Academic journal article Canadian Psychology

Making Ethical Choices: A Comprehensive Decision-Making Model for Canadian Psychologists

Academic journal article Canadian Psychology

Making Ethical Choices: A Comprehensive Decision-Making Model for Canadian Psychologists

Article excerpt


This paper proposes a theoretical augmentation of the seven-step decision-making model outlined in the Canadian Code of Ethics for Psychologists. We propose that teleological, deontological, and existential ethical perspectives should be taken into account in the decision-making process. We also consider the influence of individual, issuespecific, significant-other, situational, and external factors on ethical decision-making. This theoretical analysis demonstrates the richness and complexity of ethical decisionmaking.

The Canadian Code of Ethics for Psychologists (Canadian Psychological Association [CPA] , 1991 ) has many unique features (Sinclair, 1998). One of these is the inclusion of a decision-making model that Canadian psychologists are expected to follow when confronted with an ethical dilemma (Sinclair, 1998). In such situations, the psychologist should follow seven steps: a) identify the ethical issues and practices that are pertinent to the dilemma; b) design alternative courses of action; c) identify and consider the potential risks and benefits that are associated with each course of action; d) select a course of action after careful application of the code of ethics; e) take action and make a commitment to assume responsibility for its consequences; f) evaluate the consequences of the selected action; and g) accept responsibility for the action taken and, if necessary, take steps to correct any negative consequences that the action may have caused. The psychologist is expected to re-engage in this decision-making process if the ethical issue is not resolved.

This feature of the Canadian Code is not only useful in decision-making, but also facilitates the teaching of ethics (O'Neill, 1998). While the incorporation of the decision-making steps may be of great practical value (Pettifor, 1998), the process lacks theoretical grounding and its usefulness has not been established through empirical research. Many psychologists may be proficient in the application of the seven-step process while, at the same time, they may lack a thorough understanding of the influences on decision-making and outcomes. The goal of this paper is to enrich our understanding of the seven-step decision-making process through the incorporation of a model that is grounded in ethical theory. Such a model could also facilitate the generation of theoretically based and testable research hypotheses.

The Importance of Theory

Psychologists' ethical decision-making must be grounded in theory (e.g., Hadjistavropoulos & Malloy, 1999; Malloy & Hadjistavropoulos, 1998) because ethics and psychology are linked to a larger unit that includes foundations in the world's established traditions of philosophy and religion (Pettifor, 1996) . Such a grounding could lead to a better internalization of the decision-making process. Malloy and Hadjistavropoulos (1998), for instance, discussed the hierarchical organization of CPA's code of ethics. The code consists of four principles (Respect for the Dignity of Persons, Responsible Caring, Integrity in Relationships, and Responsibility to Society) that are hierarchically organized in order of importance.1 This hierarchical organization of ethical principles is especially useful in situations that involve conflicts between principles. Its validity has received some support (Seitz & O'Neill, 1996; Sinclair, Poizner, Gilmour-Barrett, & Randall, 1987). Malloy and Hadjistavropoulos (1998) argued that the almost prescriptive hierarchic organization of the principles, while useful and perhaps necessary, can lead some individuals to make decisions without having a clear understanding as to why a certain principle (e.g., Respect for the Dignity of Persons) is more important than any other principle. As such, these authors analyzed the hierarchy using ethical theory (Hodgkinson, 1978, 1983, 1991, 1996) and confirmed, from a theoretical standpoint, the validity of this hierarchy. …

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