Values and Ethics in Counselling and Psychotherapy


Gillian Proctor

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    To my son Zeb, who has fulfilled a lifelong dream.

    About the Author

    I am a clinical psychologist, person-centred therapist and research supervisor. I worked in the NHS for 22 years and recently left to become self-employed. I am passionate about the ethics and politics of life, relationships and therapy. I love writing and my aim is to bring academic thinking from various disciplines (predominantly counselling and psychotherapy, psychology, sociology and philosophy) together with clinical practice in an accessible way. My initial interest in power in therapy led me to the relevance of politics and the sociopolitical context in therapy. In addition to reminding us that therapy occurs within a much wider context than the therapy dyad, issues of power also pointed within the person of the therapist to our own personal history, our values and beliefs, and how these influence our ethical decisions. I also love exploring these issues of relational dynamics by facilitating encounter groups.

    I have previously authored The dynamics of power in counselling and psychotherapy: ethics, politics and practice (PCCS Books, 2002), and co-edited Encountering feminism: intersections of feminism and the person-centred approach (with Mary Beth Napier; PCCS Books, 2004) and Politicising the person-centred approach: an agenda for social change (with Mick Cooper, Pete Sanders and Beryl Malcolm; PCCS Books, 2006). I have also authored numerous book chapters and articles on these topics and other related issues such as the diagnosis of borderline personality disorder and working in forensic services.


    This book has been a long time in labour, having been commissioned before I became pregnant with my son Zeb. During this process, many people have offered invaluable support. Linda Smith has provided a lending library of her extensive philosophy and therapy collection and through dialogue has been an integral part of the development of the ideas I present. My parents, Joyce and Eric Proctor, have looked after their grandson Zeb on numerous occasions whilst I worked on draft after draft. Zeb (now age three) has been very patient with my spending bursts of time at my computer. Thanks also to the Mallott-Mannings for celebratory curries at the end of each draft!

    Several people have helped shape this final polished manuscript by commenting on previous drafts, which provided essential help for me to improve the relevance and accessibility. Thanks go to: Christine Bousfield, Leah Davidson, James Gerrard, Patrick Harper, Linda Smith and Sheila Youngson. All the staff at Lynfield Mount Hospital library were endlessly helpful with my requests for books and articles. I am very grateful for the detailed guidance from several reviewers and for the editorial skills of Susannah Trefgarne at Sage, whose suggestions have improved this final version no end. Finally, I really appreciate those who have taken the time to read and endorse this book.

  • Appendices: Philosophical Movements and Philosophers

    Appendix A: Philosophical movements or concepts

    Absolutists state that there are universal standards or principles, and attempt to explain how we can reach them.

    Analytic Philosophy

    In traditional analytic moral philosophy, the function of theory and moral principles is to combat the selfishness of individuals thus leading to a policing role of ethics. Analytic philosophy dominated philosophy in English-speaking countries in the twentieth century, often following a focus on logic. It is contrasted with existential or continental ethics.

    Care Ethics

    Jaggar (2000) describes the best known example of developing ethical theory beginning with the experience of women, which is the ethics of care (Gilligan, 1982). The ethics of care values emotional sensitivity, responsiveness to the needs of particular others, intimacy and connection, responsibility and trust. Although these values are generally associated with the domestic sphere, feminist ethicists following Gilligan (1982) propose that these values should become more prominent in ethical theory and in society at large. The moral subject in the ethics of care is relational, situated and embodied. An approach to moral reasoning in care ethics involves empathy, openness and receptiveness to unique others in specific situations. It involves no general principles or idea of universality.


    Consequentialist, utilitarian or teleological theories are a branch of empiricist theories, focusing solely on observable behaviour. Such theorists argue that an action is morally right if the consequences of the action are more favourable than unfavourable; thus ethics are judged purely by consequences, with motives being irrelevant. This idea originated with Bentham, and the main approach to this considers how favourable consequences are for everyone (it is also termed utilitarianism). ‘Favourable’ has been interpreted in diverse ways by various philosophers. Traditionally it was defined as happiness, but Mill (1871/1998) suggests that virtue, knowledge, truth or beauty should also be considered. Moore describes the principle of ‘ideal utilitarianism’, suggesting that consequences should be judged on all considerations that are intuitively recognised as good or bad, not just happiness. Mill adds to the principle of the greatest good that of justice – the greatest distribution of good or the greatest good for the greatest number. Mill (1871/1998) also suggests that, rather than each act being judged in isolation according to utilitarian principles, rules can be judged by these principles and then applied (rule-utilitarianism). So, for example, rather than deciding on each occasion whether it is right to steal something, instead the rule about whether it is right to steal or not can be judged according to the favourability of consequences and then this rule applied. Mill did however worry about the tyranny of the majority under this system, and believed that happiness was more than individual pleasure, and included cultural and spiritual happiness from seeing the happiness of others. Distribution-sensitive rule-consequentialists consider fairness in addition to wellbeing, although Hooker (2000) argues that it is unclear when unfairness trumps wellbeing. Despite this, he argues that although having two values to evaluate is messier than rule-utilitarianism, distribution-sensitive rule-consequentialism is more plausible. Critiques of consequentialism point out the difficulties of defining happiness or pleasure for another beyond a tautological definition of ‘something to be aimed for’.


