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This chapter also stands as a conclusion of the previous work. It focuses on the challenges that web-based guidance brings to the ethics of practice and it tries to look at the future. Ethical principles are analyzed in a comparative and applied manner,   from careers guidance perspective.


V.1. Looking forward, not back: ethics and new practice

These guidelines are aimed at professionals and their clients and web tool designers and as such intend to offer a regulatory framework the individual can apply to the vast, unregulated mass of the Internet. Any guidelines for professionals working directly with clients will comprise some ethical considerations. Given that, in principle, web-based guidance tools should be evaluated by practitioners in the context of the science-practice or theoretical basis in which they are derived, so must any ethical protocol or guidelines be set in the framework of ethical theory.  In order to help practitioners develop the skills and understanding they will need to work effectively in the post-information age of information communication technology, there is a clear imperative to look towards the future in identifying the underpinning ethical codes.  Whilst it is important that current ethical support be assessed and compared across different domains, the focus must be on the future.  The question is to what extent existing ethical frameworks can support the dilemmas of the future.  The challenge is to evaluate ethical practice across different domains (different by science practice, different by professional or occupational discipline and difference across cultural context) in order to select that which will usefully transfer to the future.


The issue of protection lies at the heart of ethical practice.  Given that there are three distinct user groups envisaged within the project design, namely the practitioners, the end users and the developers, careful thought needs to be given to the intention of a set of guidelines or ethical protocol. Ethical codes are often presented as the client's best protection against malpractice. There is a counterbalance, however, that the practitioners themselves may find adherence to an ethical protocol is important for their own protection. This duality of protection needs to be explicitly understood by practitioners, and where necessary, professionals will need to ensure that they have some support on which to draw, ideally in the form of membership of a professional body. Indeed, in most professions, membership of the appropriate governing body and adherence to an explicit ethical code is a condition both of initial entry and continued inclusion on the professional register. Sampson (2002) argues that the assumption that developers need only to assure quality leaving practitioners to maintain ethics in delivery is too simplistic. His analysis ‘reveals’ that maintaining quality and ethics is a function of a system with multiple participants (Sampson 2002, p158). This chapter attempts to tease out some of this complexity.


V.2. Ethical principles

Professionals who wish to make claims for the integrity and accountability of their profession need at some stage to address the question of self-regulation through their professional body.  If called to justify our professional decision-making there needs to be certainty of the moral ground on which individual practice is predicated. Henry (1996: 43) argues that there is a vital role for the treatment of ethics in the fields of guidance and counselling, and maintains that professionals themselves should be involved in explaining and defending those values which are shared. Beauchamp and Childress (1983) set out the four principles underpinning ethical codes of practice commonly found in helping professions in western countries.  These are:



Beneficence is evident in the illustration of the doctor - patient relationship.  Doing good for the client requires some positive action on the part of the professional, which may extend as far as advocacy on the client's behalf. The principle of non-maleficence (the avoidance of harm) can be used in effect as a default mechanism. Whilst action is also implied, the underlying principle here is to ensure that no more harm will be done to the client by any action, lack of action or judgement on the part of the professional. The principle of autonomy assumes that the client has the right to be involved in those professional decisions that will affect them. The assumption is that the client is capable of making choices, and on this basis the professional ensures the client's active participation in the decision-making process, even where the client's decision-making faculties are impaired. The principle of justice is the point of entry for utilitarian ethics (Winkler and Coombs, 1993) and the quest for the greatest good for the greatest number, even though this necessarily implies some disadvantage for the minority, and so raises important questions about how decisions are made for 'most' people. Where professionals are employed in the public service, the principle of justice is most evident in the consideration of how limited resources are allocated to unlimited demand.  Such considerations are also to be found in private professional practice, but the operational ethos of direct payment by the client for services rendered by the professional means the question of justice is seen as a consideration for the client rather than the professional to address. Justice strives to enable the professional to act fairly, and it is in this regard that issues of equality and equity come into the professional domain. It is the very fact that the professional is bound to practise by an ethical code that is the client's guarantee.


