Introduction to Outdoor
Education & Ethics
This webpage offers a brief guide for those interested in exploring the
topic of "ethics and outdoor education".
Ethics, in simple terms,
is the study of morality. Morality refers to the
"rightness" or "goodness" of matters. From one point of view,
whether something is right, good, or valued, is a subjective judgment to
be made based on particular situations (or ethical subjectivism,
Hunt, 1990). From another point of view,
there are some absolutes, for example the view that "killing another human
being is bad" is always true (or ethical objectivism,
Hunt, 1990). Many particular viewpoints derive from
these two differing, underlying types of philosophy.
some people, the rightness or goodness of an action or decision is based
on the consequences of the action or decision (consequentialist theory,
Hunt, 1990). For others, the rightness or
goodness is to be judged on the nature of the action or decision,
independent of the consequences (nonconsequentialist theory,
education, once the can of worms is opened, reveals itself as having a minefield of potential and ethical
issues and dilemmas as any other field. Perhaps the most commonly
discussed ethical issues involve weighing up the relative human and ecological
benefits (e.g., see Bureau of Land Management, 2002)
of outdoor education activity. For example, how we can justify all
the expensive gear, travel resources, impact on environment, and so on,
for the human pleasure of a high-end adventure trip? The trash
strewn up and down Mt. Everest,
can it be morally justified? Can we morally take students into
environmentally sensitive areas for their benefit only for them to cause
significant damage to that environment?
Other common ethical topics include the ethics of
leisure-class lifestyles, ethics of the use of risk and deception for educational,
developmental, or therapeutic purposes, ethics of choice or compulsion
with regard to participation in challenges, and the ethics of diversity
What are Some Examples of Ethical Issues in Outdoor
In a book dedicated to
the topic of experiential education and ethics, Hunt
(1990) provided an introduction to the use of philosophy for resolving
ethical dilemmas in experiential and outdoor education, with indepth chapters
on some particular ethical scenarios in
outdoor education settings related to:
- Informed Consent:
It is ethical to disclose the content and risks of activities to
students, so that they can make informed decisions regarding their
participation. But when, if ever, is it appropriate to go ahead
without informed consent, if its without the interests of students to do
- Deception: Sometimes
in outdoor education, deception is used for supposed benefit of
students. There is often an element of intentional surprise, of
purposely telling students misleading information, so that students
encounter and work through challenges themselves. However,
deception of others is a ploy fraught with danger - so when and how can
it be ethically justifiable?
- Secrecy: Sometimes
instructors in outdoor education intentionally without information for
supposed benefit of students. For example, giving students a map
without roads marked and not telling students where water can be found
is to keep this information secret. When and how can the practice
of secrecy be ethically justifiable in outdoor education?
- Captive Populations: A
captive population has no choice in their participation. For
example, if an instructor leads a group intentionally into a difficult
situation on an expedition and then gives a group two options - to go
one way or another, then the group is being forced to choose from two
options it may not have chosen had it been given a choice much earlier
on. The people are captive to the situation and must choose one
way or another. A person is 'captive' for example when up in a
high ropes course. They are often faced with choices, such as down
the zip line or climb down the ladder, when they may not have chosen
either if they were in a non-captive situation. Sometimes
participants are sent onto programs and required to complete programs
(such as with delinquent youth). Thus they are captive in the
program and not entirely of free will in their participation. Is
- Sexual Issues: For
example, participants in an outdoor education program who didn't
previously know one another begin acting on their sexual attraction to
one another, including having sexual intercourse at night during the
program. The two participants are open with others about their
relationship. Some of the participants feel uncomfortable about
the situation and approach the instructor and ask her what she thinks
should be done about the situation.
- Environmental Concerns:
For example, a physically disabled participant on an outdoor
program involved in a ten day river rafting trip defecates in his pants
and requested the assistance of an instructor to help him wash himself
in the river, without the other participants in the group knowing, to
avoid embarrassment. The instructor discusses the situation with
another instructor who points out that this is a particularly
environmentally sensitive river ecosystem and that there are strict park
regulations that no fecal contamination whatsoever is allowed to enter
the water stream. What would you do and why? (see also
Yerkes & Haras, 1997)
- Individual versus Group Benefit:
This is a very common dilemma that occurs when there is a conflict
between what might be optimally beneficial for the group as a whole
versus what might be optimally beneficial for particular individuals.
For example, a difficult summit might be an ideal challenge for the
development of some individuals, but represent too great a challenge for
the group as a whole. Sometimes these matters can be easily
resolved (e.g., make the summit optional), but a lot of the time outdoor
educators find themselves challenged to compromise group or individual
benefits in making a decision. Got to an
vs. group class scenario.
- Students' Rights: For
example, if instructors withold letters written to students by family
and friends, because they believe it is beneficial to students to spend
time only with the group and the environment, is that ethically
justified? What are students' rights?