    Contract theorists (such as Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Hume and Kant) span rationalists and empiricists. They focus on the idea that human nature is flawed and untrustworthy and that contracts between a ruler and those ruled are necessary for mutual security against each individual following purely their own self-interests, and to curb the selfishness of human emotion. Thus they argue that each individual cannot be trusted to be moral alone and a structure of societal organisation helps to ensure morality. Contract theory is based on the idea of citizens giving consent to rulers and the moral obligation to keep to these agreements.

    Deontological Theories

    Deontology refers to philosophy focusing on duty. Deontological philosophy focuses on motives as opposed to consequences. Kant is a deontological philosopher.


    Locke and Hume are empiricist philosophers. For Locke, passion or emotion drives action, and reason only assesses but does not initiate action. Similarly for Hume, emotion motivates us, whereas reason informs us to consider potential consequences. Hume suggests that the basis of knowledge is in experience and observation, as in science. He describes how impressions (raw experiences or perceptions) give rise to ideas and this provides data for reasoning. Although he allows that inductive reasoning and inference are untrustworthy and can lead to errors, he holds that the most we can hope for is to eliminate mistakes by trial and error and to gain a closer approximation to the truth.

    However, the distinction between rationalism and empiricism is not quite so clear-cut. Rachels suggests that reason also shapes and sustains attitudes and emotions: ‘Thus moral judgments express attitudes, but not just any attitudes: they express attitudes that are evoked and sustained by the deliberative process’ (2000: 81).

    Existential/Continental Philosophy

    Existential philosophy includes the philosophy of Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Sartre, De Beauvoir, Husserl, Merleau-Ponty, Jaspers, Buber and Tillich. Existential philosophy is particularly concerned with existence as opposed to essence – the way we as whole beings encounter the world, as opposed to splitting us into component parts or studying us as universal abstract entities. Van Deurzen-Smith describes existential thinking as ‘an attempt to think about everyday human reality in order to make sense of it’ (1997: 1). Key themes in existential philosophy are life and death and being always in relationship.

    Continental ethics describes a similar group and focus to existential philosophy, elaborated by mainly non-English-speaking European philosophers in the twentieth century. Continental ethics focuses on helping individuals to ethically flourish ‘to awaken and enliven – to energise people to ethical creativity’ (Schroeder, 2000: 396). Continental thinkers ‘seek to produce an awakening – as if people all-too-often sleepwalk through their lives. Duties, imperatives, rules and regulations only deepen the daze (which one might call ethical death)’ (2000: 396). Continental ethicists want to inspire people by higher values, and light the spark of ethical creativity.


    Intuition was given a central role in philosophy by Descartes, who defined intuition as ‘the conception which an unclouded and attentive mind gives us so readily and distinctly that we are wholly freed from doubt about that which we understand’ (1955: 7). McNaughton (2000) describes intuitionism as a species of deontological theories. He explains that intuitionists such as Sedgewick believe that some moral duties are ‘self-evident’. He suggests that the terminology of intuitionism is misleading, as it is not used here to refer to judgements about what we are inclined to do, and intuitionism does not imply that there is a mysterious faculty by which we detect moral properties. Instead, McNaughton (2000) refers to intuitionism as the approach to rationalism that was popular in England between the two world wars, with Ross (1930/2002) being a key text to systematically describe the intuitionist theory.

    Moore argued that goodness is indefinable but immediately recognisable by intuition. McMahan defines an intuition as ‘a spontaneous moral judgment … not the result of conscious inferential reasoning’ (2000: 94). He argues that intuitions are immediately compelling, in a way that rational moral theory is not. Posner (1995) stresses the role of emotion as moral data, particularly the emotions of disgust and revulsion which determine what people believe to be morally wrong more than any rational argument. He argues that many situations require immediate action where deliberation is not possible, and only intuition can be relied upon. He further suggests that any moral theory without intuition is in danger of describing rules or situations that bear no relation to what we recognise as morality. MacIntyre explains the difficulty with intuitionists, saying, ‘they are, on their own view, telling us only about what we know already. That they sometimes disagree about what it is we already know already only makes them less boring at the cost of being even less convincing’ (1966: 254).