V.3. The principles in practice

The four principles do not always stand in isolation, one from the other, indeed there is often a trade-off of one principle against another in order to deliver a professional service.  In medicine and its allied professions, the principle of beneficence can come into conflict with the principle of autonomy. For example, the clinical recommendation in the best interest of a patient might be to administer a blood transfusion. The patient however, may have strong objection to this course of action on religious or moral grounds, even where he/she understands fully the potentially fatal consequences of refusing professional advice.    


One of the four ethical principles can form the basis for the very orientation of an entire profession: in medicine we as patients assume our best interests are at the heart of clinical judgements and indeed, beneficence is the over-riding principle in medicine, which is why sometimes, clinical judgements will be upheld by the full force of the law and doctors will do good for the patient against the patient's wishes.  'Trust me, I'm a doctor' is a cliché that encapsulates the universal belief that the doctor's decision is in my best interests as a patient, and is based solely on clinical considerations of what will help me. My assumption as a patient is that the doctor, as a professional, intends me no harm, indeed is bound to do me good.  In ethical terms, the practice of medicine is beneficent. In the practice of law, the ethical imperative is justice.  This can of course lead to a situation in which the law is applied equally to everybody but seems to show little mercy in respect of a particular individual caught in a particular set of circumstances.  Nevertheless, whilst we strive for a society where justice is tempered with mercy, we want justice to prevail as the guiding principle.


In careers guidance however, the common orientation is towards client-centred practice: the underlying ethical principle is autonomy (Mulvey, 2001).  This means in practice that, when weighing up how best to serve our client, how best to ensure that our client benefits from our greater, professional understanding of both career guidance practice and its underlying theory, we may sometimes bow to the will of the client even when, in our professional judgement, the client is making an ill advised decision.  In practice, most of the ethical issues careers guidance workers encounter are to do with client confidentiality and this is particularly so where the client is not of a legal age (commonly below the age of eighteen) where the professional has a duty of care which over rides the ethical commitment to client-centred practice: practice which should put the client at the centre of any decision making. Sometimes, a client shared in the interview which gives the practitioner cause for concern, but is unwilling to permit the practitioner to relay that information to a third party. Where there is a legal duty of care for example if the professional judges that the confidential matter clearly indicates immediate and grave danger either to the client themselves or to another, the professional must obey the governing laws and has no option but to betray client confidence in order to protect client safety.  This can equally apply to an adult client: a client who discloses that s/he is being coerced into a particular career choice or perhaps being denied a particular educational or career path by norms of the family or society they come from. 


V.4. Ethics and web-based practice

For web based practice, the duty of care is an important question.  If we offer access to careers guidance 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, are we also implying that we are available for instant response to clients in distress 24 hours a day, 7 days a week (Bloom, 1998).  And if we do offer this level of service, how can we safeguard the well being of the practitioner who is on call for lengthy periods – periods without limits?  What of information disclosed by a client across a virtual domain: can we undertake that such information will be kept confidential? How do we ensure appropriate levels of access to all those who might legitimately have access to e-files – and how can we ensure those who do not have legitimate access will not hack into e-files and misuse them?  Perhaps the key is transparency: to be honest with the client that we will do whatever we can to protect them, but we have to acknowledge that working with web-based tools is pushing back the limits of what we know and taking us into uncharted territories, to meet with ethical issues we have not, as yet, identified.


We may have to acknowledge that, no matter how detailed our consideration of possible responses to possible issues, we can not anticipate everything. We need to accept that there are limits to any ethical protocol (Mulvey, 2002). It needs to be clearly understood by all beneficiaries that, whilst adherence to ethical practice is not only welcomed but expected of accredited practitioners, it cannot solve insoluble problems.  Many issues which arise in guidance practice within the domain of ethics are not problems to which there are solutions, but dilemmas to which there is more than one acceptable and morally justifiable answer. The distinction between a problem, which has a solution, and a dilemma, which may be worked through towards a state of resolution, is an important one to make. Ethical protocols have limits, even if web-based careers guidance does not.


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Last update:  16:00 18/06 2004

I. Users
II. Delivery
III. Design / Developing
IV. Theory
V. Ethics
Annex 1
Annex 2
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GRUNTVIG - European Cooperation Projects in Adult Education
This project has been carried out with the support of the European Union in the framework of the Socrates program
The content of this project does not necessarily reflect the position of the European Union, nor does it involve any responsibility on the part of the European Union