Ethics in our profession – Finding more questions than answers
In my profession, I have often advocated practicing within the limits of my competencies and urged others to do the same. I preached, with near religious fervour that “competent professionals will what they don’t know; incompetent ones will be eager to impress you with how much they do.”
I often reflect on this position that I take, priding myself as operating within the boundaries set by my professional code of ethics. At the same time I also question if this was merely a clever ruse to hide my own incompetence and inadequacies. I have not found that answer to date. I suspect that many professionals, in psychology or otherwise, struggle with the same question in the lifespan of their careers.
Whether it is a guideline for competent practice, or a benchmark to define the true professional, ethics has been the foundation for many professions that offer services to the fellow man. It dates as far back as 400 B.C. when the Hippocratic Oath was written for the medical profession. Since then, many other professions have built on those philosophical roots to define guidelines to evaluate the right from the wrong, the good and the bad.
Today, guidelines defined by the established professional bodies such as the Australian Psychological Society (APS), British Psychological Society (BPS), and the American Psychological Association (APA) are referred to as the benchmark for ethical practice in psychology. Proper post-graduate education is not complete without a module in ethics, filled with heated discussions of case dilemmas and references to the different societies’ guidelines. My education in ethics left me with more questions than answers but it did make me a discerning and cautious professional.
In my relatively mundane career, ethics guided my decision-making process – refer to the legislation, the code of ethics, the guidelines in your organisation if any, and then make your best professional decision. There was always some form of structure or doctrine to fall back on.
Recently that decision-making framework fell into a bit of disarray when I read that the APA changed its ethical guidelines to support interrogation techniques that have since been labelled as torture. The report also pointed out that the APA did it in collusion with the Pentagon and the Central Intelligence Agency, as a means to secure the foothold of the psychological profession in a post-9-11 America. As the debates and counterarguments over this report reached a flurry in cyberspace, I found more disturbing (professionally not graphically) commentary regarding certain big names within the industry. (I leave the audience to read further into these issues and form their own opinions).
If the morality of the rule-makers are brought to question, where does that leave us? In the moral struggle of our professional careers, if the beacon of ethical practice which we depend on crumbles, where does that leave us?
Perhaps to expect an infallible ethical code is overly idealistic. In an idealistic world one might imagine a definitive guide that can resolve all moral problems that confront us, and every professional’s primary emphasis would be protecting the public interests. Such guidelines should ideally reflect our profession’s moral integrity.
In reality, however, it seems to gravitate towards a state of protectionism, of risk management, and often a statement of political compromise. Just as I reflected on the risk of my ethical preaching becoming more of a self-defence mechanism, I reflect now on a similar paradox in our ethical codes. Is it there to minimise the risk we may place the public in, or to protect the individuals under its care from precarious ethical or legal circumstances?
The eminent psychologist Calvin Hall (1952) argued that an ethics code is bound to be filled with ambiguities and omissions, and plays into the hands of those who toe the line. Professionals operate in the grey area of what is not explicitly expressed or what can be loosely interpreted. Looking at the allegations against the APA in this instance, it worries me that not only are players trying to work the loopholes in the rule book, the rule makers may be intentionally planting loop holes for players.
Still, in consideration of a fair counter-argument – even if the allegations were undisputedly true, does it not comply with the ethical hierarchy? The interests of the profession and the interests of society does come before the interests of the client. In the case of ethical dilemmas, issues of terrorism are deemed to be special circumstances that circumvent our usual guidelines in order to protect public interests and maintain social order. Does this draw us into the ethical trap of being consequentialist? Does the greater issue of national security justify the twisting of the guidelines to its purposes; or in this case re-writing the guidelines?
I find myself, yet again, with more questions than answers.
Perhaps ethical perfection is a pipe dream, but I trust we should at least strive to be ethically proper. Legislation or professional guidelines are after all crafted by selected groups for selected purposes. The right professional decision relies on the judgement of the professional at the end of the day.
In closing, while I unable to share any answers, I will share these core principles that have guided my professional behaviour since I first learnt them in graduate school:
- Doing no harm – to eliminate or minimise potential for damage.
- Respecting autonomy- respect the rights of individuals to decide how to live their lives.
- Benefiting others – decisions should have potential of positive effect on others.
- Being just – actions should be fair.
- Being faithful – act with fidelity, loyalty, truthfulness, and trustworthiness.
- According dignity – View others as worthy of respect.
- Treating others with care and compassion – be considerate and kind.
- Pursuit of excellence – maintaining competence, doing one’s best.
- Accepting accountability – Act with a consideration of possible consequences, accept responsibility for action and inaction.
If like me, you question if your ethical principles are driven by genuine public interests or self-serving deceit, consider this – you can smoke your way through points 1 through 8, but point 9 will still catch up with you eventually.
For more reading on the APA issue, see the following links:
For additional reading on professional ethics, consider the following chapters taken from some great books on the topic:
Koocher, G. P., and Keith-Spiegel, P.(1998). On being an ethical psychologist. In Ethics in Psychology, Professional Standards and Cases (pp. 3 – 26). New York: Oxford University Press.
Hall, C. S. (1952). Crooks, codes, and cant. American Psychologist, 7, 430-431.
Bersoff, D. N. (1999). Ethics Codes and How They are Enforced. In Ethical Conflict in Psychology (4th Ed). Washington, DC: APA.
Steinman, S. O., Richardson, N. F., & McEnroe, T. (1998). The Ethical Decision-Making Process. In The Ethical Decision-Making Manual for Helping Professionals. (pp. 17 – 32). Belmont, CA: Brooks-Cole.