Ethics: Virtue and Politics in the Science and Practice of Psychology

By Pettifor, Jean L. | Canadian Psychology, February 1996 | Go to article overview
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Ethics: Virtue and Politics in the Science and Practice of Psychology

Pettifor, Jean L., Canadian Psychology


The discipline of psychology is moving beyond the myth of detached neutrality to discover virtue and to recognize politics as forces which determine ethical behaviour. Humankind has struggled over the centuries to discover the nature of good and evil and to define the rightness and wrongness of human behaviour. Psychology has a short history in formalizing codes of ethics and codes of conduct. Current and historical events, concepts and values, including those based on philosophy and religion, have influenced the development of psychology's scientific and professional codes. The ethical behaviour of psychologists may be inspired by values, regulated by rules, determined by external pressures, or any combination of these. Emerging issues and challenges in today's changing and turbulent society require an incorporation of moral principles in finding acceptable strategies to achieve acceptable goals. May virtue and politics go hand in hand in creating a better world.

I wish to begin with a Buddhist quotation:

Ethics is state of mind that abstains from engaging in any situation or event that would prove harmful to others. The perfection of ethics is accomplished when you have developed to the ultimate point the conviction not to harm others. ... The pure observance of ethics is like a beautiful jewel that suits everyone, irrespective of height, weight, age, and nationality. Material ornaments may look beautiful on one person but not on another, whereas the ornament of ethics looks beautiful on all practitioners irrespective of their physical appearance. With the pure observance of ethics you will naturally command respect within the human community. (Dalai Lama, 1994, p. 161)

Historically, human beings across cultures, religions, and geography have attempted to discover the nature of right and wrong, of good and evil. Among basic questions are "What is the meaning of life?", and "How can we live life meaningfully?".

The thesis of this paper is that psychology needs to re - discover and reclaim virtue and moral values as its base for ethical behaviour, thinking and being. The concept of personal individual ethics needs to be extended to the social and cultural environment, because the environment influences the ethical behaviour of psychologists and the quality of life of all citizens. A morally responsible perspective includes a political role for psychologists which encompasses strategies to shape that environment. Since no issues stand alone, the interconnectedness of psychology's scientific and professional codes of ethics to other current and historical events, concepts, and values is recognized. It is not possible to be fully knowledgeable of the sheer volume and complexity of 2500 years of human searching for truth and righteousness. It is possible to know that psychology's formulation and practice of ethics are connected to a larger world which includes foundations in the world's wisdom traditions in philosophy and religion.

Basic Concepts


Ethics is the study of the principles and standards of human conduct. Religions define right and wrong by religious authority, law by legislative acts, and good manners by the social culture. Moral principles prescribe, are universal, over - ride other considerations, are public and apply to practical action and behaviour. One may assess actions as right, wrong or neutral, as well as the consequences of behaviour, and the character of the actor.

From Greek mythology comes the word psyche, representing virtue, soul and love, a word which was adopted as a prefix for psychology and other mind - related disciplines. The concept of virtue is as old as human history. Virtue is defined as general moral excellence; right action and thinking; goodness or morality (Webster's New World Dictionary, 1980). Virtuous people possess characteristics which enable them to do good and to resist forces which hurt and destroy.

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