The Relative Importance of the Ethical Principles Adopted by the American Psychological Association

Article excerpt


A primary purpose of a code of ethics is to assist members of an organization in making consistent choices when faced with ethical dilemmas. In instances where two or more ethical principles are in conflict with one another, decision-makers are typically left to determine which of the two should be given most weight. Nonetheless, in the code of ethics adopted by the Canadian Psychological Association (CPA), principles are ranked in order of importance. This provides decision-makers with guidance in situations of conflict between ethical principles. In contrast to CPA's code of ethics, other professional codes do not provide such guidance. In a previous paper, we provided a philosophical rationale for a ranking of the ethical principles adopted by the American Psychological Association (APA) in order to help guide decision-making (Hadjistavropoulos & Malloy, 1999). In the present study, we investigated whether APA members collectively believe that some ethical principles are more important than others, and whether their views about the relative importance of ethical principles are consistent with the order (i.e., ranking) outlined in the CPA code. The results suggest that although APA members view all principles of their code as being important, they also view certain principles as carrying more weight. A discussion of the similarities and differences between a ranking of ethical principles that was based on our participants' responses and that of the CPA code is provided. The implications of the findings for ethical decision-making are also discussed.

A primary purpose of any code of ethics is to provide members of an association with guidance for making consistent ethical choices. Principles and standards are used to specify for members the nature of what the organization/association deems to be ideal and/or expected conduct (Railborn & Payne, 1990).

The ethical principles listed in the code of ethics adopted by the Canadian Psychological Association (CPA, 1991, 2000) are ranked in order of importance. This approach was intended to increase consistency of ethical decision-making in situations where ethical principles are in conflict with one another (Hadjistavropoulos & Malloy, 2000; Sinclair, 1998). In contrast to the CPA code, the code of ethics adopted by the American Psychological Association (APA, 1992) does not include a ranking of ethical principles. The APA (1992) code is of interest to Canadian psychologists because it reflects the practices of the largest psychological association in the world and is a highly visible and influential document within international psychology. Moreover, approximately 2,000 Canadian psychologists are members of APA (APA, 2000).

The code of ethics of the american psychological association (APA, 1992) includes six ethical principles (Competence, Integrity, Professional and Scientific Responsibility, Respect for People's Rights and Dignity, Concern for Others' Welfare, and Social Responsibility). It is not difficult to think of situations in which some of these principles can come into conflict with other principles. Consider, for example, a well-meaning parent who wishes to make a choice for his child that the psychologist believes is not in the best interest of the child (Hadjistavropoulos & Malloy, 1999). In such a situation, principles that relate to client autonomy (e.g., Respect for People's Rights and Dignity) would conflict with those that pertain to concern for the welfare of others (e.g., Concern for Others' Welfare). Most codes of ethics do not provide guidance with respect to the manner in which such conflicts should be dealt with, thus, increasing the probability of inconsistent decision-making among psychologists.

As mentioned earlier, the issue of conflict among ethical principles has been addressed by CPA (1991, 2000). The four principles of CPA's code are ranked as follows: 1) Respect for the Dignity of Persons; 2) Responsible Caring; 3) Integrity in Relationships; and 4) Responsibility to Society. …