Outdoor Education, Ethics, & Moral Development

James Neill
Last updated:
23 Oct 2005


Out beyond ideas of
wrongdoing & rightdoing,
there's a field.
I'll meet you there
- Jelaluddin Rumi -

Examples: Informed consent Deception  Secrecy
      Captive populations Sexual issues  Environmental concerns
     Individual vs. group benefit  Students' rights Social implications
    Paternalism  Other
Research findings
Codes of ethics

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.

Further, for 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, Hunt, 1990).

Outdoor 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 and accessibility. 

What are Some Examples of Ethical Issues in Outdoor Education?

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 so?
  • 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 this ethical?
  • 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 education 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 individual 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, 1997)
  • Paternalism: 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?

Other Examples

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 environment.
  • 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 learning processes structured into the program.  It may also indicate that the Defining Issues Test (DIT), which has been commonly used in these studies, should be re-examined as 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.

Outdoor Institute/TEG/Values Statement/Draft Code of Ethics: A statement of Professional Values for the provision of Outdoor Education, Development Training and Recreation (3/1/98)

Therapeutic Adventure Profession Group (TAPG), within the Association of Experiential Education, has proposed a code of ethics for adventure therapy practitioners.

An Australian-based code of ethics for outdoor education is currently under development.


  • 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 Management (2002). 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). Outdoor education and environmental responsibility. ERIC Digest.

People Working on Philosophy, Theory, Research or Evaluation in Outdoor Education with an active interest in Ethical Issues

Christian Itin, Jordana DeZeeuw, Dan Garvey, Mike Gass, PJ Giampietro, Jasper Hunt, Scott Wurdinger