Counseling Today, From the President

What would you do?

Marcheta Evans April 1, 2011

The cover story for this issue focuses on ethics issues in counseling. Contemplating this topic and my development as a professional counselor, I must admit that my thoughts on ethical behavior have evolved over time. That is not to say that I was unethical before, but rather that I once viewed others in a certain way depending on how they handled situations in which I thought the “right” response was a black-and-white decision.

Yes, when I was younger, the answers seemed so obvious to me. But as I grew as a professional and truly started listening to the stories and experiences of my clients and students, I began to realize that life is not always black and white. There is so much color and context to life that we miss if we neglect to take the time to listen to what is going on with those we serve as professional counselors.

What Would You Do? is a TV program from ABC News. Its premise centers on placing people in various staged scenarios without their knowledge and monitoring their responses. As I initially watched some of the various scenes unfold, I said with such conviction, “Oh, I know what I would do. I would confront that injustice” or “I would say something to that person who was mistreating the other individual in the scene.” I truly wanted to believe I would react that way if I witnessed such a scene in real life. As I sat there, however, I began thinking about who I was and how my culture has changed since I was a child.

You may be wondering what this has to do with ethics. Give me just a second and let’s see if I can make it come together, because some of you may possess similar experiences. You see, ethics has several different meanings, including a system of moral principles; the rules of conduct recognized in respect to a particular class of human actions or a particular group, culture, etc.; a branch of philosophy that deals with values relating to human conduct with respect to the rightness and wrongness of certain actions and to the goodness and badness of the motives and ends of such actions.

Growing up back in the day in Alabama, I was a child of the neighborhood, so to speak. What I mean by that is that any adult had permission to correct my behavior if she or he saw me doing something I had no business doing. Not only would I get in trouble with that particular adult, but I knew there would be more to come when I got home. I would walk home from school in shame and in fear of how my grandmother would react to finding out I had misbehaved and that someone in the neighborhood had found it necessary to correct me. This was the culture of that time, and the adults’ response was considered proper.

Nowadays, how many of you would feel comfortable correcting someone else’s child or going up to someone and saying, “Baby, you should not be doing that”? I must admit, it’s not as easy to do now as it was back in the day. Today, we are afraid that we will be chastised in some form or fashion for butting in and not minding our own business. As a result, most people these days just sit on the sidelines, shake their heads and say, “What an awful situation that is” or “The child has no home training.”

Now I know some of you are saying that you definitely know what you would do in situations such as these, and I applaud your conviction. But many of you are unsure of how you would react. Perhaps you even remember a situation in which you wish you had said something but instead walked away.

As counselors, it is ingrained in us to advocate for those who cannot advocate for themselves. It is our responsibility to be actively engaged in our society. Granted, as I have matured, my formerly black-and-white mind-set has been altered, especially when it comes to claiming what I would definitely do. I have come away saying, “This is what I hope I would do if the situation ever presented itself.” I firmly believe we cannot know exactly how we would respond until we find ourselves in a given situation.

This, for me, is still a great positive. I review my past behaviors and responses and contemplate the definition of ethical or right behavior. I try daily to move beyond the mandatory ethics of my job and life and toward the aspirational ethics of being a social justice advocate.

What would you do? That is a question you must answer for yourself. My answer is, “I hope I would do the right thing for all involved.” That way, I can walk away with peace.

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