    This is the study of subjective experience and consciousness. It originated as a philosophical movement with Husserl in the early twentieth century and is an important philosophical root of humanistic and existential therapy. Intentionality is a term in phenomenology referring to consciousness of something, whatever consciousness is directed at. Phenomenology was developed by Heidegger and influenced existential philosophers such as Levinas and Merleau-Ponty.


    Rationalist theories focus on using reason to make ethical decisions, whereas empiricists focus on using the information from senses. Much of philosophical debate between rationalists and empiricists is on the primacy of reason or emotion. Rationalists believe that morals and ethics are the field of reason, its role being to curb emotion, passion or self-interest. Aristotle and Plato believe that reason is the route to work out the best route to the good life. For Plato, senses are not to be trusted, as they can give us only impressions of the ideal real forms or purpose of things. Moral principles should be discovered by reason, whose role it is to guide the will to control the appetite of passions. Kant, Descartes and Spinoza are also rationalist philosophers. Kant regards empiricism, information gained from the senses, or phenomena, as highly suspicious evidence to use in moral decisions, saying, ‘everything empirical is not only quite unsuitable, as a contribution to the principles of morality, but is even highly detrimental to the purity of morals’ (1785/1994: Book 1: 34).


    Relativists or postmodernists suggest there is no right or wrong, purely competing accounts that we all try and justify in relationships. Relativists suggest that all may make different decisions and no account or decision can be pronounced more ‘right’ or ‘true’ than any other. Others (Kierkegaard, Levinas, Derrida) take the lack of moral pronouncements further, suggesting that each ethical decision is a singular and new event in relation to another, and there is no status for any rules or principles to apply, but that each situation must be dealt with afresh and with responsibility. Caputo (2000) claims that situations involving ethical decisions are always unprecedented but that this does not lead to an ‘anything goes’ approach, but instead to more responsibility. Whereas following rules would be easier, instead: ‘I must respond, be responsible, in a deep and radical way’ (Caputo, 2000: 118).

    Poole (1972: 116) traces back the idea of relativism to Protagoras who Plato tried to refute in Ancient Greece. Protagoras's famous quote is that each of us is the measure of all things. Poole suggests that Protagoras was referring to how each of us has a different perspective on everything. However, he does not suggest that Protagoras is advocating that all opinions and judgements are equally valid. He promotes the idea of ‘deep subjectivity’, where the whole is not reduced to the parts and the aim in analysis is to consider as many perspectives as possible and be clear about the criteria that we use to judge possibilities.

    Any statements that are not true in all contexts at all times are relative. The relativist position can either be general ethical relativism or ethical subjectivism. In both, there are no universal ethical standards but, in ethical relativism, each society has its own and no one society can judge another as being better or worse. Montesquieu (1689–1755) first stressed the extent to which the values of an individual depend on the society to which the individual belongs. However, Montesquieu also proposes that there are eternal norms by which all societies can be judged. Ethical subjectivism goes further, saying that each individual has their own standards and we cannot judge each other.

    Social Intuitionism

    Social intuitionism is one model which explains how reason and intuition interact and that reasoning can affect how we perceive and intuit in future situations. Haidt (2001) argues from this perspective that we generally make moral decisions based on emotions and intuitions and then use reason as a post-hoc rationalisation or justification of our action or decision. He presents evidence to show that moral intuitions (being affect-based) come first, are more powerful, are made automatically and usually lead to our moral judgements. Moral judgement is socially functional rather than truth-seeking (Haidt, 2007). Furthermore, judgements are an interpersonal process, with evaluations based on cultural norms. He argues that reason has been overemphasised and that reasoning processes are motivated by non-rational reasons such as avoiding cognitive dissonance and preserving internal coherence in one's beliefs, or preserving relationships with people by agreeing with them. Reasoning is usually ‘employed only to seek confirmation of preordained conclusions’ (Haidt, 2001: 822).

    In contrast, moral intuitions are sudden appearances of moral judgements without awareness of a reasoning process. Haidt (2001, 2007) argues that reason can affect moral judgements, either in rare circumstances where people can override their intuition with logic, which may happen where intuition is weak and processing capacity is strong, or in private reflection where reason can activate new intuitions. New intuitions are most likely to be activated in conversation with others, however, as an intersubjective process.

