Ethics Rounds

It was a remarkable moment in our nation's capital. Writing this column on the evening of Jan. 20, I can hear sirens throughout the city as President Barack Obama traverses Washington to attend inaugural balls. As I roamed the streets yesterday, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and today, Inauguration Day, I passed a sea of faces, of every age and color imaginable, welcoming the Obama administration with a feeling of celebration, gratitude, resilience and enormous pride in who we are as a people and in what we have accomplished in electing our first president of color. Moving along 18th Street, shoulder to shoulder with thousands of people leaving the National Mall immediately following the inaugural address, a young African-American woman called out for the crowd to sing "We Shall Overcome" in an effort to keep us warm in the cold, biting wind. An African-American man, somewhat her senior, laughingly called back, "We just overcame!" The exchanged captured the spirit of what we had just collectively witnessed on the steps of the Capitol. It was a great day.

The 10-year anniversary of the National Multicultural Conference and Summit, held in New Orleans days before the new President's Inauguration, offered an opportunity to celebrate our diversity as individuals and as a profession. Attending my second summit, I was struck by the feeling of safety that characterized the symposia and workshops, clearly the result of enormous hard work by the conference organizers who set of tone of respect for differing perspectives and experiences. This tone allowed conversations and discussions to take place that in my experience are rare for professional meetings and that make the summit a unique event for psychology.

Recognizing the centrality of the summit in appreciating and embracing diversity in psychology, APA's Ethics Committee hosted three programs. The first symposia, "Am I Competent Enough? Multicultural Competence from an Ethics Perspective," examined the Ethics Code's call to ensure that psychologists are competent to provide services to individuals of diverse backgrounds, as set forth in Ethical Standard 2.01:

2.01 Boundaries of Competence

(b) Where scientific or professional knowledge in the discipline of psychology establishes that an understanding of factors associated with age, gender, gender identity, race, ethnicity, culture, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, disability, language, or socioeconomic status is essential for effective implementation of their services or research, psychologists have or obtain the training, experience, consultation, or supervision necessary to ensure the competence of their services, or they make appropriate referrals…

The second program, a roundtable breakfast discussion, "Ethical and Professional Implications of Diversity Competence: Graduate Student Perspectives and Experiences," invited graduate students to discuss their own diversity and its role in their training programs. The third program, a symposia, "When Aspects of Diversity Collide: Ethical Considerations," examined the ethical issues that arise when different aspects of a client's identity appear to come into conflict, for example religious affiliation and sexual orientation.

Each of these programs exploring the role of diversity in psychologists' ethical decision making was exceptionally well received, and the two symposia were standing room only. One reason for the high interest in ethics discussions at the summit is the complexity of intersecting identities and the implications for applying our Ethics Code. Responding to the ethical dilemmas that psychologists encounter in practice requires nuanced approaches that must be worked through in a considered and thoughtful manner.

The Ethics Committee's strong presence at the summit was a clear indication of the committee's view that diversity has a central place in our Ethics Code, which addresses individual differences in both the aspirational principles and ethical standards:

Principle E: Respect for People's Rights and Dignity

Psychologists respect the dignity and worth of all people, and the rights of individuals to privacy, confidentiality, and self-determination. Psychologists are aware of and respect cultural, individual, and role differences, including those based on age, gender, gender identity, race, ethnicity, culture, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, disability, language, and socioeconomic status and consider these factors when working with members of such groups. Psychologists try to eliminate the effect on their work of biases based on those factors, and they do not knowingly participate in or condone activities of others based upon such prejudices.

3.01 Unfair Discrimination

In their work-related activities, psychologists do not engage in unfair discrimination based on age, gender, gender identity, race, ethnicity, culture, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, disability, socioeconomic status, or any basis proscribed by law.

Principle E and Standard 3.01 are framed in terms of prohibitions, oriented toward what psychologists do not do. This orientation is common for ethics codes, which are often—and understandably—more focused on avoiding harm (nonmaleficence) than doing good (beneficence). While the Ethics Committee applies the code through its adjudicatory process, it also seeks to promote the ethical practice of psychology through its educational activities, as at the summit. As ethics adjudication tends more toward prohibitions, ethics education often tends more toward encouraging psychologists toward their aspirations and ideals. Both adjudication and education are equally essential parts of APA's ethics program, although they may highlight somewhat different aspects of the committee's work and focus.

The committee's educational orientation was especially evident at the summit when the Ethics Committee collaborated with Div. 44 (Society for the Psychological Study of Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Issues) to grant four graduate student travel awards to come to New Orleans. These awards were given to students "with a clear commitment to the exploration of ethics and LGBT people of color issues in psychology." The four recipients of this award were Nestor Borrero-Bracero from the Universidad de Puerto Rico, Angelo M. Enno from Utah State University, Michael Jay Manalo from the University of Georgia, and Xiomara Owens from the University of Alaska. These individuals' eloquent and moving remarks at a jointly sponsored Ethics Committee/Div. 44 award luncheon inspire optimism in the future of our profession.

We can look to the summit as a compelling statement on the value that our profession places on recognizing and respecting diversity. The Ethics Committee's role at the summit is a statement regarding how central the committee sees diversity to its work. To view the role of diversity in ethical decision-making as nothing other than an imposition would be to neglect an essential aspect of ethics at APA, that part represented by the joie and celebration so evident in the crowds celebrating the inauguration of our first president of color.

Diversity is an ethical issue not solely because the Ethics Code requires that psychologists attend to individual differences, not solely because neglecting diversity represents an impermissible bias under the code, not solely because ignoring the role of culture and ethnicity leaves psychologists with a poor scientific foundation for our work. Diversity is an ethical issue because we enhance the dignity and worth of the individuals and groups with whom we work when we more fully recognize, respect and appreciate the fullness of their lives and their experiences. The comment in the opening paragraph notwithstanding, there remains much to overcome in our profession and in our country that stands in the way of people fully expressing their diversity. Nonetheless, the convergence of the president's inauguration and the 10th anniversary of the National Multicultural Conference and Summit provides an excellent opportunity to reflect on how our nation's attitudes toward diversity, reflected in our choice of president, have left us closing this day with feelings of peace, pride and optimism for our future.


Steven Behnke is director of APA's Ethics Office.

'Ethics Rounds' now available as CE

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