Ethics Rounds

Recently, I began my day by posing a question: Where could I find a graduate student willing to accept $1,000 and a round trip to Hawaii?

"No easy task," I muttered on my way to work. Graduate students, fully immersed in their research and clinical work, surely wouldn't have the inclination or time to visit a tropical paradise. Still, I decided to press on with my plans to announce the third annual Graduate Student Writing Prize in Ethics--and its rewards: the cash prize and a trip to APA's 2004 Annual Convention in Honolulu, July 28-Aug. 1.

The ethics prize has become a gem in the collaboration between the APA Ethics Committee and American Psychological Association of Graduate Students (APAGS). The Ethics Committee and APAGS created the prize to encourage students to begin thinking about ethical questions at the very beginning of their professional lives, and to emphasize that psychology is in a unique position to address critical ethical issues facing society today.

Psychology is a field that has been imbued with ethics from its inception, a field in which we find some of the most interesting, exciting and notable value choices that we, as a society, must make: Should we keep confidences when safety is at stake? Should we promote individual autonomy by fully disclosing the facts, even though deception in research may lead to important scientific advances? Should the truth-finding mission of a court override a client's interest in keeping material that is shared in therapy confidential?

Psychology is also a field that explores empirical questions highly relevant to ethical dilemmas. Psychologists are able to conduct studies and collect data that may prove central to resolving concrete ethical dilemmas. While empirical data are never dispositive in resolving ethical dilemmas--because an ethical dilemma requires a choice between values--empirical data can nevertheless be critical in determining whether a given resolution will actually further the important value chosen.

Examples of empirical questions with great ethical significance are:

  • Is a terminally ill individual in great pain competent to ask that life-prolonging treatment be withdrawn?

  • Can a small child who has just witnessed a violent crime be assessed and interviewed in such a way that information helpful to a successful prosecution is gathered?

  • Can a research subject who has not been informed that the study's principal investigator has a large financial stake in the study's outcome provide truly informed consent?

  • Is deceiving a patient about her true medical condition, in the interest of promoting an optimistic attitude, likely to increase her chances of recovery?

The first two prize-winning papers have been exceptional in their clarity of thought and analysis of important issues. In 2002, Nancy Lewis, of the Georgia School of Professional Psychology, was awarded the first annual ethics prize for her paper, "Balancing the dictates of law and ethical practice: empowerment of female survivors of domestic violence in the presence of overlapping child abuse." Lewis explored how feminist theory suggests a way of addressing the ethical dilemma a psychologist faces when a female client who has been the victim of battering discloses concurrent child abuse. In 2003, Craig Fisher, of Argosy University/Washington D.C., was awarded the second annual prize for his paper, "Ethical issues in therapy: therapist self-disclosure of sexual feelings." Fisher explored the relationship between the clinical and ethical aspects of this largely unaddressed topic. In awarding the first two prizes, the Ethics Committee noted that Lewis and Fisher went beyond a literature review to examine underlying principles and values.

While each of the first two winners have addressed topics relevant to clinical practice, students may write on ethics in any area of psychology, including education, theory, public interest and science.

Since its inception, the prize has been enhanced in two ways. First, the winner has the opportunity to present his or her paper at APA's Annual Convention, where two psychologists with expertise in ethics will comment. In addition, the winning paper will be published in Ethics and Behavior, a journal edited by Gerry Koocher, PhD, a member of APA's Board of Directors. These additions represent a unique opportunity for graduate students interested in psychology and ethics to deepen their understanding of the field and begin making a contribution to the scholarly literature.

Directing APA's Ethics Office brings with it many challenges. Today's challenge is to find a graduate student willing to visit Hawaii at APA's expense, with $1,000 in his or her pocket. As difficult as it may be to draw a student out of the lab or the library to visit Honolulu, I comfort myself in knowing that graduate students are willing to make that sort of sacrifice for the good of their educations. And so I hope my spring will be busy with reading submissions for the 2004 student ethics prize!

Further Reading

The deadline for submissions is March 5. To learn more about the prize, visit APA Ethics.