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– Jim Broadway & Tom Redick
A few of us grad students here are getting ready to teach a module on ethics for the undergraduate research methods course, and others of us are examining this topic this week in our professional problems seminar. Our main source of guidance when we wish to impart information to others about the ethical conduct of psychological science is the APA Ethics Code (http://www.apa.org/ethics/).
It is usually helpful for presentations or lectures to have an engaging topical example so that the audience will care. The protests at the recent APA convention provide this, highlighting the dynamic nature of consensus on ethical practice within the community of psychologists. The lively debate over the participation by psychology professionals in the interrogation of individuals held in Guantanamo Bay and secret locations has momentous consequences for psychologists as scientists, practitioners, and citizens. A resolution has been put to the APA membership for a vote (http://www.ethicalapa.com/).
To try to understand the reasons for the resolution and the protest, we wanted to find out the APA’s position to see why some people would want changes. The most recent APA resolution (http://www.apa.org/governance/resolutions/amend022208.html) seems comprehensive and unambiguous. So the source of the controversy was unclear and we searched for more background information. We turned to one passage near the end of the Introduction and Applicability section of the Ethics Code that had impressed us. This passage follows directly after defining the use of “modifiers.”
First a profoundly ethical principle is stated: “If this Ethics Code establishes a higher standard of conduct than is required by law, psychologists must meet the higher ethical standard” (p. 2).
Then a reasonable comment about what to do if the higher standard comes in conflict with the law: “If psychologists' ethical responsibilities conflict with law, regulations, or other governing legal authority, psychologists make known their commitment to this Ethics Code and take steps to resolve the conflict in a responsible manner” (p. 2).
The next statement in the code is a paradox, however: “If the conflict is unresolvable via such means, psychologists may adhere to the requirements of the law, regulations, or other governing authority in keeping with basic principles of human rights” (p 2). How is this idea consistent with the injunction to meet the higher one, when more than one ethical standard applies? Suppose the governing authority engages a psychologist in support of activities that are not in keeping with basic human rights. The Ethics Code does not seem to provide meaningful guidance with respect to potential conflict between higher and lower ethical standards. Instead, the Code seems to provide self-contradictory statements about what to do.
Wider skepticism concerning the general use of “modifiers” in the Code can be postponed for now. This last statement on page 2 of the Ethics Code renders impotent the two preceding injunctions and is not internally consistent. It might be due to chance, but apparently the offending obfuscation is a post-911 addition to the Ethics Code. My source was one of the several letters of resignation from the APA that are posted online, e.g., http://kspope.com/apa/index.php. Some of these writers additionally voiced concerns over the APA’s enthusiastic embrace of national security as a prime field for applications of psychological knowledge and expertise (http://www.dailykos.com/story/2008/1/28/0137/85034/918/444530).
An important primary source regarding this issue would be the APA’s report on Psychological Ethics and National Security (PENS), http://www.apa.org/releases/PENSTaskForceReportFinal.pdf For additional background on the PENS report, one might consult the following documents
The APA appears to seek to chart a course where psychologists may simultaneously participate in national security detentions and interrogations and yet adhere to a set of ethical principles befitting their social responsibilities, derived from the respect that society accords to the profession of psychology. It is important for citizens to question whether the national security procedures in themselves can be made consistent with basic ethical principles. The APA seems to think that they can, and professes a desire to help make them so.
Some people might view the goal to ensure that national security interrogations are conducted ethically as a contradiction in terms. Indeed, we were surprised to learn that the APA is somewhat unique among prestigious organizations representing the medical and human sciences in its failure to denounce the proceedings at national security locations outright. According to a recent article in the Journal of Bioethics http://ajobonline.com/journal/j_articles.php?aid=1140
The American Psychological Association (APA) has taken a different tack and allows psychologists to assist in military interrogations (APA 2006). Although it bars psychologists from assisting in torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, its restrictive definition of those terms follows the United States’ reservations to the United Nations’ Convention Against Torture (APA Council of Representatives 2006). The APA asserts that psychologists are trained to detect and prevent “behavioral drift” that can lead to unethical interrogations (Behnke 2006). This optimistic view of behavioral clinicians is contradicted by many examples of psychologists and psychiatrists who have collaborated with torture in diverse countries.
