Comments on Tim Williams' Paper, 'Setting Impossible Standards: The Model of Ethical Decision-Making Associated with the New Zealand Psychologists' Code of Ethics'

By Seymour, Fred; Nairn, Raymond et al. | New Zealand Journal of Psychology, March 2004 | Go to article overview

Comments on Tim Williams' Paper, 'Setting Impossible Standards: The Model of Ethical Decision-Making Associated with the New Zealand Psychologists' Code of Ethics'


Seymour, Fred, Nairn, Raymond, Austin, Jack, New Zealand Journal of Psychology


Tim Williams' article provides a valuable review of how decisions are made and although much of the commentary about ethical decision-making is by extrapolation it does offer important insights. He then applies this review to the steps for decision-making recommended in the preamble to the 2002 Code of Ethics for Psychologists Working in Aoteatoa/New Zealand. We are grateful for the opportunity to respond to his paper, particularly as he appears to us misunderstand the purpose of our recommendations. We will make only tangential reference to his review of decision-making models, and instead comment on the model that we offer and the justification for it.

In the preparation of the revised Code the working party responsible for the review produced versions for comment and progressively integrated these comments to produce the final document. Williams is correct in his assumption that we did not receive comments on the preamble. His commentary provides grounds for revision in some areas. In particular, the code preamble should clarify that it is not expected that all ethical decisions are made, or must be made, by applying systematically the six steps described. We agree that psychologists are confronted daily with ethical decisions, and that on most occasions psychologists will follow a process that adheres to the direct application of a "rule" (e.g., make sure to gain explicit informed consent) and/or that psychologists make ethical decisions by a process that appears to be automatic or intuitive. The preamble should acknowledge this in a future revision, albeit without losing the emphasis on care in all decision-making. We also agree that the Canadian Code provides valuable additional points in the steps it describes; in particular, the consideration of personal bias and of actions that may be taken to prevent future occurrences of the dilemma.

The present Code was shaped by our consideration of the old New Zealand code, and equivalent codes from other countries. To a great extent we relied upon the Canadian Code with its emphasis on principles, related values, and related practice implications. That is, we wished to emphasize the way in which a particular ethical decision is arrived at, rather than provide a prescriptive set of rules (as was the model employed in the previous Code). The Code provides in its very structure a guideline for decision-making. The six steps spell out the process recommended in making a particular decision.

The Code was further shaped by a survey conducted with Registered Psychologists in which we asked them to describe ethical dilemmas that they, or a colleague, had recently faced (Davis, Seymour & Read, 1997). This demonstrated the type of ethical issue that could not be considered "routine" and that demanded of practitioners that a deliberate, rational decision-making process is followed. We also considered the clear evidence from complaints against psychologists that suggested the need for clearer direction in ethical decision-making.

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