Expert opinion

Conceptualizing and teaching professional ethics post-Hoffman

Ethical considerations in light of the Hoffman investigation and report and a brief preview of the forthcoming book, "The Ethical Practice of Forensic Psychology: A Casebook".

By Robert A. Beattey, JD

It has been a little more than a year since the Report to the Special Committee of the Board of Directors of the American Psychological Association: Independent Review Relating to APA Ethics Guidelines, National Security Interrogations and Torture was released (Hoffman Report; Hoffman, et al., 2015). One of the findings of the report was that “APA officials engaged in a pattern of secret collaboration with DoD officials to defeat efforts by the APA Council of Representatives to introduce and pass resolutions that would have definitively prohibited psychologists from participating in [national security] interrogations…” (Hoffman, et al., 2015, p. 9). Regardless of one’s position on psychologists’ participation in national security interrogations, this finding highlights a key point for those who wish to practice ethically inasmuch as it demonstrates that a professional code of ethics can be influenced by agendas other than ethics. A true understanding of ethical behavior requires recognition that ethical conduct and following the letter of an ethics code are not necessarily coextensive undertakings. While regulations, laws, and professional codes of ethics and rules of professional responsibility are important, they are not definitive with respect to what is, and what is not, ethical behavior.

Behavioral science research has demonstrated that, for many individuals, scant justification can suffice to promote behavior that departs from ethical standards (Milgram, 1963). The findings of the Hoffman Report (2015) suggest that national security concerns can also prompt ethically questionable behavior. There seems to be little risk in speculating that there have always been and will always be situations that an individual finds so monstrous or so important that an exception to an ethical principle can be justified.

Both lawyers and behavioral scientists frequently find themselves in high-stakes situations involving extremes of human behavior and, too often, great depths of human suffering. Such involvement is not without its risks and costs. As Nietzsche (1886-1907) famously cautioned, one “who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you” (p. 97). This is why behaving ethically must be a first principle for both psychologists and legal professionals. A core commitment to the ethical practice of one’s profession serves as some protection from the abyss. Trying to convince students (and practitioners, it must be said) of the merits of studying professional ethics, however, presents some challenges. I recently finished teaching a graduate course on professional ethics for the forensic mental health practitioner, and the course evaluations were telling. A representative student comment was, “the professor made the class bearable.” This suggests that the student’s expectation and experience with ethics was not especially positive.

It is not altogether clear why students and practitioners blanch at the mere mention of professional ethics, but it may have something to do with the impression that professional ethics involves memorizing a collection of legalistic codes and guidelines and then mechanically applying them to every professional situation encountered. Couple that with the siege mentality which results from a minefieldlike conceptualization of professional ethics, in which one false step can end a career, and it is no wonder that many people find the whole topic aversive and would prefer to avoid thinking about it altogether.

The danger is that this approach to professional ethics can discourage professionals from consciously integrating ethical procedures into their practice, and a failure to do so is what is actually most likely to lead to ethical problems, not one misstep. In fact, I would argue that there are serious perils inherent in legalistic rule-following as a crutch in conceptualizing, to say nothing of discharging, ethical obligations to patients, clients, examinees and students. Laws and codes can even be antithetic to the core ethical principles of beneficence and nonmaleficence; fidelity and responsibility; integrity; justice; respect for people’s rights and dignity that psychologists must strive to ensure (American Psychological Association, 2010). The juxtaposition of legalistic decision-making (i.e., conflating compliance with an ethical code with ethical behavior) with the professional obligation to always act in the patient’s best interest highlights the danger of a clinician relying upon legalistic analysis in assessing his or her ethical obligations. Legal sufficiency is not the same as ethical sufficiency. They are related, but independent obligations. Regulations, laws, and ethical standards are, at best, tools to help in determining how to fully discharge the prime obligation to do no harm. There is one thing, in the end, that is required for a professional to be truly ethical, and it will never be captured and reduced to a regulation, law or ethical standard: it is the courage to do what is right for clients, patients, students, research participants and examinees, even when it is difficult to do so and may come at a personal cost.

Conveying the importance of ethical practice in an engaging manner remains a challenge. This led my colleagues, Gianni Pirelli and Patricia A. Zapf, along with myself to edit a book which is entitled “The Ethical Practice of Forensic Psychology: A Casebook” (Pirelli, Beattey, & Zapf, in press). The book, which will be published by Oxford University Press in November, highlights the ethical standards and guidelines set forth in APA’s Ethical Principles of Psychologist and Code of Conduct (American Psychological Association, 2010) and the more recently published Specialty Guidelines for Forensic Psychology (American Psychological Association, 2013), but it goes beyond reviewing these rules and the academic literature about them. The book provides readers with a practical review of ethical principles and professional guidelines in the context of forensic case vignettes that are accompanied by commentary about the ethical issues raised, authored by leaders in the field. Multiple expert commentators, many of whom are household names in the forensic psychology and psychology and law worlds, respond to each of the vignettes in the style of a consultation with a close colleague. There are few definitive answers offered, and, on occasion, the experts disagree somewhat with one another in their discussion of what course of action might be pursued given the issues raised in a particular vignette.

The new book highlights what my co-editors believe to be true of professional ethics. At its best, professional ethics represents an ongoing conversation that we have with ourselves and with each other. By interweaving an ongoing ethical conversation into the core of our practice, we ensure that it informs everything that we do, and that is the hallmark of a true professional.


  • American Psychological Association. (2010). Ethical principles of psychologists and code of conduct. American Psychologist, 57, 1060-1073.
  • American Psychological Association. (2013). Specialty guidelines for forensic psychology. American Psychologist, 68 (1), 7–19.
  • Hoffman, D. H., Carter, D. J., Viglucci Lopez, C. R., Benzmiller, H. L., Guo A. X., L., Y., S., et al. (2015, Sept. 4). Report to the Special Committee of the Board of Directors of the American Psychological Association: Independent review relating to APA Ethics Guidelines, national security interrogations, and torture (revised). (S. A. LLP, Producer) Retrieved Sept. 5, 2016, from 
  • Milgram, S. (1963). Behavioral study of obedience. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 67, 371-378.
  • Nietzsche, F. (1886/1907). Beyond good and evil. New York: MacMillan.
  • Pirelli, G., Beattey, R.A., Zapf. P. A. (Eds.) (in press). The ethical practice of forensic psychology: A casebook. New York: Oxford University Press. Note: The link to the book on Oxford’s site is You can pre-order now and save 30 percent with discount code ASPROMP8.