Ethics Rounds

One of the great pleasures of directing APA's Ethics Office is the opportunity to discuss ethics with APA members at all stages of their careers. Near APA's headquarters in Washington, D.C., are Howard and Gallaudet universities, where each year I visit with trainees to talk about the "Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct" (2002) and to hear about the ethical challenges they are encountering at this early stage in their professional lives. Attending ethics seminars in these wonderful programs is always a great pleasure for me and renews my confidence in the future of psychology. I also spend quite a bit of my time in continuing-education programs for psychologists well into their careers who have long since completed their graduate studies. Reflecting on this range of experience, I realized that from entry into graduate school, an APA member may spend four, five or even six decades engaged in professional activities.

Given what psychologists know about how individuals develop across the entire lifespan, it seems sensible that there would be a developmental aspect to the ethical challenges and dilemmas that psychologists encounter over the course of their professional lives. Nonetheless, little attention has been paid in the literature to examining ethics from a developmental perspective. Such a perspective offers interesting avenues for exploring how the growth and maturing of a psychologist involves evolving ethical challenges.

A developmental perspective on ethics would explore the strengths and vulnerabilities of psychologists at different stages of their careers, beginning with entry into graduate school and continuing through retirement from professional activities. It would be especially interesting to place such a perspective explicitly in the context of psychological research on human development to examine how ethical challenges evolve in relation to our maturing selves. While a developmental perspective on ethics is related to theories of moral development, it is distinct. A theory of moral development examines different stages of moral reasoning, often viewed as forming a hierarchy from lower to higher levels of analysis. A developmental perspective on ethics, on the other hand, focuses on how different stages of life present or emphasize new or different ethical challenges for psychologists. Such a perspective explores how these evolving challenges require new skills or different sensitivities to negotiate successfully.

Three developmental stages

Painting with broad brushstrokes, one can find distinguishably different phases of a psychologist's professional life from the perspective of ethics. The beginning of training in psychology is often marked by an energy and enthusiasm, an eagerness to use new skills and engage in new professional endeavors. This period may be characterized by an anxiety-driven ethics, a heightened concern of stepping out of bounds and a companion desire for certitude in knowing what specific behaviors are ethical and which are not. Ethical ambiguity tends to generate more anxiety at this stage of training, as is common across many disciplines. Often at this stage when things go wrong it is by virtue of an over-eagerness to do what is right and avoid what is wrong—which is entirely normative and can provide a healthy foundation for sensitivity to ethical concerns throughout a psychologist's career. Failure to move out of this stage, on the other hand, may lay the foundation for a risk-avoidant posture that can restrict a psychologist's ability to engage clients and others with whom psychologists work in flexible and meaningful ways.

At mid-career, psychologists may experience a feeling of hitting their stride, of coming to master the skills and techniques they have been honing for a decade or more. This period of one's career can bring enormous professional accomplishment and satisfaction. Nonetheless, this time may also offer special ethical challenges. The novelty of one's professional work has likely worn off and with it a beginner's enthusiasm has largely waned. What seemed new and fresh may now be experienced as routine. A psychologist may experience personal obligations, such as the demands of family, as wearing or even overwhelming. Such demands, financial and otherwise, can leave a psychologist feeling depleted and render the psychologist more vulnerable to ethical lapses. It is noteworthy, and almost certainly not accidental, that sexual involvements seem more likely at this rather than at an earlier stage of a psychologist's career.

Later still in a psychologist's career, challenges arise that are distinguishable from the beginning and middle stages of professional life. Three or more decades into a career, a psychologist has a wealth of wisdom and experience upon which to draw. Along with these years of experience, a special vulnerability may arise from a feeling that the rules governing the ethics of the profession apply to others and no longer to oneself, that one is now able to decide what is right and wrong in dealing with clients without reference to codes of ethics and legal rules. This mindset can set the stage for serious ethical lapses. As retirement draws near, terminating with clients becomes a necessity, with myriad logistical considerations such as what to do with case-related documents and referring clients to other practitioners who are competent, ethical and able to provide good care. Psychologists must now simultaneously say goodbye to individual clients and to one's identity as a practicing psychologist. Such losses can present significant challenges that must be negotiated.

Integrating the professional and personal

Distinguishing between three stages of a psychologist's career in this manner offers only a rough approximation, but serves to convey that the challenges psychologists face evolve in subtle and not-so-subtle ways across a career. These evolutions come in tandem with changes in a psychologist's personal circumstances as life moves forward, with the stresses, demands, rewards and physical changes that life inevitably brings. A developmental perspective on ethics highlights the relationship between the personal and the professional to explore how changes in these two realms relate to one another and serve to enhance or inhibit the ethical practice of psychology.

A developmental perspective on ethics has significant implications for continuing education. From a development perspective, continuing education provides a unique opportunity for psychologists to discuss and explore ethical challenges as they are experienced, rather than from a time far removed from when a psychologist actually encounters the challenges. This way of approaching ethics education offers the potential for a richness, vibrancy and relevance to our ethics programs.

Viewing our ethics from a developmental perspective is intended to complement rather than replace the broad range of substantive issues that ethics education addresses. As complementary to programs that address specific content areas, programs that offer a developmental perspective incorporate in an overt way the contexts of our personal and professional lives. By doing so, a developmental perspective more fully integrates our personal and professional selves, an integration that will ideally serve to enhance our competence and raise our standards of ethical practice.


Stephen Behnke, PhD, JD, directs APA's Ethics Office.

'Ethics Rounds' now available as CE

Previously published "Ethics Rounds" columns have been converted into CE programs.