspirational principles, including fidelity, integrity, justice, and respect. A while back Mitch shared the story of a professor who treated students with more than average respect. It wasn't that he simply refrained from calling students nasty names. That would have kept him out of trouble. But the professor went beyond that to provide more benefit to students than required by law!

Here are two more examples of positive ethics in action:

The Pennsylvania Psychological Association's Ethics Committee maintains an ethics blog ("Where ethics is more than a code," they say!) that helps psychologists keep up on new developments and think through ethical vignettes. One goal of this blog is certainly to help prevent ethical infractions. But another goal is to help psychologists—already behaving ethically—actualize their full potential.

Our second example comes from Rollins College. (Thanks to Blaine Peden of the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire who alerted us to this.) The College has an honor code, which spells out in great detail the procedures for filing complaints, appeals, etc. Of course, rules and procedures are very important and should be followed. The Psychology Department, however, has gone above and beyond these rules in a statement they append to their course syllabi. This statement includes a mission for the Department: "The Rollins College Psychology Department uses the methods and content of psychological science to teach students to (1) understand the reasons behind their own and others' behavior; (2) become competent and critical decision makers; (3) respect human diversity; and (4) fulfill their social responsibilities." The statement also makes the point that "The Honor Code is About a Culture of Integrity, Not About Rules." The fact that all students receive this statement actualizes a high standard of justice. The content of the statement goes beyond the minimum regarding beneficence and nonmaleficence.


We end with a quote and an invitation. The quote is from Mark Twain, and it captures the spirit of positive ethics: "Laws control the lesser man... Right conduct controls the greater one." The invitation is to share with us and other readers your experiences with professors, therapists, or other professionals who not only followed the rules but demonstrated a positive approach to ethics.


Handelsman, M. M., Knapp, S., & Gottlieb, M. C. (2002). Positive ethics. In C. R. Snyder & S. J. Lopez (Eds.). Handbook of positive psychology (pp. 731-744) . New York: Oxford University Press.

Picture Credits:

College Image from

Twain Image from


Mitch Handelsman is a professor of psychology at the University of Colorado Denver and the co-author, with Sharon Anderson, of Ethics for Psychotherapists and Counselors: A Proactive Approach (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010).

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