ACA Blog

Ray McKinnis
Feb 14, 2011

The ACA Code of Ethics Mixes Metaphors

In my last blog, I described the 3 metaphors that are most often used in discussions of morals and ethics. Unfortunately these are usually used without any awareness of their being used. When I first read the ACA Code of Ethics, I was confused. Now I know why. It uses a mixture of these 3 metaphors seemingly without any awareness of their implications. I hope by sharing my ‘aha’ experiences with this code, you too can get a clearer understanding of what its various section imply.

Clearly much thought was put into this code and it presents a thorough depiction of a good (=ethical) counselor. However, it is often hard to follow because it mixes its metaphors in the introduction, the purpose, and in the wording of the individual items. By identifying the metaphor implicit at each point, I found everything got much clearer.

As I mentioned in my last blog, H. Richard Niebuhr coined the following terms to identify the 3 basic metaphors: ‘man-the-citizen’ (=man-the-lawmaker), ‘man-the-maker’, and ‘man-the-answerer’. These I will use as a short-hand to refer to each of these 3.

Much of the introduction and over 95% of the code of ethics uses the metaphor of ‘man-the-maker’. This seems appropriate to me. Remember the first question of this metaphor is: ‘What is the ideal?’ That is, a sculptor formulates an ideal image of the statue that he or she wants to make and then goes about creating it out of the stone using his skills and tools.

Most of the articles in the code describe what a counselor is. For example, ‘Counselors encourage client growth . . .’ Implied is, ‘The ideal ethical counselor looks like this or that’. The code of ethics describes the ideal. In fact the introductory purpose states ‘The introductions to each section discuss what counselors should aspire to . . .’ like an artist creating a picture. In fact each item details one aspect of the picture of an ideal counselor.

Two aspects of this metaphor are helpful make explicit:
1. By what authority is this ideal created? In a religion, this authority is often a god. However, in this case, the human authority is the ACA. In fact the ACA has formulated this code to define an ideal counselor so that all know what the ACA is all about.
This may seem obvious but I have read articles and heard seminars that use the word ethical without any authority other than their own judgments. A seminar called ‘The Ethics of Client Assessment’ should refer to some authority other than just best practices or the opinion of the presenter.
2. How is a ‘good’ or ‘poor’ counselor defined using this metaphor? For a sculptor a good or poor product would be determined by how closely the finished statue matched the ideal. That is, there is really no clear distinction between a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ product—only a product that matches the ideal more or less. As you read each individual item of the code, the assumption is that you ask ‘How close am I to this ideal?’ I can always get closer and closer to the ideal but no one is perfect. The theory behind continually earning CEUs comes from this metaphor encouraging counselors to make themselves closer to the ideal.

This aspect of the metaphor is what makes licensing counselors so difficult. How close to the ideal must a person be to be a licensed as a counselor? How much work does a sculptor have to do to call a block of marble a statue? There is no clear line--it is always a continuum. [Perhaps you’ve heard the old quip: ‘What is the person called who graduates last in his medical class?’ ‘Doctor.’]

Although most of the code is couched in the ‘man-the-maker’ metaphor, occasionally an item is thrown in which uses the metaphor, ‘man-the-lawmaker’:
A.5.a. Current Clients
Sexual or romantic counselor-client interactions . . . are prohibited.
This is no longer defining an ideal counselor that I can more or less approximate! This is a command. It is governed by the ‘man-the-lawmaker’ metaphor. No longer is the basic question, What is the ideal counselor? Rather the first question is, What is the law? Item A.5.a is a law. You either obey it or you break it.

The 2 governing aspects of this metaphor are:
1. By what authority is this law promulgated? Here again it is the ACA.
In religion, this is usually the metaphor that people think of when they think of a person being moral. Most religions have core commandments which define the membership of that religion—those who obey these rules are members of this faith community; those who disobey are not. They are excommunicated.
2. Under a law, a counselor either obeys the law or does not. If they obey the law, they are good; if they do not, they are bad.
A.5.a is one of those core rules established by the ACA according to which a person either obeys it showing themselves to be a member of the counseling community or they disobey it and are ‘excommunicated’—that is, not allowed to practice their counseling.

When this metaphor is used, the whole judgment process must be put in place: who can bring charges, who has the authority to judge an individual transgression, and what is a fair punishment—all of these aspects of this metaphor must be put into place. Most of Section H makes sense only in the context of the metaphor of ‘man-the-lawmaker’.
H.1.b is especially interesting which essentially says that if trying to be an ideal counselor (man-the-maker) as described by the code of ethics conflicts with laws or rules, (man-the-lawmaker) the laws and rules prevail. This seems correct to me because only in the latter context do conflicts and judgments even make sense.

What about the third metaphor, ‘man-the-answerer’? Is it found in the ACA Code of Ethics? Section H slips into language reminiscent of ‘man-the-answerer’. It addresses the situation in which one counselor knows something about the conduct of another counselor which may be in violation of the code of ethics. H.2.a says ‘they take appropriate action.’ That is language from ‘man-the-answerer’! The rest of section H describes different situations which require the judgment of acting ‘appropriately’. That is, these are situations in which a counselor might be required to take action. And clearly the basic question with this metaphor is ‘What’s happening?’ Several of these articles in H deal with addressing this question—to make clear what the actual situation is which requires responding to.

The second question of this metaphor is ‘What are some possible responses to what I understand to be happening?’ And finally, in order to response appropriately, I must consider what will be the possible consequences of various actions I might take. Here jeopardizing confidentiality is specifically mentioned.

Much confusing discussion arises from the fact that different metaphors are used. Only ‘man-the-lawmaker’ metaphor provides a clear yes or no violation but this is rarely used in the ACA Code of Ethics. The rest is primarily using ‘man-the-maker’. And given the purpose of the Code, I believe that is appropriate. But this metaphor makes it very difficult, if not impossible, to answer the question, ‘Am I in compliance of this Code?’ Furthermore, when a counselor is called on to be proactive in responding to a particular situation which conflicts with the ideal image of a counselor, ‘man-the-answerer’ seem to be the most helpful metaphor.

In a future revision of this code, I would suggest the authors be aware of the metaphors they are implying as they articulate various items and that they somehow make each metaphor clear along with the implications of each metaphor for following an item of the code.

Ray McKinnis is a counselor with a special interest in 'spirituality beyond religion' and veterans 'beyond PTSD' with a website at

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