Thursday, July 14, 2011

The ethical problems of non-directive counselling

Update: for the latest episode in the story, see here.

There has been a flurry of interest in this topic on the Catholic blogs, since LIFE, the pro-life charity, has got accreditation for its counsellors as conforming to the 'non-directive' style favoured by the secular counselling industry. The hope of the organisation that using non-directive counselling (NDC) will win the organisation acceptance by, and influence in, government, and even funding, is not entirely without foundation. But non-directive counselling is very controversial in Catholic ethics, and I have seen no serious defence of LIFE's stance.

What are the problems?

Practical. 1. It is claimed that non-directive counselling works. The claim is very hard to substantiate since the counsellor normally does not know what the ultimate outcomes are. We can't hold this against the method, but the claim that its effectivness is a knock-down argument in favour of it won't wash either.

2. The suggestion that the alternative to LIFE's NDC is to say to clients what you want them to conclude at the end of the counselling, at the beginning. This is the reverse of the truth. People going to LIFE counsellors know that they are going to a pro-life group - the name rather gives it away. They then get no guidance at all from the counsellor. The alternative is to use a more neutral name, start the counselling very softly-softly, and then introduce some important facts into the discussion: notably what abortion is, what the alternatives are. This is the approach taken by other pro-life groups, and they are just as adamant as LIFE that this approach works.

Psychological. NDC is a horse from the 'values clarification' stable established by Carl Rogers and others. Rogers found that he could get 1950s university students to pull themselves together simply by repeating back to them their own statements. This obviously worked because the students for the most part had very clear, and fairly old-fashioned, values from their upbringing. It has a very different effect on people today who come from a pretty values-free background in the first place. Indeed, it is favoured today as part of a package with the idea that all decisions are equally valid, there are no objective moral principles, and so on, and it is really hard to see why anyone who is not a moral subjectivist would give NDC a second glance.

Funding. James Preece raises the question of why Catholics are being asked to fund LIFE's counselling. This is a good question because NDC counsellors are not supposed to allow their own values to influence their counselling. It follows that pro-life NDC counsellors will be no different, and no better from the point of view of outcomes, than pro-abortion NDC counsellors. Why, then, does LIFE think it is important to expand its band of counsellors? Why not let non-aligned or even pro-abortion groups pay for it? Just let people ring the Samaritans.

Or is LIFE and its supporters hinting that their counsellors are more likely to get pro-life outcomes than others? If that is true, their accreditation for NDC should be taken away.

Moral. It is a principle of moral and civil law that silence implies consent. Silence is one of the 'Nine ways of being an accessory to another's sin' in many examinations of conscience. To speak more formally, it is evidently a way of cooperating materially in evil. Material cooperation can be justified in some cases, but this cooperation is close, not remote, and the evil is extremely grave. The justification would have to take the form of an overwhelming good that would be attained, or evil avoided, by the silence, in relation to the chance of non-silence doing any good.

So this would be justified: stifling one's protest about the brutality of the concentration-camp guard would clearly save many people from serious suffering; voicing it would anyway do no good; and no-one is going to imagine that you approve of the brutality anyway (there is no chance of scandal). At first glance, LIFE's supporters have a mountain to climb to show that LIFE counsellors are in that kind of situation.

So can we have an argument, please?