Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers.

Shakespeare, Henry The Sixth, Part 2 Act 4, scene 2

Psychologists’ first code of ethics was an impressive achievement, in that it was empirically derived rather than handed down from on high, and was aimed at fostering ethical reasoning.

The American Psychological Association (APA) asked its members for examples of actual situations they had encountered that raised ethical issues. It then sifted through the numerous responses, developed a series of principles, and then submitted the principles to the membership for feedback. Over a four-year period, they eventually derived the first code of ethics, and published it in 1953 as the Ethical Standards of Psychologists.

Because society changes, these principles have been periodically modified over time. I was a graduate student in the 1960s and was bound by the 1963 version, which included 19 specific principles and 70 sub-principles. To continue encouraging psychologists in the process of ethical reasoning about their work, in 1967 the APA published a Casebook on Ethical Standards of Psychologists. For each principle, actual cases (appropriately disguised) were presented, explaining the reasoning involved and actions taken (if any) by the APA ethics committee.

Over time, partly as a result of the bureaucratic imperative, the ethical principles have grown in number and specificity, so that, in the 2010 version, we now have five General Principles and ten Standards, comprising a total of 89 sub-standards. More importantly, the five General Principles (Beneficence and Nonmaleficence; Fidelity and Responsibility; Integrity; Justice; and Respect for People’s Rights and Dignity), which involve the kind of moral reasoning that inspired the 1953 version, are now viewed as aspirational, while the 10 Standards and 89 sub-standards are enforceable rules; breaking them can lead to penalties such as expulsion from the APA, and loss of license. Laws, legal cases, and figuring out how to avoid being sued, have displaced to a significant degree psychological knowledge and ethical reasoning in the way psychologists are being trained to think.

Here are some examples:

2.01 (f) When assuming forensic roles, psychologists are or become reasonably familiar with the judicial or administrative rules governing their roles.

3.10 (d) Psychologists appropriately document written or oral consent, permission, and assent. (See also Standards 8.02, Informed Consent to Research; 9.03, Informed Consent in Assessments; and 10.01, Informed Consent to Therapy.)

6.04 (b) Psychologists' fee practices are consistent with law.

What are the consequences for psychology when legalistic rule-following trumps ethical reasoning? It is hard to imagine changing an aspirational Principle, like Respect for People’s Rights and Dignity, but easy to imagine changing a sub-standard. As I discussed in my piece, Psychologists and Torture, that is exactly what happened:

In 2002, the year after 9/11, APA revised Standard 1: Resolving Ethical Issues, part 1.02 Conflicts Between Ethics and Law, Regulations, or Other Governing Legal Authority, to include the following sentence, “If the conflict is unresolvable via such means, psychologists may adhere to the requirements of the law, regulations, or other governing legal authority.”

The above link explains how this sentence resulted from behind-the-scenes contacts between APA and the government, and was created to provide cover for a number of psychologists to create a rationale for, organize, participate in, and profit substantially from using torture in the interrogation of terrorism suspects.

***

In the wake of the torture revelations, APA members have been in shock, various individuals have been fired or left the organization’s administration, and APA has gone through a period of soul-searching. The offending sentence has been removed, and replaced by “Under no circumstances may this standard be used to justify or defend violating human rights.” In addition, members are being asked to submit comments on which of two alternative versions should modify standard 3.04:

Version A
3.04 Avoiding Harm

(a) Psychologists take reasonable steps to avoid harming their clients/patients, students, supervisees, research participants, organizational clients and others with whom they work, and to minimize harm where it is foreseeable and unavoidable.

 (b) Psychologists do not participate in, facilitate, assist or otherwise engage in torture.

Version B 3.04 Avoiding Harm

(a) Psychologists take reasonable steps to avoid harming their clients/patients, students, supervisees, research participants, organizational clients and others with whom they work, and to minimize harm where it is foreseeable and unavoidable.

(b) Psychologists do not participate in, facilitate, assist or otherwise engage in torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

(c) Psychologists do not conduct, supervise, or otherwise assist or be present at any national security interrogations for any military or intelligence entities, including private contractors working on their behalf. They do not advise on conditions of confinement insofar as these might facilitate such an interrogation. Psychologists may consult on policy and training pertaining to information-gathering methods that are humane and not related to any specific national security interrogation or detention conditions.

Meanwhile, the debate over changes to the ethics code does not include a discussion of ways to elevate ethical reasoning to our top priority in training psychologists. We need to learn to ask first, “What is the right thing to do?” and only secondarily “How can I avoid getting in trouble?”

Image Source:

Wikimedia Commons: Deval Kulshrestha, 25 June 2013

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About the Author

Jefferson M. Fish Ph.D.

Jefferson M. Fish, Ph.D., is a Professor Emeritus of psychology at St. John's University. He has authored and edited 12 books, including The Myth of Race.

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