Ethics Rounds

Begin by assuming that the overwhelming majority of psychologists are competent, hard-working and have a strong sense of professional ethics. Assume next that the world of psychology has become increasingly complicated, and poses ethical dilemmas and complexities not present even a decade ago. Conclude that at some point, many psychologists will find themselves in an ambiguous circumstance where, despite their good intentions, the ethically appropriate behavior is not readily apparent.

Where can these psychologists turn for help and guidance? One possibility is the boards and committees charged with enforcing ethics codes and regulations. Because these bodies are responsible for adjudicating complaints, they seem in an ideal position to help psychologists avoid ethically problematic behavior in the first place.

At times, investigative and enforcement bodies have been reluctant to provide more guidance than identifying and reading relevant texts from the APA ethics code or a regulation. When ethical dilemmas involve multiple aspects of the code or regulations, this approach can be helpful. At the same time, however, this manner of responding to a request for an ethics consultation can leave the psychologist frustrated, and anxious that the very entity that has not given any concrete direction is now poised to impose a sanction should the psychologist fail to do the right thing.

Striking a balance

Three reasons argue for a more restricted approach to providing guidance: 1) requests for an ethics consultation present a single version of the facts, and specific advice can only be given when all the facts are known; 2) providing specific advice may contaminate any future ethics proceeding, should charges be filed and the psychologist then invoke reliance on the advice; and 3) many enforcement bodies lack resources to consult in a more complex manner.

Each of these reasons merits consideration. In terms of the first reason for providing limited guidance, it is true that advice must be given cautiously whenever all facts are not available. Most important is for the consultant to be mindful of how different or additional facts may alter the advice or recommendation offered. It can nevertheless be enormously helpful to discuss with the psychologist a process for resolving an ethical dilemma that underscores how different facts may lead to different resolutions. Such an ethics consultation puts forth a way of coming to a decision that does not commit to a particular version of facts, and thereby largely circumvents the problem of the consultation's validity being fact-specific.

The second reason for providing limited guidance presents a classic ethical dilemma, insofar as two values conflict. The value of providing consultative help to a psychologist is pitted against the value of protecting the integrity of the ethics adjudication process. While there is no "right" answer to the question of which value is given priority, providing guidance before an ethics problem has arisen may be as good a use of resources as investigating and adjudicating an ethics complaint for a problem that has already occurred. Also, to the extent that the adjudication process is intended to protect consumers, providing guidance up-front may be an equally good way to achieve that end. Thus, one could reasonably conclude that protecting the integrity of the process should sometimes give way to--that is, not stand in the way of--providing a more elaborated and ideally more helpful ethics consultation.

The third reason for providing limited guidance, like the second, involves a question of values, of where we put our money, in both a figurative and literal sense. If the primary purpose of adjudication is to protect consumers--a hugely important goal--it is critical to examine what balance between adjudication and ethics consultation best promotes this end. The balance we strike should both assist psychologists struggling with complex ethical dilemmas and allow for a clear response to unethical behavior. Each of these goals is good for our profession.

A consultative resource for all members

Adjudicating ethics complaints is an enormous responsibility. For many reasons--primary among which is that adjudication is highly stressful for the psychologist who is the subject of a complaint--adjudication must be done in a thorough, fair and expeditious manner. Providing ethics consultations to psychologists is also an enormously important enterprise, an endeavor that helps achieve some of the very same goals as does adjudication.

In this column, I have suggested that protecting the integrity of the adjudication process should not be a serious impediment to providing substantive guidance to psychologists who request an ethics consultation. As director of APA's Ethics Office, I am committed to developing a consultative resource for all APA members who find themselves struggling with an ethics dilemma. I very much hope that such a resource will provide a valuable service to psychologists, as well as to the individuals and groups with whom we work.