The Ethics of Teaching Ethics


A few years ago, I was asked to teach an ethics course to satisfy Washington State requirements for MFT license renewal. The state requires six hours of ethics for each renewal period. While I had always prided myself on practicing ethically, I had never even contemplated that I knew enough to teach ethics. Somehow, I was persuaded to embark on this endeavor. Then, the real terror set in. What did I really know about ethics?

What was the best way to teach something so abstract as ethics when every situation is different? How could I come up with enough interesting things to talk about that would last six hours? Would people sign up? Would they fall asleep? Self-doubt began to seep in. Why had I been crazy enough to think I knew enough to do this?

Having committed to a date, time and place, there was no backing out. So, I began to research how to lead an ethics presentation that would be worthwhile. I asked myself what I would want if I were taking an ethics refresher class. The answer was quite clear. I would want it to be case based and relevant to the practice of marriage and family therapy. I would want it to be interactive, so I could learn from others, as well as the instructor. I would want it to relate back to AAMFT’s Code of Ethics (2015). So, okay, having identified the parameters that I thought would be important, where would I find the help that I needed to satisfy the requirements that I would want if I were taking this class? The answer began with a trip to AAMFT’s website. I was fortunate enough to discover some case material (not actual cases) on the website and these were exactly what I needed. They were interesting dilemmas with relevancy and related back to the Code of Ethics. 

Now I had to arrive at a format for using these cases. Being an interactive learner, I wanted to deliver these in such a way that everyone could be involved in sorting through the ethical issues raised, as well as sharing their thinking about how they processed the cases. Small groups came to mind as the way to involve all. But, keeping everyone in small groups for six hours did not seem like a good idea. I needed to come up with a way to move participants in and out of the small groups and back to the larger group to share their work.

In teaching ethics, it is important for learners to struggle to arrive at their decisions using the tools that are available to them, such as the AAMFT Code of Ethics.

Thinking back to successful workshops I had experienced, I arrived at a format I thought would work. We needed a framework upon which to base all the cases. The AAMFT Code of Ethics would be it! So I decided to present the Code as a starting point, highlighting the areas that most often precipitated complaints. 

I had this information from having served as chair of the Department of Health Advisory Committee in Washington State where we advised the Department of Health on MFT issues embedded in cases sent to them. Next, I decided to present one of the cases via the complaint letter sent to AAMFT. Breaking into small groups, I asked everyone to evaluate the complaint and see where the Code might be relevant and what, if any, charges they would issue. Returning to the larger group, I asked for responses to the assigned task. Then, I sent them back to their respective groups armed with the made-up response from the Ethics Committee, denoting their charges and the response from the member who had been charged. Now, the small groups had to struggle with the two differing sides to this complaint. I asked them to discuss what they would do if they had to make a decision on the complaint. We then returned to the larger group to hear their responses and thinking. Much to my delight, there was great interaction and a very lively discussion with support both for and against the therapist involved in the case. There was a sense of how complicated ethical issues are and how hard it is to sort through them. All the while, the learners were reminded to use the Code, and as a result, they became more familiar with it. 

As we worked through a second, completely different case in the afternoon, I heard comments that this was the most useful ethics training they had experienced. I have since repeated this format a few times with some tweaks and variations, but with the same results—participants felt they received very interesting and useful training.

So, what are the ethics of teaching ethics? It seems there is an isomorph to therapy that might answer this question. As systemic therapists, it is important to see the whole system, not just a part of it. Presenting ethical dilemmas requires us to see them in a whole, systemic way. As in therapy, we want clients to arrive at their own solutions, and in teaching ethics, it is important for learners to struggle to arrive at their decisions using the tools that are available to them, such as the AAMFT Code of Ethics. Therapy requires interaction and involvement of the participants, and so does a good ethics workshop. Last, but certainly not least, there needs to be growth in therapy for both the clients and the therapist, and the same holds true in teaching ethics. There needs to be learning and growth for both the learners and the instructor. 

In keeping with that last point, I welcome feedback on this so I can keep learning and improving my teaching of this important and vital subject.

Carl Greenberg

Carl F. Greenberg, MS, is an AAMFT Clinical Fellow and Approved Supervisor in Spokane, WA. He is a member of AAMFT’s Ethics Committee and a past board member.


AAMFT. (2015). Code of ethics. Retrieved from

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