Ethics Rebellion in Psychology

October 12, 2007

The role of social scientists in helping the U.S. war effort -- especially in ways that may violate ethical standards -- continues to vex many professors. When anthropologists learned last year that some of their scholarship may have inspired tactics used in the Abu Ghraib prison, the American Anthropological Association voted to condemn “the use of anthropological knowledge as an element of physical and psychological torture" and created a committee to study the ethical issues raised by working with national security agencies.

Psychologists have had a more contentious time thus far discussing these issues. While leaders of the American Psychological Association say that they have been unequivocal in their stance against torture, for several years some in the field have argued that policies were not strong enough. The policy was strengthened in August, but it left open the possibility that some psychologists could help interrogation teams with their work, even in situations outside the United States where U.S. authorities detain many prisoners without the due process rights that someone would receive in a prison in the country.

This month, three psychology departments have gone on record saying that the association did not go far enough -- and that they consider it a violation of professional ethics to help the U.S. with interrogations in any prison outside the country where due process rights are not enforced. The votes on a resolution -- by the psychology faculties at Earlham, Guilford and Smith Colleges -- are an unusually public effort by departments to criticize collectively a key decision by their national association. A number of other departments are considering similar moves.

The resolution originated at Earlham, an institution that takes Quaker values of nonviolence and respect seriously. (Guilford is also Quaker, but Smith is not.) The resolution says that -- even with the bans on various forms of interrogation in which psychologists can help authorities -- there are too many moral problems with helping interrogations in foreign detention centers maintained by the United States. A theme of the resolution is that the APA's own ethical standards should preclude this kind of involvement by those in the profession, even without a special policy.

The measure adopted by the APA, the Earlham resolution states, acts "to undermine the moral authority and stature of psychology as a profession, and that, moreover, fails to recognize that decades of research in social psychology demonstrates that situational factors, especially in highly ideological and isolated settings, can be predicted, over time, to undermine the resolve of well-intentioned individuals, including psychologists, to resist institutional pressures to misuse authority."

Michael R. Jackson, chair of Earlham's psychology department, has sent a letter to department leaders at many other colleges, urging them to back the resolution. He called the APA stance "ethically compromised" and said that he hoped departments could push the association to take "a clear and unambiguous stand on the issue." The current policy, he said, provides "aid in legitimizing these interrogations and foreign detention centers."

Richard Zweigenhaft, chair of psychology at Guilford, said professors there agree with their Earlham colleagues that the APA's position is "insufficient" and acts "to legitimize" both secret military and CIA facilities abroad.

At Smith, where psychology professors voted unanimously Wednesday to adopt the resolution, "our reading of APA's position most recently is that it is not true to the ethics commitment of the organization, and we conclude that it is improper," said Fletcher A. Blanchard, the chair. "The profession has ethical guidelines and we believe our organization is violating them."

Rhea Farberman, a spokeswoman for the APA, said that she thought the colleges' resolution "badly underreports" the association's "strict and unequivocal" ban on members of the profession playing any role in torture or a series of activities (not intended to be all inclusive) that constitute cruel and unusual treatment. These activities, specified in the APA resolution adopted in August, include water-boarding, the use of dogs to intimidate, sexual humiliation, religious humiliation, the use of psychotropic drugs, hooding and forced nakedness.

While it is true that the APA position permits the involvement of psychologists in some work by interrogation teams, Farberman said that was intended to advance the same goals that the association's critics embrace. "The question is what's the best strategy to achieve a goal we are all committed to -- the protection of detainee welfare," she said. "The APA Council of Representatives has devoted considerable time to this issue over the past three years and has chosen a strategy of engagement. That is, rather than absenting all psychologists; allowing psychologists to consult to interrogations teams, within strict ethical guidelines, in order to protect and promote detainee welfare."

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