- Social Implications: For
example, a nuclear power plant company approaches a financially
struggling outdoor education company and request a program to improve
the teamwork of their managers as they are preparing to engage in a
major new phase of production and they want their managers to work more
effectively. The nuclear power plant company has been subject to
criticism by environmental surveillance agencies for possibly
contaminating the local environment. The company officials say
that as part of their new phase of more efficient production that this
will allow them to eliminate any negative impacts they may have had on
the local environment. When the financially lucrative opportunity
to provide teamwork programs for the nuclear power plant company is
presented to the outdoor education company's staff, they are divided
about whether or not to conduct the program. Some staff said no,
the organization should not be associated in any way with a nuclear
power company full stop, let alone one with such a poor environmental
record. Others said yes, we should do the program, partly to keep
the organization alive and to help fund programs for local youth, others
said, yes, do the program and try to change the value-system of the
managers, and others said, yes, do the program and treat the managers as
they would any other participants, as human beings on their own merits,
regardless of their race, gender, height, weight, religious affiliation
or professional affiliation. What would you do and
why? (see also Yerkes & Haras,
Paternalism refers to taking away an individual's right and capacity to
make a decision, supposedly in the interests of that person's
well-being. For example, if a participant wants to leave a
program, but a powerful other, e.g., course director, talks and coerces
the person into staying on the program. Or a person wants to use a
different, well-proven, safety technique in which he/she has
considerable expertise during a program, and an instructor refuses
saying his/her technique is better. What are ethical approaches in
these kinds of situations?
Perhaps some of the
examples so far are overly dramatic examples and may seem far-fetched, but such
situations do occur, as do a myriad of many less dramatic ethical
issues. For example:
- Is it ethically sound to spit toothpaste into the woods?
Should participants be required to swallow their toothpaste, even
though it may make some people feel a little sick? For example,
I participated in a backpacking trip on the Appalachian Trail with
students who drank every single drop of waste water, including
toothpaste and washing up water, in order to look after the
- Is it ethically sound for an outdoor education instructor to
provide developmental experiences for participants who have value
systems that the outdoor education instructor opposes? For
example, I struggled with my relationship with student who revealed
himself to me confidentially during an Outward Bound Standard course I
was instructing as someone with pro-Nazi beliefs and who had been
accused of rape during college.
- Is it ethically sound for the instructor of outdoor education
group to spend more time talking with some participants because he/she
feels more comfortable with those participants? For example, in
almost every teaching situation and outdoor education leadership
situation I observe that the leader prefers to spend a greater amount
of time with particular students with whom he/she gets along well and
is comfortable with. Is this an ethical approach to teaching?
Research Findings on
Outdoor Education, Ethics, & Moral Development
Research on ethics and outdoor education is not particularly extensive,
however there have been some findings worthy of note and further discussion.
It should noted that small amount of research that has been conducted on
ethics in outdoor education, has tended to focus on whether programs can
enhance the moral development of participants. The findings,
however, show weak, if any, effects, and probably suggest that for
moral development to occur, it needs to specifically established as a
program objective and to have intentional moral development sessions and
structured into the program. It may also indicate that the Defining
Issues Test (DIT), which has been commonly used in these studies, should be
to its applicability for detecting possible moral development impacts of
outdoor education programs:
- Garvey (*) investigated the moral development of students involved
in a semester-at-sea program which involved academic work combined with
large ship life for American college students and found not appreciable
gains in moral development.
- Giampietro (2001) conducted a Masters thesis in which he found no
notable differences in the rate of moral development for students
studying outdoor education compared to students in other disciplines,
even though the outdoor education students were involved in discussions
about ethics during their education.
- Gass and Garvey (2001) investigated the moral development of
students involved in college student internships which involved moral
development training and found few, if any clear improvements.
- DeSeeuw (2001) found no overall positive effects on moral
development of intercultural, experiential travel trips. However,
DeSeeuw did find that for one particular group, instructed by herself,
particularly large enhancement of moral development, most likely due to
her personal enthusiasm and intentional discussions with her group and
individual students on matters relating to morals and ethics.
Codes of Ethics
There have been several efforts to produce codes of ethics within the
field of experiential and outdoor education.
Institute/TEG/Values Statement/Draft Code of Ethics: A statement of
Professional Values for the provision of
Development Training and Recreation (3/1/98) ,
Adventure Profession Group (TAPG), within the Association of
Experiential Education, has proposed a code of ethics for adventure
An Australian-based code of ethics for outdoor education is currently
- Ethics Updates
This is an advanced academic resource
with material on moral philosophy and ethics. It is edited by Lawrence
M. Hinman, Professor of Philosophy at the University of San Diego.
Ethics Updates are designed primarily for use by ethics instructors and
their students. It provides updates on current literature, both popular
and professional, that relate to ethics.
Bureau of Land
Outdoor ethics and Leave No Trace.
DeZeeuw, J. (2002). Masters thesis,
University of New Hampshire, Durham, NH.
Gass, M. & Garvey, D. (2001). Poster
presented to the Coalition for the Outdoors Research Symposium.
Garvey, D. (*). PhD thesis.
Giampietro, P. (2001). Masters thesis,
University of New Hampshire, Durham, NH.
Hunt, J. S.
(1990). Ethical issues in experiential education (2nd ed.).
Boulder, CO: The Association for Experiential Education.
Yerkes, R. & Haras, K. (1997).
education and environmental responsibility. ERIC Digest.
People Working on Philosophy, Theory, Research or
Evaluation in Outdoor Education with an active interest in Ethical
Mike Gass, PJ Giampietro, Jasper Hunt, Scott Wurdinger