Ethics Rounds

A year or so ago, I was contacted by a psychologist on a mission. Dr. Joel Lefkowitz wanted to debate whether the Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct--APA's Ethics Code--is sufficiently relevant to industrial and organizational (I/O) psychology. Dr. Lefkowitz felt it a mistake to assume that the Ethics Code could adequately address the ethical dilemmas of APA's many divisions (56 at last count), and wanted the issue confronted head-on at the next meeting of Div. 14, the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology (SIOP). I appreciated Dr. Lefkowitz for wanting to include the APA Ethics Office in the debate and so readily agreed when he invited me to Dallas for SIOP's 21st annual conference this past May.

The resolution was framed in a simple and straightforward manner: "The APA Ethics Code is inadequate for I/O psychology." I felt the ensuing debate was a success, not because a clear winner emerged but rather because each of the panelists made an important contribution to how a division representing an area of psychology might approach this question. As moderator, Dr. Lefkowitz set the context by reflecting on what it means to belong to a "profession." He suggested that members of a profession set standards of conduct through an ethics code that expresses the profession's goals, values and ideals. This concept of profession had motivated Dr. Lefkowitz to assemble a panel to debate whether APA's Ethics Code adequately meets the needs of I/O psychology.

Arguing on the affirmative side of the proposition--that APA's Ethics Code is not adequate for I/O psychology--Drs. Jerald Greenberg and Robert McIntyre addressed the need for "more guidance to do the right thing" and emphasized the close tie between a field's identity and that field's code of ethics. Arguing the negative side of the proposition--that the APA Ethics Code is adequate for I/O psychology--Drs. Rodney Lowman and Deirdre Knapp described ethics as a developmental process, encouraged I/O psychologists to participate when the time comes for the next revision of the Ethics Code, and pointed out that the current code contains provisions that speak explicitly to organizational psychology. During the course of the debate, the group developed and elaborated a metaphor to help think through whether there is a problem in applying the APA Ethics Code to I/O psychology and, if so, how the problem is best addressed.

The metaphor builds upon the aspirational nature of ethical principles in the Ethics Code and the enforceability of the code's ethical standards. Standards, as opposed to principles, provide the basis for an ethics action. Ethical principles are the ceiling to which psychologists aspire; ethical standards are the floor that psychologists do not go below. The metaphor places ethical principles, which are written at a high level of abstraction, up with the moon and the stars, as Principle A, Beneficence and Nonmaleficence, demonstrates in its first sentence: "Psychologists strive to benefit those with whom they work and take care to do no harm." Ethical principles capture lofty ideas that, by definition, are lofty.

In contrast to ethical principles, enforceable standards are at a lower level of abstraction, at the level of clouds in the metaphor. Standards put the principles such as "Do good and do no harm" into practice. In many instances, the standards indicate how we do good and avoid harm--for example, by ensuring that we are competent when we provide services or that we obtain proper informed consent. While standards are at a greater level of specificity than the principles, standards nonetheless leave significant room for professional judgment and discretion in how psychologists apply the standards in our day-to-day work--between the clouds and the ground where we practice, there is a gap.

The gap between the clouds and the ground is apparent by examining specific standards, as Ethical Standard 3.05, Multiple Relationships, illustrates:


…A psychologist refrains from entering into a multiple relationship if the multiple relationship could reasonably be expected to impair the psychologist's objectivity, competence, or effectiveness in performing his or her functions as a psychologist….

While this ethical standard states that psychologists refrain from engaging in multiple relationships that impair the psychologist's "objectivity, competence, or effectiveness," the standard does not identify specific relationships that meet this test. Note that an ethics code could never identify every impermissible multiple relationship: Because of the complexity of what psychologists do, such a code would be virtually limitless. Nor would such a code be desirable, insofar as it would remove the judgment and discretion that define a profession.

In the metaphor, the gap between the clouds and the ground--between the standards and our day-to-day practices--is filled by our professional judgment and discretion. As professionals, we bring the standards down to earth. As a profession, then, we need to ask: How wide do we want that gap to be? We can narrow the gap by writing more elaborate and specific ethical standards, which will provide more guidance but leave less room for our professional judgment and discretion. In the alternative, the larger the gap between the clouds and the ground, the less elaborate and specific our standards will be and the more room we will have to exercise professional judgment and discretion.

Applying the metaphor to the debate resolution, we ask where in this framework there is a problem and how the problem is best addressed. Perhaps, for example, the principles, which are at the highest level of abstraction (Beneficence and Nonmaleficence, Fidelity and Responsibility, Integrity, Justice, Respect for People's Rights and Dignity), are not the right principles for I/O psychology. Drawn largely from the biomedical ethics literature, the principles may not adequately speak to I/O psychology and so may need to be re-examined in the next Ethics Code revision.

In the alternative, the size of the gap between the clouds and the ground may need adjusting. A call for more guidance suggests a desire for more specific standards. It is important to recognize, however, that greater specificity in the standards--bringing the clouds closer to the ground--will result in less room to exercise our professional judgment and discretion, so that what we gain in terms of guidance we pay for in terms of the ability to determine what the standards mean in our practices. To the extent that more ethical guidance is needed, the best alternative to more specific standards may be efforts such as Dr. Lowman's, where I/O psychologists with expertise in ethics write commentaries on how the Ethics Code applies in practice. Commentaries on the code are excellent mechanisms to bring the code down to earth and show how psychologists use their training, expertise and professional judgment to apply the ethical standards.

The debate that Dr. Lefkowitz organized brings ethics into the center of our awareness. His manner of framing the debate resolution focuses us on the values that imbue our professional lives and presses us to think through how those values are best brought to life in our work. Debates that question the very relevance of the Ethics Code present challenges, but may also provide some of the best opportunities to put into words what it means to be an ethical psychologist.

Further Reading

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Previous "Ethics Rounds" columns can be found at APA Ethics, in the "From the Director" section.