    Thus the place of reasoning ability becomes much less important in moral behaviour. Emotional and self-regulatory factors are more powerful determinants of behaviour, and emotions such as empathy, shame, guilt and remorse provide motivation for moral action.

    Appendix B: Timeline – List of philosophers by date of birth


    Appendix C: Philosophers Listed Alphabetically
    Arendt (1906–1975)

    Hannah Arendt fled the Nazi regime in East Prussia in 1933 and ended up a citizen of the US. Much of her work (influenced by Husserl, Heidegger and Jaspers) concerns these experiences, examining totalitarianism and political systems. She argues for plurality and the dangers of mass society and suggests that thinking is a safeguard against evil. She argues that ‘thinking could also liberate the capacity for judging particulars’ (Bernasconi, 1998: 481). Rather than freedom being the will of a solitary individual, ‘Freedom belongs to the sphere of human plurality, where action is inspired by principles, rather than being guided by motives, and power is a relation that springs up between people acting in concert, rather than being something that belongs to each individual as such’ (Bernasconi, 1998: 482).

    Aristotle (384–322 BC) see Classical Greek Philosophy
    Buber (1878–1965)

    Unlike previous philosophy which was interested in the relation of humans to the external world of objects, Martin Buber contends that to be human is to be more than relating to objects: it is to relate to other beings. He contrasts I–It relations (treating another as an object) with I–Thou relations. Buber contends that the essence of being human is to be in relation with another human, recognised as such as a subject, or end in itself, rather than merely a means to an end or object for the first human. He discusses how each human being is formed in ‘natural association’ (Buber, 1923/1970: 76) with another in the mother's womb, and how from the point of birth, the infant human longs for relation, and is given time to exchange the natural association in the womb with ‘spiritual association’ (1923/1970: 77) in relationship. Buber emphasises in I–Thou relation: ‘You no longer felt the one, limited by the other; you felt both without bounds, both at once’ (1923/1970: 130).

    Following Kierkegaard, for Buber, love is a responsibility of I for Thou. Similarly following Kierkegaard, there is only freedom in I–Thou relations, and from these relations comes the meaning or purpose of life. Buber appeals to the concept of God, who he terms the eternal Thou. In his I–Thou or I–You relation, Buber finds God, or ‘infinity or eternity – here and now’ (Kaufman, 1970: 30). As such, Kaufman claims that Buber ‘succeeds in endowing the social sphere with a religious dimension’ (1970: 30).

    Classical Greek philosophy: Socrates, Plato and Aristotle (469–322 BC)

    The three most influential Ancient Greek philosophers are Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, who all focus on the question of how to live the good life.

    Socrates begins by encouraging people to question and think for themselves, to discover inner knowledge of the essence or purpose of things. Socrates thought that the good life must have reflection as part of its goodness: ‘the unexamined life, as he puts it, is not worth living’ (Williams, 1985: 21, italics in original). Plato believes that all wrong doing is caused by ignorance, that no one would deliberately do wrong.

    Aristotle stresses the importance of ethics to everyday life and who we are as people, suggesting that the purpose of enquiring into ethical matters is to become better people. Plato and Aristotle believe that reason is the route to work out the best route to the ‘good life’. For both these Greek philosophers, reason is the territory of the educated male, who therefore has the moral justification to control and rule those lower in the hierarchy. The ultimate goal for Aristotle is in this life, of good for its own sake. His goal is termed eudaimonia, which includes the idea of happiness and virtue, but is a description of the state of a whole life, not a changeable emotion. Eudaimonia is found by achieving a ‘reasonable and appropriate’ balance between extremes. He suggests that the good citizen has virtues which are good habits we acquire which regulate our emotions, and that most virtues fall at a mean between more extreme character traits and are hard to attain. For Aristotle, the virtuous person would intuitively see what was right and wrong, rather than follow rules, as rules are inadequate to capture the wide requirements of different situations.

    De Beauvoir (1908–1986)

    The Second Sex was first published in France in 1949 and translated and published in English in 1953. In it Simone de Beauvoir discusses how the history of thought is men's thought and how philosophers have portrayed women, such as Aristotle, who believed women are lacking and defective. De Beauvoir uses the concept of the ‘Other’ from Hegel and the particular situation in which women are set up as Other to the One of men, particularly in that women have never been in the minority. She discusses how women have not challenged their otherness and suggests that the social conditions set up for women make it particularly hard for women to organise themselves, being dispersed among men. ‘The bond that unites her to her oppressors is not comparable with any other’ (1949/1997: 19).

