Ethical Decision-Making and the Code of Ethics of the Canadian Psychological Assn

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Abstract

The Code of Ethics of the Canadian Psychological Association (CPA) is based on four ethical principles that are ranked in a hierarchy of importance. The code states that when these principles conflict, decisions should usually be based on relative rank order. A study was conducted to see whether pre - professional psychology students would endorse solutions to ethical dilemmas that were consistent with the ranking of principles recommended in the code. In response to a series of vignettes pitting the four CPA principles against one another, participants endorsed choices in a statistically significant pattern of decreasing frequency that was consistent with the ranking. There was also considerable variation in responses to vignettes that pitted the same two principles against each other, indicating that context affects decisions about what is ethical. Results are discussed with regard to training in professional ethics.

Traditionally, codes of ethics for psychologists have consisted of lists of rules that describe and codify expected ethical behaviour. There is rarely any attempt to apply a consistent moral theory in developing these rules. The Canadian Psychological Association broke with that tradition when it produced its Code of Ethics for Psychologists in 1986, revised in 1991. The stated objectives of the creators of the code were, among other things, to produce a document that was internally consistent, reflected explicit moral principles, and included guidelines for decision - making (Sinclair, Poizner, Gilmour - Barret & Randall, 1987). To attempt to meet these objectives, the code makers went beyond the usual practice of basing the code solely on members' practices and/or opinions. They identified four fundamental ethical principles and used them to structure the code. To simplify decision - making, principles were ranked in order of the relative weight they should be given when they are in conflict.

Although the Canadian code has received positive evaluation in various settings (e.g., Eberlein, 1988; O'Neill, 1990; Pettifor, 1988), it is not known whether persons obliged to use the code would normally give the principles their recommended weight. This paper investigates the code's ranking of principles by looking at the correspondence between the ranking and the choices made by college students working toward careers in psychology.

DEVELOPMENT OF THE CANADIAN CODE

Until 1977, the CPA routinely adopted each revision of the American Psychological Association (APA) Code of Ethics almost without alteration. The APA code, throughout all its revisions from the adoption of the first code in 1953, has been based on an empirical and inductive approach in formulating guidelines: Principles are derived from psychologists' experiences in resolving ethical problems (APA, 1982).

The CPA did not accept the 1977 version of the APA code and decided to develop its own (Sinclair et al., 1987). Dissatisfaction with the adoption of APA codes had grown over time, but the CPA decision, made in 1979, was provoked specifically by American revision of restrictions on advertising to conform with U.S. law. The emphasis on the commercial aspects of the profession was an approach that the Canadian organization did not accept (Sinclair, 1993).

A first step taken in the development of a Canadian code of ethics was a thorough analysis of the 1977 APA code by the CPA Committee on Ethics. The committee used international and interdisciplinary ethics literature as a frame of reference. Four general goals of ethics codes adopted by professional organizations were identified:

1) To help establish the group as a profession;

2) To act as a support and guide to individual professionals;

3) To help meet the responsibilities of being a profession;

4) To provide a statement of moral principle that helps the individual professional to resolve ethical dilemmas (Sinclair et al. …