Ethical Trespass

Caution Tape


Ethical trespass, is a term first coined by Hannah Arendt, a political theorist that was later elaborated by another political scientist, Melissa Orlie. Orlie (1997, p.5) defined ethical trespass as “the harmful effects … that inevitably follow not from our intentions and malevolence but from our participation in social processes and identities.” Trespass is the harm that follows from a worker’s actions, often unwittingly, because in any act some possibilities are opened, while others are closed. Also, the effects of one’s actions impact differently on a multiplicity of individuals, having ripple effects beyond the immediate event that can never be fully anticipated.

Orlie perceived that all of us trespass, including but most especially, “the ‘responsible,’ well-behaved, predictable subjects of social order who reinforce and extend its patterns of rule” (1997, p.23).  Helping professionals are those responsible subjects because, through their implementation of policies, legislation, and what they understand to be their professional duties, they determine what is acceptable and appropriate behaviour.


An adult daughter is concerned about her elderly father returning home after being discharged from the hospital. He has shown some early signs of what could be dementia. She requests that the health care professional move him to an assisted living situation rather than supporting him to go to his own apartment since she cannot cope with the stress of watching out for him. Her dad says he is perfectly capable of continuing to live on his own and wants to be sent to his own apartment. He states that he resents the implication that he is not able. Whatever route the practitioner takes, she may be wrong in her evaluation and it can have repercussions that she cannot possibly imagine. Even if her decision is correct, there may be harms attached for the family member she does not support. Furthermore, her actions socially construct and reinforce the societal norm of “healthy enough” behaviour for an elderly man with the beginning signs of cognitive impairment, having implications for other patients, the hospital, assisted living settings, and an infinite array of other social players.


There is an irony in using the concept of ethical trespass. While all professionals must be held accountable for unintended harm, to understand trespass and the inescapability of this harm depersonalizes this issue by recognizing that all responsible and caring individuals are subject to trespass, regardless of intention or skill. By contrast, when workers feel solely and individually responsible for harm, it is more difficult for them to acknowledge and confront the potential damage they may perpetrate. This is particularly true in a culture that expects professionals to make accurate and appropriate judgments and where they are held liable for injury. For the worker struggling to decide whether to support the elderly man or his adult daughter, understanding this concept could reduce the anxiety about “getting it right” when, in fact, in an absolute sense there may not be a “right response” that can avoid all harms. Accepting the inevitability of ethical trespass could foster a climate of support and open communication about the possible risks since this analytical tool suggests that we are all in this together and there is no escaping unintended harms. This is a very different theoretical orientation than the dominant approach which places the professional as entirely individually culpable and which assumes, if one follows the codes and uses good decision-making processes, ascertaining the “morally right” action is possible.

Other analytical tools: Moral DistressDiscursive FieldsPreferred and Actualized Selves.