Case Study on Models of Making Ethical Decisions

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Many ethical decision-making models guide psychologists when faced with conflicting moral problems. In the case study discussed below, a counseling psychologist is faced with a great challenge of releasing a psychological assessment report to his/her client’s husband who is believed to be waging a vendetta against her. The counselor therefore sets out to analyze the three ethical theories of decision-making. The first theory is utilitarianism; the second is Ethical Contextualism as expounded by James Wallace; and last theory is Kantian Formalism.

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The case study that has been provided by Ford (2006, p. 170) confronts a professional mental psychologist with a difficult decision to make. In this case, a woman gets into a marital conflict with the husband after discovering that he is philandering. The husband files for a divorce and being a victim of Avoidant Personality Disorder, the woman lapses into a major depression. The husband considers this as a nervous breakdown and cajoles her into accepting hospitalization. The psychologist counseling patients assesses her situation and the results turn out to be positive. The woman’s main concern is to have the custody of their sons after divorce. Having known the cause of her psychiatric deterioration, the counselor is hesitant to release the psychological assessment report to her husband given that his extramarital affairs are not included in the report and besides, the content of the assessment will definitely deny the woman the custody of their sons (Ford, 2006, p. 170). This paper proposes what the counseling psychologist should do based on the three theories of ethical decision-making: Utilitarianism, Wallace’s Ethical Contextualism, and Kantian Formalism.

The Utilitarian Decision-making Theory

According to the utilitarian theory, what is often given much weight is the consequence(s) of the action. Actually, it is a subset of the ethical concept/theory of consequentialism; the other being pragmatism. In this (utilitarian) theory, an action is considered morally right or wrong depending on the injury or damage it causes to the receiver. In other words, the utility of an action to the receiver makes the action itself together with the doer ethical or unethical. When the consequence of an action or decision to act in a given when is negative or causes harm to the other, then that decision or action is unethical, and vice versa (Drowatzky, 1996).

In the above case study, the counseling psychologist is in dilemma: whether to release the assessment to the husband or not, even though his/her client has permitted him/her. Giving out this assessment will provide the husband with a solid ground to argue for the divorce and the custody for the sons, at the same time. The woman will be a loser though she is not the cause of the conflict that has threatened to consume her. The exclusion of the husband’s marital infidelity from the assessment is the greatest undoing on the part of the counselor.

According to the utilitarian ethical theory, though, either the end justifies or un-justifies the means. Having established the veracity of his/her client’s claim of the husband’s infidelity and with the knowledge of the divorce suit, he should not release the assessment to the husband. If he does, the divorce case will be a success and the custody of the sons will go to him. This will push the woman further into psychiatric deterioration owing to her Avoidant Personality Disorder condition (Ford, 2006). Alternatively, he/she may reassess the client, ask her the cause of her depression, include it in the report, and give it to the husband. In fact, this is the most viable option for the counselor to satisfy the two, utilitarianically speaking.

Wallace’s Ethical Contextualism Theory

The ethical contextualism theory as expounded by James Wallace is founded on moral reasoning where the context is necessary for a moral judgment. This theory holistically looks at people who are involved in an action whose moral status is to be determined. It detours from the rigid perspectives of single-sided ethical theories that endeavor to achieve their objectives eve if it is unreasonable to do so. Therefore, this theory does not lead to any absolute solution to an ethical problem. It takes into account the complex nature of the human person whose life is dotted with a plethora of moral problems. It is in light of this moral intricacy that Wallace proposed an ethical concept, which is rather relativistic in its approach to ethical decision-making (Wallace, 1988).

The root-cause of this moral relativism, according to Wallace is cultural dynamics that informs and shapes people’s psyche in response to moral problems. Moreover, given the unstatic nature of these cultural practices, people’s reasoning on a given moral question must be within the context of the situation. Thus, Wallace posits that the reasoning for or against a given ethical problem is derived from the people’s conventional wisdom on a similar scenario (Wallace, 1988).

