Being ethical means more than just being a nice person. No matter what we’re doing as psychologists—teaching, research, consultation, talking with our sister-in-law about how to raise her kid—there are ethical dimensions to think about. Today I’ll introduce seven key elements of ethics. These aren’t the only considerations, but they’re enough to get us started, they cover important issues, and they allowed me to write a catchy and mnemonic title. For each C, I pose questions to demonstrate that their deliberation and implementation is pretty complex. It’s not all smooth sailing!
In future columns we’ll explore the deep waters in each of these areas. For now we’ll skim the surface.
It’s easy to say that psychologists should be competent when they teach, do research, consult, and do therapy. But how do you define and measure competence? A degree? License? Refereed publications? Tenure? Appearing on Oprah? Does being competent mean being adequate, perfect, or somewhere in between? Some may define competence as providing significant value, while others (such as licensing boards) might define it simply as not doing harm.
Even after we get competent, we have an obligation to stay competent. The field is changing all the time and psychologists must keep current. For example, when I was in graduate school twenty-five (okay, thirty) years ago they didn’t teach us how to do ethical therapy over Skype!
Part of competence is cultural competence, which includes understanding issues faced by people of diverse ethnicities, gender, sexual orientation, age, etc. This leads to another issue: Nobody can be competent in all areas. For example, psychotherapists who say something like, "I can treat anybody because I’m a good listener,” might not be self-aware enough to be considered competent.
Psychotherapists should not disclose what clients say in therapy to anybody else. Simple, no? No! What if a client threatens to kill somebody, or talks about having been abused as a child, or is having unprotected sex with partners who don’t know that the client is HIV-positive?
It isn’t only therapists who get to wrestle with thorny confidentiality issues. Teachers face fascinating questions, such as: How much, or what type of, information can instructors disclose about their students, and to whom? Think about what you say about your professors to your fellow students. Now, imagine yourself in the faculty lounge of the psychology department: What would you think, or prefer, your professors to be saying about you to other professors?
Conflict of Interest
Motivation, as all psychology students know, is complex. For starters, we want to be psychologists because of our desire to help people, but we also want to make a living. Thus, conflicts of interest are unavoidable in our professional lives. For example, it’s simply not enough to say, "As a therapist, the needs of my clients always come first.” What if a client calls you for an urgent appointment, but you’ve scheduled a family vacation, or your daughter is graduating from high school? Our goal cannot be to avoid all conflicts of interest. Rather, we can aspire to be self-aware and to avoid unnecessary conflicts. This is why psychologists avoid harmful multiple relationships.
Because psychotherapy and research are complex and potentially harmful processes, clients and participants need adequate information on which to base their decisions about entering the therapeutic relationship or research project, and they need to agree explicitly to do so. Some questions: How much information do therapy clients need—do they need a graduate course? What’s the best way to deliver that information, and how do you know if they’ve understood it? How can children provide consent?
Behaving ethically comprises more than following rules—it involves developing virtuous character traits or habits. Thus, in addition to asking, "What should I do?” it’s useful to ask, "Who should I be?” Some major virtues for psychologists are integrity, prudence, caring, and respectfulness. And if you think you already have these traits, consider one more: humility.
Because professional activities are complex and motivations are never pure, consultation is a very important preventive measure that psychologists take. Asking advice of more experienced and knowledgeable people is a great way to actualize humility and prudence—and to avoid drowning in ethical trouble.
Virtually all professions have codes of ethical conduct; psychology is no exception. Take a look at the APA Code of Ethics at http://apa.org/ethics/code/index.aspx to see how the profession discusses a range of ethical obligations. The APA Code is a great place to start fishing for information about ethics, and a great place to end this article.