    Following Hegel's proposal of the human need for mutual recognition to become a Subject, she suggests that women need to reclaim their subjectivity. She explains, ‘along with the ethical urge of each individual to affirm his subjective existence, there is also the temptation to forgo liberty and become a thing. This is an auspicious road, for he who takes it – passive, lost, ruined – becomes henceforth the creature of another's will, frustrated in his transcendence and deprived of every value. But it is an easy road; on it one avoids the strain involved in undertaking an authentic existence’ (1949/1997: 21).

    De Beauvoir considers our inevitable dependence on others, claiming that ‘no existence can be validly fulfilled if it is limited to itself. It appeals to the existence of others’ (1948/1976: 67). She describes the ‘tragic ambivalence’ of the human condition, with life always facing death, and of ‘being a sovereign and unique object amidst a universe of objects … nothing more than an individual in the collectivity on which he depends’ (1948/1976: 7). She prescribes that ‘To attain his truth, man must not attempt to dispel the ambiguity of his being but, on the contrary, accept the task of realising it’ (1948/1976: 13). She points out how frightening this dependence is and notes how some people try and escape the ambiguity of this situation by trying to separate themselves from others. She argues that we are unable to escape our dependence on others or find a meaning in life not involving others, saying: ‘Man can find a justification of his own existence only in the existence of other men … I concern others and they concern me.’ Furthermore, ‘To will oneself free is also to will others free’ (1948/1976: 72, 73).

    In The Ethics of Ambiguity, De Beauvoir points to the idea that ethics are founded on the likelihood of getting it wrong, saying: ‘the most optimistic ethics have all begun by emphasising the element of failure involved in the condition of man; without failure, no ethics. … One does not offer an ethics to a God’ (1948/1976: 10).

    Derrida (1930–2004)

    Jacques Derrida suggested deconstruction as a way of ‘loosening the grip of the most prestigious and powerful elements of tradition. A deconstruction frees up the repressed senses, the silenced voices, the excluded and marginalised elements that succumb to the violence of tradition’ (Caputo, 1998: 231). For Derrida, there is an absence of essence, and all experiences are mediated by language. Deconstruction moves from dualisms of either/or to both/and. A deconstructive approach states that merely applying a rule is a matter for administration not ethics; thus ethics is pertaining to making decisions, ‘in a situation of radical indecision or of undecidability of the case in question in terms of any rules for judging it’ (Bennington, 1998: 556). Thus, a decision must be an invention and its justification. Deconstruction gives no grounds for making decisions and mandates a lack of self-righteousness about them.

    Descartes (1596–1650)

    René Descartes was a key figure in rationalism, equating rationality with the proof of our existence in his famous ‘cogito ergo sum’ (I think therefore I am). He was responsible for introducing the dualism of the mind and body, claiming that each worked following different laws. This set the scene for dualist thought (as opposed to the holism of Spinoza) which became a cornerstone of modernist thought.

    Dewey (1859–1952)

    John Dewey is a pragmatist. He suggests that one should choose the system of beliefs that generates the least contradictions and works practically. All knowledge is trial and error but we have no alternative but to trust our senses and reason provisionally. It is practice that matters and theory divorced from practice is useless. In his book Theory of Valuation, Dewey sees goodness as the outcome of ethic valuation, a continuous balancing of ‘ends in view’. An end in view is an objective potentially adopted, which may be refined or rejected based on its consistency with other objectives or as a means to objectives already held. His empirical approach does not accept intrinsic value as an inherent or enduring property of things. Dewey denies categorically that there is anything like intrinsic values and he holds the same position in regard to moral values – moral values are also based on a learning process, they are never ‘intrinsic’. Instead, deliberation indirectly guides action by shaping, changing and reinforcing habits. Dewey's (1922/1988) conception of habits suggests they are results of learning from experience and shaped by our cultures. They embody our previous choices, including our choice to strengthen or alter our habits. The key is to use them to automatically do what is useful but also to reflect on whether they remain the most useful way to do something. Dewey argues that morality is a habit. Thus the aim of moral education is to make us habitually sensitive to the needs and interests of others, and to evaluate our habits to check their appropriateness in changing circumstances.

    Gadamer (1900–2002)

    Hans-Georg Gadamer was influenced by Heidegger, Kant, Hegel and Husserl as well as Classical Greek philosophy. He is associated with hermeneutics, which is characterised by openness to diversity. He is concerned with reflective judgement (defined by Kant) or phronesis (practical wisdom: Aristotle) as opposed to truth. According to Kant, determinate judgements involve the application of rules to a particular situation, whereas in reflective judgement no universal law is adequate in a particular case. Fidelity to this idea is key in Gadamer's writing where no system or method is elaborated, only the ‘deep conviction that the law of interpretation is to be found in the details of each experience and in the belief that no matter how sedimented a tradition might become it is never resistant to unfolding itself and disclosing something new’ (Schmid, 1998: 433).

