July 25th, 2009
The American Psychological Association has been roiled by controversy regarding the association’s embrace of the Nuremberg ["just following orders"] Defense in its ethics code. [See Scott Horton's brief introduction to the issue.] While there are new developments I will be posting about shortly, I wanted to post one of the most articulate letters of protest written to APA President James Bray on this issue. It is psychology Mary Pelton-Cooper and well expresses the passion and disgust many psychologists feel in response to the endless APA prevarications on professional ethics and the service psychologists provided to government detainee abuse:
Dr James H Bray
American Psychological Association President,
July 17, 2009
I am writing as a dues-paying member of APA, to express my great disappointment about the ethics committee’s recent recommendation to retain 1.02 in the ethics code. With this move the APA EC [Ethics Committee] fails again to protect the integrity of our code of ethics. In 2002 the Basic Principles were labeled as “aspirational only” and a statement was added to serve as a complete disclaimer for any responsibility to adhere to the principles. This is contrary to the function and purpose of professional codes of ethics. It is the kind of thing a corporation would do, not the kind of move that is compatible with the fiduciary responsibilities of professional associations.
By adding 1.02 the APA leadership allows for adherence to laws that conflict with ethical standards, thus undermining the integrity of professional conduct. Unfortunately as we are all aware, law that violates human rights can be generated in this country and other countries almost overnight.
Professions are given autonomy and internal policing power to regulate themselves because they have the needed esoteric knowledge and the moral commitment to the value the profession serves. The APA does not exercise the proper amount of moral autonomy when it minimizes the extent of psychologists’ involvement in state-sanctioned abuse (disregard for principle 1). The recent admissions by APA are embarrassingly inadequate. The public is already well aware of the APA support for interrogation methods that are not consistent with good science or with professional values (disregard for principle 2).
I appreciate that the code of ethics was originally developed by the APA ethics committees, and I appreciate that APA officials have made a number of valuable additions to our code over the years. I teach an undergraduate introductory course on ethics and practice of psychology in which I teach my students that this process generated a sound code of ethics. However, now I must explain to the students how and why the APA leadership has failed to protect the code of ethics from pressures to disregard universal morals and has therefore compromised the purpose of the code.
In 2002 the ethics committee chose to put law above moral values. The EC has refused to recommend a reversal of that action in spite of mounting sound arguments against 1.02. Based on the principles of moral philosophy, these actions are evidence of incompetence and/or a concerted effort to alter the purpose of our code. We have a duty to serve society as a profession, but APA is functioning more like a union and/or a corporation aiming to protect the members rather than furthering our fiduciary responsibilities to the public.
Law is a low level tool for implementing moral values, and sometimes laws are poorly conceived and even immoral. When there is a conflict between laws and the code, the moral values in the code should trump the law. When this happens a crisis is raised for the professional. However, 1.02 eliminates the dilemma and allows psychologists to collude with potentially unjust legal practices. It is a mistake for the APA to place this low level tool above moral duty the professional has to society and to the values that govern a just society. Thus the APA has failed to serve society and it has failed to serve the hundreds of members who have objected to these ethical failures.
I struggle with how I will explain this colossal failure to my young students whose goal is to serve society as clinical psychologists. The APA Director of Ethics has failed to write a thorough nuanced analysis of the ethical dilemmas involved in the design of interrogation techniques. As a member I suspect he has orders to minimize this ethical dilemma rather than thoroughly analyze it. One of the officers in my state organization explained to me that employees like Stephen Behnke “do not get a vote [on APA policy].” This is of course is an outrageous situation for an ethics director. Perhaps his weak showing is due in part to his lack of a graduate degree in applied ethics.
Since I can only speculate about the rationale for the absence of such a thorough analysis, I have decided to give our ethics director’s failed assignment to my undergraduates. Perhaps they can develop a sense of hope for a brighter future when they find that ethics is really not terribly confusing, and that the current failures are not due to the difficulty of the task.
I believe the failures described above are due to dysfunction in the organizational structure. APA has become a corporation and a business club for the promotion of psychology, and it has ceased to be the professional association for psychology that protects the public by serving as a moral guide for the profession. Unelected, unaccountable officials are setting significant policy trends without regard for the outrage from the psychologists they are obligated to serve. How did these positions evolve as a corporate power structure that is immune to member protests? APA is not General Motors or the United Auto Workers. APA cannot fire large groups of psychologists and assume the right to motor on, guided by the private ambitions of unelected leaders and CEOs. APA cannot ignore the large groups of psychologists who have resigned for ethical reasons. Please give your full attention to this critical turning point. The hundreds of psychologists who have stopped paying dues and/or have dissociated themselves from APA are not conveniently discarded. They are firing you. The APA lacks credibility without the approval of its members.
The time has come to ask the APA leadership to step down as the guardians for the professional association for psychology. The current administrative structure of APA has harmed the national and international reputation of psychology and it has tarnished the reputation of each individual psychologist by associating each of us with the shame of this moral failure. This harm will translate into public mistrust for psychologists, and the public mistrust will turn patients away from our offices and into the offices of the master’s level practitioners who are not associated with this disgrace. Thus the harm done by the APA EC will affect the quality of psychological services to the public.
No need to respond, Dr Bray. I am already aware of your disregard for this position. The intent of this letter is to document the harm.
Mary Pelton-Cooper, Psy.D.
Marquette MI, 49855