It is hard for us, at least, to see how participation in the activities at the national security sites, in any capacity, can be made consistent with fundamental principles espoused in the APA Ethics Code http://www.apa.org/ethics/code2002.html . But a lot might depend on what psychologists were and are actually doing, and the possible existence of loopholes, due to “modifiers”, narrow definitions, qualifications, etc., in the Code. We wanted to find out more about the actual nature and extent of psychologist participation in the interrogations and detentions of national security suspects. Information is scarce, but existing documents are not supportive of the notion that psychologists have been effective at promoting ethical and humane treatment of detainees. The limited information refers to events that are at least a few years old, involving Behavioral Science Consultation Teams (BSCTs) http://ajobonline.com/journal/j_articles.php?aid=1140.
It is important to note that if such programs as BSCT units are still in place, it is unclear whether they would violate the Ethics Code as currently written. Taking careful note of the prolific use of modifiers and qualifications within the Ethics Code could lead a reasonable person to conclude that the bounds on psychologists are fairly elastic if working in support of judicial or administrative processes. The Ethical Standards, unlike Ethical Principles, can be used as the basis for imposing sanctions on APA members. Therefore a cynical person might expect to find a number of loopholes in these sections. Indeed, they are abundant and the reader might try the exercise of examining Ethical Standards 3.04 through 3.08 to see if they can be construed to be inconsistent with the activities of the BSCT units. For one analysis of the APA’s evolving position, see http://www.reisnerforpresident.org/?page_id=24
It might be instructive to reflect on the fact that at least some of the harsh interrogation practices were derived, apparently without accurate attribution, from a report found in the social sciences literature, by Biderman (1957; http://www.pubmedcentral.nih.gov/articlerender.fcgi?artid=1806204). This was discussed in a recent New York Times article (http://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/02/us/02detain.html). Biderman most likely did not consider the present applications when he compiled his research, and in any case he noted that his report contained “nothing new” (p 616). The distortion of the source for the BSCT system of interrogation practices violates scientific ethical principles of honesty and transparency. It is additionally interesting to note that in Biderman’s report, the methods used by Chinese communists on U.S. prisoners during the Korean War were described as designed to elicit “false confessions” and compliance for its own sake. In their current application the methods were transformed to obtain useful intelligence. Given the detailed knowledge, obtained by psychologists, concerning the reliability and validity of prisoner confessions (e.g., Kassin & Gudjonsson, 2004; Kassin & Kiechel, 1996), it is peculiar that the APA is not more at the forefront in denouncing these practices. Finally, Biderman observed that the Chinese practices reflected a “formal adherence by interrogators to twisted norms of humaneness and legality” (p 621). It could be argued that recent versions of the APA Ethics code would similarly allow psychologists to participate in inhumane practices while still meeting the letter of the law.
As we noted in the beginning, the most recent amendment appears comprehensive and unambiguous, so it is unclear why further agitation is warranted. Note that this amendment was constructed after consistent pressure, but its appearance could indicate that the APA is earnest in its commitment to close loop-holes that would allow psychologists to participate in the abuse of detainees. On the other hand, it might be argued that the very specificity of the laundry list of proscribed abuses exempts practices that are not so named, such as forced standing, a staple procedure in the Biderman report and presumably the interrogation procedures derived from it. Furthermore, the Ethics Code still appears to contain disclaimers for psychologists working for judicial or administrative processes as long as “reasonable” steps have been taken to resolve conflicts between higher and lower ethical standards.
The group Psychologists for an Ethical APA commented on the most recent amendment:
We commend the American
Psychological Association for having
Thus it appears that the fundamental difference between the APA’s position and its internal and external critics is related to the fundamental self-contradiction contained in the idea of ethical interrogations occurring at places like Guantanamo Bay and secret CIA sites.
To close, we want to bring the issue back to why all this matters to grad students. As we mentioned at the outset, it is a lively topic for discussion in your classes, illustrating that there are not cut-and-dried answers already prepared for many of the ethical problems faced by psychologists. Even if you plan to never do anything in your career more problematic than administering pencil-paper tests to consenting adults, as part of our training in science it is important for each of us to tackle difficult ethical problems and settle on a position that we can live with. Note that the answers to our ethical dilemmas cannot be provided by empirical research: We have to depend on murky things like “values” and “reason.” Just as science is a collective process that depends on consensus regarding what we will accept as evidence, we cannot avoid the problem of trying to achieve consensus about the core values that underpin our science.
Kassin, S.M. & Gudjonsson, G.H. (2004). The psychology of confessions: A review of the literature and issues. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 5, 33-67.