    In such unique situations, Gadamer advocates a phenomenological approach to understand the uniqueness of the situation. In these situations, the limits of conceptuality become visible. However, he contends that these situations of the finiteness of knowledge are universal, and reflective judgement is always necessary. He sees history and human affairs as a ‘conversation’, in which the struggle is for understanding between participants. Schmid summarises his contribution, saying: ‘Gadamer's philosophical hermeneutics struggles to open and widen the possibilities of thinking today beyond those determined by philosophical conceptualisation. It is a struggle to carry on the conversation of philosophy, and, at the same time, to move beyond itself into a future’ (1998: 441).

    Habermas (1929–)

    Jürgen Habermas (1993) presents a discourse theory of morality. He questions the foundational role Kant gives to individual reflection. He argues that consciousness and thought are structured by language; we are individuals through our socialisation in networks of reciprocal social relations. Thus the deliberating subject is in a social sphere of communication, and meanings are matters for communal agreement using rational autonomy. Moral judgements are not about factual truth but about communal agreement: ‘truth and normative rightness are essentially discursive matters’ (Habermas, 1993: xv). He argues that we cannot draw conclusions in private reflection, only in consensus achieved in argumentation under conditions sufficient for participation by all.

    He holds onto the hope of reason in communication and democracy, defending Enlightenment rationality. Judgements must be determined in an ideal speech situation with freedom from coercion and all participating, which is of course never fully realised. Following Rawls, the principles of deliberation include universality: all affected can accept the consequences, and the chosen option satisfies the interests of all better than other options. All must have an impartial concern with the ends willed in common so all participants must adopt the perspectives of all involved. He preserves the role of autonomy by rejecting sources of moral authority external to the will of rational agents, although he argues that autonomy is intersubjective.

    Hare (1919–2002)

    Richard Hare brings together the rationalism of Kant and the principles of act-utilitarianism to combine critical and intuitive levels of moral thinking. He suggests that intuition leads us to prima facie principles and that critical thinking helps us to decide which facts are relevant and to adjudicate between conflicting principles. He considers the prudent (carefully considered) preferences of affected people as relevant features which need to be understood by using intuition, considering prudent preferences as those preferences that would be made given knowledge of all relevant facts to maximise future happiness. For each moral decision, he suggests the preferences of each person involved need to be considered with each person being given equal weight but taking into account the intensity of each preference, so the decision maker would always make the same decision if the same situation hypothetically arose again but the decision maker was in the position of a different affected person. As with Rawls, the key principle here is for each person to be treated impartially. Intuition helps us decide what principles should be used to make this critical judgement, so an intuitive principle of partiality or altruism towards those closest to us may be justified. He also suggests that this method is impossible to use in a crisis situation requiring an immediate judgement. In this situation there will be no time for the critical thinking required and intuition will necessarily determine the response. Following Kant he suggests one fundamental principle, which is that moral principles should be universal, which implies equal respect and concern for all. He calls his approach ‘rational universal prescriptivism’: ‘Reason leaves us with our freedom, but constrains us to respect the freedom of others and to combine with them in exercising it’ (Hare, 1981: 228).

    Hegel (1770–1831)

    Georg Hegel suggests that the self needs an external object to differentiate from to recognise itself; thus people need each other for awareness and mutual recognition. Here, Hegel sows the seeds for a relational model of self-development, as he believes that the mind is necessarily social, and requires recognition from another for existence. He discusses how the master–slave dialectic leads to a lack of self-consciousness for both parties. De Beauvoir extends this idea to the subjugation of women and the necessity for women to reclaim their subjectivity. Hegel was also notable in recognising that the view of human nature and therefore ethical philosophy are dependent upon the historical conditions of the time.

    Heidegger (1889–1976)

    Martin Heidegger believes in nothing beyond humans’ ways of being. His most influential work is Being and Time published in 1927. He is concerned with the nature and temporality of being human, the knower as opposed to knowledge. He contends that how we know anything depends on its nature, and that the human being as knower draws together everything in the world that we know. The essence of the human being (or ‘dasein’ as he calls it) is its existence and its possibilities of various ways of being. For Heidegger, our choices cannot be right or wrong; they can only be assessed according to the criteria of authenticity and resoluteness (taking on personal responsibility for the choices and making a choice knowing that guilt at missed choices is an inevitable part of the human condition).

