Ethics Rounds

Last November, I was given the unique opportunity of directing the APA Office of Ethics. In this column, I would like to set forth my way of thinking about ethics and make clear my goal of developing the office into a resource for you, the membership.

The best definition I know of ethics is quite brief and straightforward--ethics means thinking about reasons in terms of values. This definition has three elements: a choice to be made, reasons for choosing a particular course of action and rejecting another, and values that explain why certain reasons are more compelling and should prevail. Thus, ethics enters a psychologist's professional life when the psychologist faces a dilemma and looks to values in deciding what to do.

This definition distinguishes ethics from technique. A question of technique involves a single value. A research psychologist may want to know how best to structure a questionnaire, or a clinical psychologist may want to know whether individual or family treatment would be most helpful. To answer these specific questions, the research psychologist may focus solely on promoting the value of advancing science, the clinician on the value of providing good treatment. Ethics becomes involved when a situation requires that the psychologists consider more than a single value.

Psychology's ethics code

The Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct (APA, 1992)--our Ethics Code--"provides a common set of values upon which psychologists build their professional and scientific work." The Code "has as its primary goal the welfare and protection of the individuals and groups" whom psychologists serve (from the Preamble to the APA Ethics Code). The welfare and protection of those with whom psychologists work is thus the primary foundation from which the Code's ethical standards arise, as two examples show.

Ethical Standard 1.18, "Barter," states that psychologists ordinarily refrain from accepting non-monetary remuneration in exchange for services "because such arrangements create inherent potential for conflicts, exploitation, and distortion of the professional relationship." Ethical Standard 1.18 is not an absolute prohibition against barter; rather, the standard cautions against barter. The reason for caution is that a barter arrangement, if not conducted in a thoughtful and clinically appropriate manner, may cause harm.

Ethical Standard 1.17, "Multiple Relationships," states that psychologists refrain from entering into multiple relationships with clients, students and research participants, when it appears likely that a multiple relationship might impair the psychologist's objectivity. When a psychologist's objectivity is impaired, that psychologist is less likely to provide competent services, and more likely to confuse his needs with those of his client, student or research subject. When a psychologist is not clear on whose needs are appropriately met, the likelihood of exploitation and other harm significantly increases.

The APA Ethics Code can be read in this manner to help psychologists examine values in resolving ethical dilemmas. While our Ethics Code is sometimes understood as a set of obligations and prohibitions, another perhaps equally useful way of thinking about the Code is as a statement of, and guide to, the values of our profession.

One of the most exciting and challenging aspects of my involvement in ethics at APA is that values permeate our work. For this reason, I look forward to the pleasure and privilege of working with all of the directorates--Education, Public Interest, Practice and Science--to explore ways of promoting the very best values of psychology and of making the Ethics Office a useful resource for psychologists.

Helping you

In future columns I will address more specifically my vision for how the Office of Ethics may serve the membership. It will be important for the office to explore ways of ensuring that our Ethics Code is used appropriately to protect the public and promote best practices, and not used inappropriately to harm psychologists and inhibit good care and research. This issue is one of great concern to many APA members.

The office will also seek to expand and improve our consultative services. The vast majority of psychologists are hard-working, highly competent professionals, and helping members deal with challenging and complex ethical dilemmas should be a top priority. If the Ethics Office has any singular goal, that goal should be to help psychologists facing a broad range of ethical dilemmas do the right thing.

However distant from Washington you may be, and whether your professional life entails practice, research, teaching or administration, I hope you come to experience the APA Office of Ethics as a helpful and available resource.