The Ethical Professor

Thinking well and doing good in academia.

Self-Reflection in Ethical Choice Making

Balancing Values Through the Looking Glass

Guest Blog by Allison Bashe, Ph.D.

Dr. Bashe
Dr. Allison Bashe
Blogger’s note:  Dr. Bashe co-led a session on Making Ethical Choices for a conference of ethics educators sponsored by the Pennsylvania Psychological Association.  I have asked her to talk about what they did, as I believe it will be interesting and useful to both educators and students.  –mitch 

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Self-reflection may be the most critical ingredient to making good ethical choices.  As professors, we need to highlight the importance of self-reflection in our undergraduate and graduate ethics courses.  We can do this through assignments that encourage self-reflection and emphasize to students the importance of self-reflection throughout their professional careers.  More importantly, we can highlight the importance of self-reflection by engaging in it on a regular basis and modeling this practice to our students.

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At the 17th Annual Ethics Educators Conference in Harrisburg, PA, professionals reflected on their core values and then discussed how these values might be compatible with or might conflict with the profession of psychology.  Although generally the professionals in the room could appreciate the value of self-reflection, one person acknowledged that he initially felt oppositional toward an exercise that required him to consider how his values might conflict with our profession.  He commented that if our values conflict with our profession, it might indicate that we have not worked hard enough yet.  And that’s exactly the point:  Self-reflection helps us sharpen our focus to make better decisions.

The psychologists and other professionals at the conference actively engaged in the process of identifying their values and then discussing in small groups how these values interact with professional responsibilities.  It became clear that self-reflection helps us balance the values and principles of our profession in ways that help ensure an ethical practice of psychology. 

As we continued our discussion, context emerged as a deciding factor in most circumstances.  That is, values must be expressed and balanced in different ways depending on the situation.  For example, it would be difficult to uphold the belief, “I should always value Compassion above all else.”  Compassion that is not tempered by other values or principles may lead to fear of challenging our clients, keeping clients in treatment longer than is necessary, or other ethically problematic behaviors. 

We may also value Autonomy and yet we may not be acting competently or beneficently if we allow our clients to make all decisions in the therapeutic process.  If a client comes in determined to try a particular therapy approach, and you believe that approach would not be helpful or, worse, could be harmful, would you honor the client’s autonomy and proceed with their request? 

Ethics Educators Panel
And, what about Honesty and Integrity?  As one might expect, these values came up during the discussion as well.  Again, it would be difficult to say that Honesty should be put above all else.  We discussed situations where some deception may not just be acceptable, but may indeed be necessary to prevent harm to a client.  For example, if you were unable to work with a client because of some unpleasant physical attribute that was distracting, and about which the client was very sensitive, it may not be in the client’s best interest to disclose the reason you are referring the client to someone else.  In this case, Kindness may have to come before Honesty.  It was instructive, and fun, to see how different values came to the forefront as we discussed a variety of scenarios. 

In our teaching we need to highlight the practice of self-reflection and the importance of context and balance in ethical choice making.  Dr. John Gavazzi, an active member of the Pennsylvania Psychological Association (PPA) and the PPA Ethics Committee, founded an “ethics blog” for PPA.  I put these words in quotation marks because “blog” is really a misnomer in this case.  The blog, which can be accessed at http://www.papsyblog.org/, is really an ethics hub.  At this hub, ethics professors can access current articles with ethical themes that will stimulate class discussion on relevant ethical concerns in our world today.  Professors can encourage students to think about their personal reactions to these current events in our field. 

Professors, students and other interested parties can also access the Vignette Warehouse at the PPA blog.  Educators can use the vignettes as posted to create rich opportunities for class discussion and generate course assignments and material for exams.  Professors and students can vary the context and details in each vignette to create multiple situations for consideration and discussion.  The PPA blog has quickly become a hot spot, visited by international readers from at least 120 countries.  I encourage you to visit the site soon and discover how you can use this wonderful resource to enrich your ethics courses.  Tell your students about it.  Or, tell your professor about it!

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Allison Bashe received her Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the State University of New York at Stony Brook, and is now a practicing psychologist at New Directions Counseling Services near Pittsburgh, PA.  She is a member of the Ethics Committee of PPA.

Mitch Handelsman is a professor of psychology at the University of Colorado Denver and the co-author (with Sharon Anderson) of Ethics for Psychotherapists and Counselors: A Proactive Approach (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010).  He is also an associate editor of the two-volume APA Handbook of Ethics in Psychology (American Psychological Association, 2012).

© 2012 Mitchell M. Handelsman. All Rights Reserved

Mitchell M. Handelsman, Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology and a Colorado University President's Teaching Scholar at the University of Colorado Denver.

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