Is it time for an ethics app?

An ethics app could provide immediate guidance for therapists, but risks trivialising an important area

Peter Jenkins

Whether we like it or not, therapy has clearly arrived at the age of the app. From helping clients (and ourselves) to check out mood, to monitoring symptoms of anxiety, or our levels of physical activity, we all now inhabit a digital therapeutic landscape. Rather than resist this tidal wave of technology, maybe we can try to turn it to our practical advantage, as counsellors and psychotherapists?

Given the increasing prominence of the Ethical Framework (BACP 2016) perhaps we now need to look at the potential of developing an app for ethics, for easy download? Our starting point might be linked to our widespread use of metaphor within therapy, particularly those enduring ones of seeking a line of travel, making a journey, or working towards a chosen destination. These kinds of metaphor seem to be hard-wired into therapy discourse. They range from M. Scott Peck’s The Road Less Travelled (1990) to the notion of accompanying the client along their travel, even if for only part of the way. As therapists, we might emphasise the process of the client taking small steps to their preferred goal, or repeat the mantra that it is the process of making the journey and not necessarily arrival at the final destination, which is important within therapy.

Or an ethics satnav?

So maybe we need to think somewhat more forcefully outside the box. Maybe we need to consider developing a satnav for ethics, which would provide the kind of guidance facing us in everyday practice. So, where are we starting from? What are our own ethical resources, in terms of prior experience, personal values and ethical orientation? If you like, these would represent the unseen programming that goes into the workings of the satnav. What are our preferred routes of travel – the high road, the back roads, or the unexpected scenic route past the the slough of despond? What kinds of difficulties can we anticipate en route? Where do we need (or hope) to get to? How will it be when we arrive? What is arrival, anyway?

This train of thought was triggered by a brief note in The Guardian (hard copy, mind, not social media) that learner drivers are soon to be tested on their ability to set and use a satnav (15 April 2017). A clear sign, indeed, that everyday, essential tasks are no longer divorced from the use of smart technology. Certainly, satnavs have been around long enough to have developed their own distinctive narrative, whether being seen as empowering women, or reducing risk of altercation with unfriendly passers-by when seeking directions, or avoiding known risks and hazards on long and taxing motorway journeys.

Design challenges:

Rather than try to unpick the actual programming of an ethical satnav, which we can safely leave to the experts, the whole prospect does raise some intriguing questions. If there was such a thing, what would it look like, sound like, and how would it work in practise? What voice would we choose for it – female, to reflect the current gender balance of our profession? Crisp and authoritative, or warm and empathic? Would it perhaps need to take account of age and gender in entering in our own personal data, given that many more professional complaints are seemingly brought against older, male practitioners? (Khele et al 2008). The latter, therefore, might well need a proportionate loading of their indemnity insurance cover, in order to avoid affecting their no claims bonus.

Of course, some might take issue with the whole idea, as potentially trivialising an important and challenging area for therapists. However, we clearly do need to move with the times, just as we have had to adapt to fresh challenges facing us in therapy. These can range from adapting to electronic record-keeping systems, to learning how to navigate (yet another travel metaphor?) the complexities of the private and the public spheres of our various social media lives.

Potential criticisms?

Another criticism might be that focusing on satnav development actually privileges car users, at a time when we should be downsizing, or at least minimising, the use of fossil fuel transport for cars. Not all counsellors drive, or even possess, cars, whether petrol, diesel or electric, so why should we privilege outdated and socially questionable forms of transport? However, every smartphone now comes with GPS and a maps app, so the ethics satnav could be just as useful to those intent on using other forms of non-car transport, whether by walking, wheelchair, bicycle, or whatever else comes to mind.

But what would be the real point of such a device as an ethics satnav? Like any app, the purpose would be to present relevant data in an immediate, accessible and engaging format. It would help you identify your own key personal values, your main personal qualities and the standard biomedical ethical principles, but in an immediately accessible format. It might conceivably factor in your own attitude towards rule-following and risk-taking approaches towards ethical decision-making. The direction of your ethical travel would clearly depend on your own personalised combination of all of these key variables. Problematic issues addressed within ethical discourse would include the standard fare, ranging from professional competence, dual relationships, informed consent, through to more specialised areas, such as supervision, training and research. The emphasis would be on assisting and informing user choice, rather than offering prescriptive formulae, to underpin and illuminate discussion with colleagues, whether in peer supervision, training contexts, or personal reflection.

Convincing the doubters?

And yet, is this not just another example of unnecessary technology, carefully designed to meet an imagined, but still basically irrelevant, need, like a dedicated juicer, or a personalised digital fitness watch? After all, who needs an ethics app, when you can always refer to the original hard copy? Who needs a satnav, when you you can just buy (or even download) a proper map? What about the problems we have all experienced in trying to use a satnav? For may of us, our performance as a driver frequently seems at odds with the grimly determined and increasingly strident instructional tones of the satnav voice, hectoring us to ‘Turn left NOW!’, or the tersely glum and rather resigned message ‘Recalculating…’ What if we fail to upgrade in time, and experience the ethical equivalent of driving through an eerily spectral city centre, with all major routes tantalisingly out of sight and out of reach? And after the recent worrying experience of the NHS, what would we do if our satnav was viciously hacked by a really nasty piece of utilitarian malware, an insidious deontological virus, or, even worse, an existential Trojan? Maybe, on balance, we should just stick to hard copy, and forget the lure of yet another app, however glossy and attractive it might appear at first glance…

Facebook, anyone?

Peter Jenkins is the author of Professional Practice in Counselling and Psychotherapy: Ethics and the Law (Sage, 2017) and a presenter of the webinar Making Sense of the BACP Ethical Framework


British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (2016) Ethical Framework for Good Practice in the Counselling Professions. Lutterworth: BACP.
Khele, S., Symons, C. and Wheeler, S. (2008) “An analysis of complaints to the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, 1996-2006 “, Counselling and Psychotherapy Research, 8(2), pp, 124-132.
Scott Peck, M. (1990) The Road Less Travelled. London: Arrow New Age.
‘Driving test to be updated to include satnav training’,