The credibility of the Ethics Committee and the change in Standard 1.02

By Frank Summers

At its meeting in February of 2010, the APA Council of Representatives (COR) voted to delete the sentence in Ethics Code Standard 1.02 (and 1.03) that allowed psychologists to follow regulations or governing authorities rather than the standards of the Ethics Code. In addition, the Council added the phrase “Under no circumstances may this standard be used to justify or defend violating human rights.” By making clear that the standards of the code trump authority, even legal authority, thus striking the “Nuremberg defense” from the APA Ethics Code, the COR closed a major loophole in adherence to the principles of the code. This decisive shift represents a clear victory for the many psychologists, including a good number from Division 39, who had opposed 1.02 as a serious flaw that could be used to circumvent the rest of the code and justify unethical behavior. Perhaps most importantly, it gives the entire code greater integrity and legitimacy to both the professional and public worlds. In my view, the entire organization can be proud of establishing an ethics code that requires unequivocal adherence to human rights.

Despite the salutary outcome, there are troubling questions raised by the conduct of the Ethics Committee (EC) during the controversy over changing 1.02. In 2005, due to the intrepid efforts of Division 39’s Dr. Neil Altman, the COR voted to ask the EC to consider changing 1.02 so that any behavior departing from the ethics code due to following a regulation, must be “in accordance with basic human rights.” Such language would have made Standard 1.02 consistent with the aspirational section of the code. However, it took 4 and one-half years for the Committee to issue a 13 page report, much of which was consumed with the history of Standard 1.02 and not even two full pages of which was given over to actual analysis. The report concluded that 1.02 could not be changed because the implications of such a shift have not been explored and require “further review.” That is to say, the EC took 4 ½ years to issue a report that did not review the implications of the change it was asked to consider, and then used that lack of consideration as a rationale to not make the change (for a full review of the report see Summers, 2009). By calling for “further review,” the Ethics Committee acknowledged that it had not performed its assigned task of exploring changes in 1.02. The report that took 4 and one-half years to complete showed a surprising lack of investigation and analysis of the issues. No human rights groups were consulted, and the implications of changing the code were admittedly not reviewed. In brief, the report gave no evidence that the EC made any serious effort to consider changing 1.02. After this report was met with widespread criticism and opposition, the Council directed the EC at its August, 2009 meeting to create a proposal by the February 2010 meeting for a change in Standard 1.02 to fit the aspirational section of the Code. It was only after this direction was given that the EC struck the controversial sentence that had allowed regulations and authority to trump ethical principles.

I review this history not to revisit old battles about the wording of Standard 1.02, but to raise grave concerns about the integrity of the Ethics Committee. After being asked to consider revisions in Standard 1.02, it issued a thin report showing no evidence of any significant investigation of the issues (see Summers, 2009). Instead, the EC acted as though its task was to provide a rationale for not changing the code. There was little in the “report” that could not have been written the day the EC was given its task except for the review of other ethics codes which certainly could have been completed in a matter of weeks. The consumption of more than 4 years without any research or even systematic inquiry, with no effort to contact potentially helpful professional groups, leaves the clear impression that the EC simply had no interest in facilitating a change in 1.02, and this conclusion was underlined brightly when the EC used its own inaction as a reason not to make any change. This fact alone is sufficient grounds for questioning the integrity of the body charged with upholding the ethical standards of the profession.

The credibility of the EC is also set into question by the otherwise welcome fact that the requested change was made within months of the COR directive. In the period between the issuing of the report and the proposed revision of 1.02 there is no evidence that the EC did the “review” it said was necessary in order to make this change. If the EC did undertake such an analysis, there should be a public report of their findings. Lacking such documentation, we are left to wonder what happened to the requirement for a review of the implications of changing 1.02. If the EC meant what it said about the need to undertake a “review” that could not be completed in 4½ years, how does it justify reversing its policy in a few months without any such undertaking? And, if it did not take seriously the need for such a review, its credibility is damaged, perhaps fatally.

I am pleased the EC made the change in Standard 1.02, but beneath the relief many of us feel in having a more principled ethical code, the inexplicable behavior and apparent hypocrisy of the Ethics Committee has gone largely unnoticed. Both the flimsy rationale provided for not changing 1.02 and then the disregard that very rationale in making the change it said could not be made suggests disingenuousness or worse. To allow the discourse to end now that the “Nuremberg defense” has been stricken from the code is to engage in denial of the substantial evidence that the EC has operated without the honor or integrity that should be expected of any Ethics Committee of a professional organization.

The behavior of the EC raises so many troubling questions about it own ethics that the credibility of the APA is at stake. All committees of the APA must be held accountable for their actions, but the EC as upholder of the ethical principles of the profession must conform to the strictest standards of integrity and accountability. The elephant in the living room is the failure of the EC to investigate the potential for changing 1.02, then using that inaction to rationalize the status quo, and then the abandonment of its own assertions without any acknowledgement or rationale for so doing.

In the interest of both accountability and credibility, the EC owes the membership of APA a rationale for what appears to be ethically questionable behavior, incompetence, or both. Without such an explanation the organization is left with an Ethics Committee that has no credibility. And in that case the only honorable course of action is for the entire committee to resign. z


Summers, F. “Open Letter to the Council of Representatives and The Ethics Committee on the Ethics Committee Report on Rule 1.02” Psychologists-Psychoanalyst, Volume 29, No.3, Summer, 2009, pp.25-6, 29