What is an ethical dilemma?

10 Feb 2011 |  for trainees | by Bill, writer at UK & Ireland Counsellor Directory

di-lem-ma [n]. A situation that requires a choice between options that are or seem equally unfavorable.

A dilemma is a situation where you have to choose between two or more alternatives, each of which has problematic consequences.

An ethical dilemma asks you to make a choice between alternatives where each one has consequences that are difficult ethically.

Examples of situations that give rise to ethical dilemmas are:

  • You are working with a relatively new client, and realise that they are someone that one of your other clients has a crush on.

  • Your client discloses that they have felt like harming their children, and you are not sure how real this threat is.

  • You are required by the court to turn over your client notes, but you are aware that if you do so your client may be in danger of being deported to a region where they could face torture and imprisonment without trial.

What makes these dilemmas is that there is may not be an ethically clear-cut choice as to what decision to take. Do you continue to see your client, once you have discovered that there are connections between you other than your relationship in the room? Do you breach confidentiality to ensure safety, knowing that this may be damaging to the therapeutic relationship? Do you comply with the law, even though you feel very strongly that it would lead to injustice?

When faced with an ethical dilemma, a sound first step is to consult with your supervisor. It also helps to refer to your ethical code or framework, to determine how it may relate to that particular case. In more complicated cases it may also be helpful to be able to work through the steps of an ethical decision making model, such as that of the ACA, and to assess which of these moral principles may be in conflict.

If faced with an ethical dilemma, or any other problem about which you are unsure, you should seek the help of your counselling supervisor.

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