Ethics Rounds

With great pleasure, I announce in this column a prize for a graduate-student paper on psychology and ethics. The prize, $1,000 and a round trip to APA's 2002 Annual Convention in Chicago, with a two-night stay, will be awarded to the graduate student who writes the best paper in psychology and ethics this academic year, as judged by the APA Ethics Committee. The prize will be announced in June 2002 and awarded at the convention.

I am particularly excited about this ethics prize because of what it represents. As a discipline, ethics seeks to define our profession's fundamental values and examines how these values are weighed against one another when they conflict. 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 we, as a society, must make: Should we keep confidences when safety is at stake? Should we promote individual autonomy by full disclosure, when 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? All of these questions require that we identify our fundamental values and decide which values we will assign priority over others. In a word, all of these questions involve ethical dilemmas.

Psychology is also a field where many empirical questions highly relevant to value choices are explored. Indeed, 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significance are: Is a terminally ill individual in great pain competent to ask that life-prolonging treatment be withdrawn?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, informed that the study's principal investigator has a large financial stake in the study's outcome, provide truly informed consent? Can a 12-year-old child who has just committed a murder be rehabilitated, so that one day he may be released from incarceration? Is deceiving a patient about her true medical condition, in the interest of promoting an optimistic attitude, likely to increase her chances of recovery? Empirical data about these questions may prove critical as individuals seek to resolve an ethical dilemma, and psychologists are in a unique position to address each.

I am very excited about the prospect of an ethics prize to encourage graduate students to write about these and other issues. It strikes me as important and worthwhile for APA to devote resources to the next generation of psychologists, and for psychology students to understand that ethics is about more than obligations, prohibitions and punishments. Human nature being such as it is, rules will always be important--but looking deeper, to understand how rules further our core values, is likewise essential and can be enormously rewarding as well. A graduate student prize in ethics promotes all of these good things. As director of the Office of Ethics, I am heartened to see such support for expanding the training and educative role of this office and of APA's Ethics Committee.

Further Reading

To learn more about the graduate student prize in ethics, please visit APA's Web Site at