A Brief Compare and Contrast Analysis of the ACA and APA Codes of Ethics

The American Psychological Association’s (APA) focus on the medical model and the American Counseling Association’s (ACA) focus on social pragmatics are revealed in each of the organization’s ethical codes.  Both ethical codes contain a preamble, a general description of  the organization’s ethical principles, and ethical standards.  Yet, undoubtedly there are subtle and blatant differences between these two documents.  What follows in this paper is a comparison and contrast between the APA and ACA codes of ethics with a guided focus on answering the following question: How do these ethical codes address the significance of the client-counselor relationship?

Critical Analysis 

“The APA Code of Ethics” (2010) is a document with a five part ethical principles section, lettered A – E, and are as follows: “Beneficence and nonmaleficence, fidelity and responsibility, integrity, justice, and respect for people’s rights and dignity” (p. 2).  Notably in the APA these ethical principles are declared as unenforceable rules, but rather they are to serve as a guide “to guide psychologists toward the highest ideals of psychology” (p. 3).  In contrast, the “ACA Code of Ethics” (2014) lists six ethical principles which are as follows: “autonomy, nonmaleficence, beneficence, justice, fidelity, and veracity” (p. 3).  However, these ethical principles are provided after a list of five values creating a “conceptual basis” for the ethical principles (p.3).  The ACA code (2014) derives its ethical standards on its values and principles, stating: “These principles are the foundation for ethical behavior and decision making” (p. 3).  While it may be a subtle distinction, it remains noteworthy that the APA utilizes the word “guide” while the ACA code uses the word “foundation” to describe the function of the ethical principles in relation to ethical decision making; as a way to approach the ethical standards themselves.

The reason the word “foundation” is of significance, especially in contrast to the word “guide” is the overall importance being established for the ethical standards themselves.  The implication being, that the word “foundation” offers a concrete recognition that they values and ethical principles within the “ACA Code of Ethics” permeate the standards in such a way that their existence can in no way be separated from their intended social pragmatism.  It is not that the ends justify the means, rather it is the means that inform the ends.  The emphases on a foundational system of values and principles in the “ACA Code of Ethics” communicates an overarching theme of protecting the client and making sure the counselor is clear on how, as well as why, he or she should do so.

Thematic Differences 

The emphases on the client in the “ACA Code of Ethics” is substantially greater than the “APA Code of Ethics.”  For example, in the ACA ethical code the words client or clients is used 293 times, as opposed to the 67 times the same words are used in the “APA Code of Ethics”.  The ethical standards of the “APA Code of Ethics” are truncated by a lack of particular values (as opposed to ethical principles) that center around the client.  For example, when a search is conducted for the word “counseling” in the “APA Code of Ethics” the word is used 4 times, as opposed to the 157 times the “ACA Code of Ethics” refers to it.

The terminology differences are significant because they highlight two particular paths that in some regards parallel each-other, yet have differing ultimate purposes.  The APA is focused primarily on Psychology (it’s study and implications), whereas the ACA is focused on counseling (the client-counselor relationship) with an added emphases on the client’s rights.  To be more specific the APA is based on a medical model, whereas the ACA is based on a wellness model. This is important for recognizing the way each of the codes approach the client-counselor relationship.  The “ACA Code of Ethics” (2010) deals with “the counseling relationship” in the first section of its code, which introduces the subject as priority, upfront (p. 4).  The “APA Code of Ethics” places “ethical standards” as the first section of its code (p. 5).  The obvious conceptual difference is the ACA code has a cohesive platform directing the counselor in its formatting of the codes towards a client-centered approach.

Contrasting Views on “Values”   

A blatant difference between the codes of the APA and the ACA regards the role of values in the counseling or therapy relationship.  Section A.4.b. of the “ACA Code of Ethics” (2010) states the following:

Counselors are aware of—and avoid imposing—their own values, attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors. Counselors respect the diversity of clients, trainees, and research participants and seek training in areas in which they are at risk of imposing their values onto clients, especially when the counselor’s values are inconsistent with the client’s goals or are discriminatory in nature. (p. 5)

Additionally, in section A.11.b in the “ACA Code of Ethics” (2010) counselors are directed to only give give a referral if their lack of knowledge in a particular subject warrants the client to see someone with more expertise on the subject.  The same section also deals with values in the following: “Counselors refrain from referring prospective and current clients based solely on the counselor’s personally held values, attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors” (p. 6).   The “APA Code of Ethics” is silent on the issue of “imposing values” and simply does not address the issue of making a referral based on values that are inconsistent with the client’s values.  The restrictive nature of imposing values in the counseling relationship as in the “APA Code of Ethics” once again reiterates and solidifies its position on safeguarding the client from harm, neglect, and discrimination.

In the “APA Code of Ethics” referrals, (Section 1.04, b) are appropriate when there is a lack of expertise.  Both the ACA and the APA codes have non-discrimination clauses, however the “ACA Code of Ethics” presents the concept that if one were to do a referral simply because of a difference in values with the client, the act of the referral itself is discriminatory.


In conclusion, both the APA and the ACA have thorough codes of ethics, however they differ with respect to the kind of emphasis given on values and the degree to which the centricity of the client’s welfare should receive.   They are similar with regards to protecting the process of therapy / counseling, however the strategic formatting differences in the codes themselves reveal a visionary difference.  It may be observed that the ACA code reveals a relational approach to ethical values, principals, and standards whereas the APA code particularizes its focus on the role, function, and purposes of the psychologist.


American Counseling Association. (2014). ACA code of ethics. Retrieved from https://www.counseling.org/resources/aca-code-of-ethics.pdf

American Psychological Association (2010). APA Code of Ethics. Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/ethics/code/principles.pdf