    Being for Heidegger is at the same time being-with-others or how we are with each other in the world. The concept of relationship and empathy rests on the idea of two separate subjects relating to each other, but Heidegger (1987/2001: 112) notes how we are always already with each other in our being in the world.

    Jaspers (1883–1969)

    Karl Jaspers’ approach is therapeutic, wanting to appeal to each human being to realise their genuine existential possibilities. Salamun (1998: 220) identifies the values behind Jaspers’ thinking which he aims to stimulate by his philosophising. These are: courage without self-deception, composure, patience, self-possession and dignity. He adds to these attitudes the importance of: responsibility for one's actions and their consequences; respecting others, or ‘existential solidarity’ (Jaspers, 1932/1970: 63) with others; helping others to realise their own potential without using for one's own purpose; and finally, intellectual integrity and open-mindedness to struggle against political oppression.

    Kant (1724–1804)

    For Immanuel Kant, being moral means conforming to duty. Kant seeks and justifies categorical principles to be the foundation of ethics. He begins with two principles: ‘Act only according to the maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law’ (1785/1994: Book 1: 30); second, ‘Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of another, always at the same time as an end and never simply as a means’ (1785/1994: Book 1: 36). He then argues that this second imperative implies the first and so is left with the second as the fundamental categorical imperative. Thus, the categorical moral imperative is to treat others with dignity and not as instruments to fulfil our own needs. Kant has a positive view of human nature, believing that as we experience a sense of duty, we are therefore moral beings. He states that we are inherently moral agents with a sense of right and wrong. But he also believes we have imperfect wills that are compelled by self-interest which we should overcome.

    Kierkegaard (1813–1855)

    For S⊘ren Kierkegaard, the purpose of human nature and the meaning of existence is to love: ‘to love human beings is still the only thing worth living for; without this love you really do not live’ (1847/2009: 344). Following Kantian ideas of duty, he saw eternal love as a duty, and the highest form of love, to be offered to all, not in a preferential way as is erotic love or friendship. His focus is on Christianity and living an altruistic life in community, with a constant focus on the subjective experience of selfhood. He introduces the concept of authenticity, espousing maturity to involve authentic selfhood – neither following the crowd nor being absorbed in the life of the senses. For either of these immature positions, the problem for Kierkegaard is choicelessness and lack of meaning or purpose in life.

    Levinas (1906–1995)

    Emmanuel Levinas moves the fundamental ethical principle from Heidegger's focus on autonomy (from Kant), to heteronomy, putting the other first. For him, to ask about one's own being and nature is the wrong question; we must begin with the other – heteronomy. Levinas critiques the notion of autonomy as being colonialisation of all outside oneself, the ‘reduction of the Other to the Same’ (Levinas in Peperzak, 1993: 47–8). For Levinas, heteronomy is a duty: ‘my duty to respond to the other suspends my natural right to self survival’ (1981/1995: 189). However, this does not mean a turn away from valuing individual freedom; in contrast, we find our freedom and authentic meaning from our ethical response to the Other. Levinas claims that ‘the being that imposes itself does not limit but promotes my freedom, by arousing my goodness’ (1969: 200). Furthermore, Peperzak explains, ‘To realise my responsibility for the Other, I myself must be free and independent; but the sense of my selfhood is my being-for-the-Other’ (in Peperzak, 1993: 25).

    The Other is not just another subject like myself or just a unique other, as we are all unique, but more than this, the Other is always beyond our ability to know. Levinas is very clear about the limits on our ability to understand the Other; he sees attempts to understand as totalising or colonialising – reducing the Other to our own perspective. In Totality and infinity (1969), Levinas explains that the infinite is the absolutely other which always overflows our capacity of thought: ‘The way in which the other presents himself, exceeding the idea of the other in me, we here name face.’ To face the other ‘is therefore, to receive from the Other beyond the capacity of the I, which means exactly: to have the idea of infinity. But this also means: to be taught’ (1969: 51). So in heteronomy we face the other without putting our conceptions on them and we expand and learn.

    Merleau-Ponty (1908–1961)

    Maurice Merleau-Ponty's emphasis is on the body and our position in the world whilst being intrinsically connected to it. Moreira explains: ‘Merleau-Ponty transcended the theoretical centering of phenomenology in consciousness and in the subject towards the mutual constitution between man/woman and the world’ (2012: 52). She argues that Merleau-Ponty liberates psychotherapy from its focus on the inner experience of the client to the intersubjective field mutually constituted by the therapist, the client and the world. Merleau-Ponty is explicit about the relational nature of dialogue. He refers to us all as ‘mundane’, inhabiting the world and being inhabited by it, always being subjects and objects at the same time. For Merleau-Ponty, phenomenology brings together subjectivity and objectivity. For him, ‘The world is not what I think, but what I live through. … The phenomenological world is not bringing to explicit expression of a pre-existing being, but the laying down of being. Philosophy is not the reflection of a pre-existing truth, but, like art, the act of bringing truth into being’ (1945: xviii). For Merleau-Ponty, the body is not separate from the mind, but the embodiment of our essence, the vehicle through which we perceive the world.