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To the above case, the counseling psychologist must ensure that his next move with the patient’s psychological assessment is in harmony with the collective wisdom of the society. For instance, in most societies, extramarital affairs are not tolerated and they often lead to divorce. The writer assumes that the same is with the case study and therefore, the husband should be punished. In fact, he has two cases to answer in the people’s moral court of justice: first, he strays from their matrimonial bed, and second, urging the unsuspecting wife to be hospitalized for nervous breakdown so that he can get a solid ground for divorce and children’s custody using the counseling psychologist’s assessment.

Having read the husband’s malicious actions and knowing quite too well the obsequiousness of women in that society even when they are blameless, the counselor should not release the assessment to his/her client’s husband. He (the husband) is the cause of his wife’s psychiatric predicament, something he has done deliberately to get a mileage on the divorce suit he has filed. Stringing one revelation to the next and relating them to the psychological limbo of the woman, clearly shows the morally abhorrent behavior of the husband in this context. To scuttle his malevolent plans, at least in part, the counselor should withhold the assessment and disregard the permission granted by the client to give it out, for doing so will incriminate the woman and further hurl her into the depths of psychological cataclysm.

Kantian Formalism Theory

Kant’s formalist ethical theory is based on the principle that morality is a function of reason. That is to say, moral precepts (maxims) of behavior are distinct from other practical rules owing to their universality and necessity. He argued that since it is only priori judgments can be universal and necessary, it therefore follows that moral judgments must be priori. Thus, it is obvious that the moral precepts can never be derived from practical behavior. They are products of man’s thinking residing in the intellect and made manifest in the will. Therefore, according to this theory, an action that is done out of its own goodness, is a moral act; and on the other hand, an action which is good but the motive is not, is immoral (Soccio, 2009).

The Kantian concept of categorical imperative, which is an offshoot of his critique of practical reason (above), requires one to treat the other as an end, and not as a means to an end. For this reason, it calls on all men to act in accordance with the moral precepts to make their actions universal and necessary. Kantian formalist theory becomes ‘formal’ in the sense that he considers it as a man’s duty to act morally. That is, always prioritize reason when discharging his duties for in so doing he performs a moral act (Kant and Paton, 2005).

In apply this theory to the case study, the counseling psychologist must optimize his intellect and will when making a decision to release or not to release the assessment. The role of the psychologist is to assess the psychological status of the client, provide counseling and then prepare a report of the assessment. According to the assessment given in the above case, the woman tested positive for Major Depression and Avoidant Personality Disorder. The cause of her psychiatric deterioration was the discovery that her husband was having extramarital affairs, the most devastating discovery being that of a divorce case filed by him.

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The psychologist will use his/her intellect to connect the events that are unfolding around the case to determine the malevolent inclination of his/her client’s husband. It is his/her duty to act morally as informed by intellect and executed by will. This means, she/he will ensure that the client is not treated by the husband as a means to an end (divorce and subsequent denial of custody of the children). Since releasing the psychological assessment report will facilitate his immoral actions, by withholding the crucial report, the counselor will be acting out of necessity and universal conviction. Moreover, the Golden Rule will guide him / her: ‘do unto others as you would want done to you’.


Although the case is complicated given its conflicting aspects, it is imperative that the counseling psychologist demonstrates a good mastery of the three models of ethical decision-making. Apparently, the applications of all the three ethical decision-making theories argue against releasing the woman’s psychological assessment report to the husband, who may use it against her for the divorce suit and their sons’ custody. The utilitarian theory has considered the harm that this release will cause to the woman. The contextualist theory has found the reasons for its release to be incongruous with the collective wisdom of the society. Finally, the Kantian formalism theory has given more reason to its denial owing to the counselor’s duty to act morally.


Drowatzky, J.N. (1996). Ethical decision making in physical activity research. New York, NY: Human Kinetics.

Ford, G. (2006). Ethical reasoning for mental health professionals. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Kant, I. and Paton, H.J. (2005). The moral law: groundwork of the metaphysic of morals. New York, NY: Routledge.

Soccio, J.D. (2009). Archetypes of Wisdom: An Introduction to Philosophy. Chicago, IL: Cengage Learning.

Wallace, J.D. (1988). Moral Relevance and Moral Conflict. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.

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