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Sailing the “Seven C’s” of Ethics
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by Mitch M. Handelsman, PhD - University of Colorado Denver
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
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
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.
Mitch Handelsman received his BA in psychology from Haverford College and his PhD
in clinical psychology from the University of Kansas. He is currently professor
of psychology and a CU President’s Teaching Scholar at the University of Colorado
Denver, where he has been on the faculty since 1982. He served for a year (1989-1990)
in Washington DC as an APA Congressional Science Fellow. In 2003-04, he was president
of the Rocky Mountain Psychological Association. He is a licensed psychologist and
a fellow of the American Psychological Association. Mitch won the 1992 CASE (Council
for the Advancement and Support of Education) Colorado Professor of the Year Award,
and the Excellence in Teaching Award from the Society for the Teaching of Psychology
(APA Division 2) in 1995. He has published several book chapters and over 50 articles
in journals ranging from the Professional Psychology: Research and Practice to the
Journal of Polymorphous Perversity. His major research area is professional ethics;
he is the coauthor (with Sharon K. Anderson) of a text on ethics in psychotherapy
(Ethics for Psychotherapists and Counselors: A Proactive Approach) from Wiley-Blackwell.
His ethics blog, “The Ethical Professor,” can be found at
http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-ethical-professor. You can contact
Mitch at mitchell.handelsman@UCDenver.edu.
Winter 2011 issue of Eye on Psi Chi (Vol. 15, No. 2, p. 8), published by
Psi Chi, The International Honor Society in Psychology (Chattanooga, TN). Copyright,
2010, Psi Chi, The International Honor Society in Psychology. All rights reserved.