    Nietzsche (1844–1900)

    Friedrich Nietzsche follows Kierkegaard in his interest in human nature and consciousness, as opposed to right and wrong. From Nietzsche and through various following postmodern philosophers, the focus of ethical philosophy changed, from a discussion of how we know right from wrong, to the nature of being human. He had no time for religion, another staple ingredient in earlier philosophers’ accounts of morality, and proclaimed the death of God (Nietzsche, 1896). He meant by this that God no longer inspires creativity in modern culture. He argues for nihilism – right and wrong are meaningless concepts; as is truth. He sees the foundations of humanity as sexuality, self-expression and the will to power (or moral strength). He wants us to develop ourselves as unique people with distinct talents, to go ‘beyond ourselves’, and brings the concept of ‘Superman’ to represent this idea, who embraces all of life, bringing meaning and purpose to life through the positive affirmation of all of life as it is.

    Plato (428/427–348/347 BC) see Classical Greek Philosophy
    Rawls (1921–2002)

    John Rawls was a rationalist who used the method of impartial observer, requiring us to think through the consequences for each person involved and decide the best course of action for all impartially. He advocates the modification of principles in response to practical problems, and terms this adjustment between principles and intuitive responses ‘reflective equilibrium’.

    Ross (1877–1971)

    W.D. Ross followed the rationalist tradition of Kant but combined the idea of duty with that of considering consequences and intuitionism (Ross, 1930/2002). He conceives of prima facie duties which always count towards an action being right, tending to be a duty unless overridden by a stronger duty. He derives these duties from appealing to our reflective judgements about decisions and through intuitive induction. He prefers the term ‘responsibilities’ to duties and suggests actions are right in virtue of the responsibilities which bear upon the case. He lists the prima facie duties as: fidelity (keeping promises), reparation (making amends for wrongdoing), gratitude (to others for their help), justice (fair distribution of benefits and burdens), beneficence (doing good), self-improvement and non-maleficence (not doing harm).

    Sartre (1905–1980)

    Jean-Paul Sartre states we are always engaged in a world of values, saying ‘my acts cause values to spring up like partridges’ (1943/2003: 62). Behaviour acquires value through the culturally agreed social significances of acts. Sartre explains, ‘Values are sown on my path as thousands of little real demands, like the signs which order us to keep off the grass’ (1943/2003: 62). Much of the time, Sartre argues, we are not conscious of our freedom to choose our own values and ways of being, and when we are this brings anguish. We cannot appeal to anything to justify our values, they are purely an expression of our freedom to be unique individuals. In justifying ourselves and our own existence, we cannot get beyond our freedom to choose our own values. Sartre expresses our inability to escape this freedom, saying: ‘I have to realise the meaning of the world and of my essence; I make my decision concerning them – without justification and without excuse’ (1943/2003: 63).

    ‘Bad faith’ for Sartre is an attempt to fill the nothingness at the heart of our being with something other to flee from our anguish; an attempt to lie to oneself. He explains: ‘Man pursues being blindly by hiding from himself the free project which is this pursuit’ (Sartre, 1943/2003: 646). In contrast, ‘good faith’ is to acknowledge and accept our responsibility for choosing how we live our lives.

    Socrates (469–399 BC) see Classical Greek Philosophy
    Spinoza (1632–1677)

    Baruch Spinoza challenged the dualism of Descartes, which became foundational for western modern ways of thinking. Spinoza hypothesised only one substance, of which mind, body, people, nature and God are all one. By understanding more about ourselves in the universe, we become more active (as opposed to passive), more free and more infinite.


    Stoic philosophy began following Classical Greek philosophy in the Hellenistic period beginning from around 301 standard BC. The philosophy involved the transformation of emotions using reason to develop clear judgement and calm. For the Stoics, ‘reason’ meant not only using logic, but also understanding the processes of nature – the logos, or universal reason, inherent in all things. The aim was to maintain a will in accord with nature. The Stoics believed that each individual fits within a divine plan for the whole universe and that morals should consist in seeking to be in tune with the universe and to act with integrity to be part of the wider world soul.


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