Academic journal article Canadian Psychology

Psychology in and out of the Shadows

Academic journal article Canadian Psychology

Psychology in and out of the Shadows

Article excerpt

In the last few decades, the Canadian Psychological Association (CPA) has taken stands on controversial social problems including the rights of First Nations, capital punishment, same-sex marriage and adoption, and homelessness and housing. It has developed and revised its ethics code (CPA, 2001) to reflect these and other social concerns, notably under Principle IV, Responsibility to Society.

The American Psychological Association (APA), has also taken stands on social issues, often the same issues and similar stands. But in some cases the approaches of CPA and APA to social issues, and the role of organized psychology, have diverged. In this paper, I will outline some areas of similarity and divergence, concluding with a look at present and future social issues that might engage, or are engaging, organized psychology.

Psychologists and Capital Punishment

Capital punishment provides an example of an issue on which APA and CPA basically agree, but on which they have a somewhat different focus because of different legal and political contexts. In Canada, capital punishment was a divisive political issue, and abolition was slow in coming. In the 1970s, the federal government decided to try a demonstration project: Capital punishment was still on the books, but for a 5-year period every death sentence was commuted. During the moratorium, public support for formal, total abolition continued to grow, and on July 14, 1976, Bill C-84 was passed by a narrow margin of 130 to 124 in a free vote. Most progressive conservatives voted against abolition and continued to campaign for another free vote to bring back the death penalty.

Many, but not all, Canadian psychologists favored abolition. In 1987, as Parliament moved toward holding a free vote to reinstate the death penalty, a motion against capital punishment was prepared for the annual meeting of CPA. An issue arose that has bedeviled professional organizations who take political stands: Should the group's intervention be based entirely on empirical research, or can it also express an ethical and moral position?

Some thought that CPA should only make a public pronouncement if it was supported by empirical evidence. In the case of the death penalty, such evidence would involve research on the deterrence value of capital punishment. A first version of the motion said, "In our scientific judgement studies have shown no evidence whatsoever for deterrence." But many expressed reservations about the narrow empirical approach. They wanted the CPA motion to make a moral/ethical pronouncement. After vigorous debate, members combined the two ideas in a single motion

Whereas use of the death penalty is against our professional, ethical, and scientific values; and whereas in our scientific judgment studies of the effects of capital punishment on homicide rates have shown no evidence whatsoever for deterrence; be it resolved that the membership of the Canadian Psychological Association opposes the reinstatement of the death penalty in Canada. (CPA, 1987)

With passage of the motion, CPA became one of a number of professional organizations to argue against reintroduction of the death penalty. On June 30, 1987, a bill to restore the death penalty was defeated by the House of Commons in a 148 -127 vote.

Despite the decline of the death penalty in Western countries, the United States largely resists. Thirty-one American states use the death penalty, 19 have abolished it, and 4 have capital punishment on the books but current governors have imposed a moratorium.

As in Canada, there is strong sentiment against capital punishment among American professionals. APA has joined other social scientists in pointing out to the courts that the death penalty, like incarceration itself, has a strong racial bias. APA's legal staff has submitted amicus briefs to the U.S. Supreme Court arguing against various aspects of the death penalty, including the execution of children under 18 and of people with serious intellectual disabilities. …

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