Psychology as a science and profession focused on the human mind and behavior is intrinsically related with moral values. The relationships a psychologist establishes as a practitioner, researcher or consultant always have an ethical dimension.
For most professions it is enough to stick to the fundamental rights of the human being to dignity, and privacy, and the basic moral code of doing good and treating others fairly. For the psychologist, however, the interrelations are asymmetrical because of the advantage that their knowledge (of the client) and their techniques give them and the opportunity to influence the patient. The psychologist's practice often involves behavioral interventions, whose consequences may prove irreversible.
The complex nature of the client-clinician relationship led psychologists' associations very quickly to create codes of conduct for their members. The profession got recognition before and after World War II, when psychologists were called to help the army determine the eligibility of recruits for service and later to provide mental treatment to hospitalized soldiers. The American Psychological Association (APA) produced its first code of ethics in 1952. The European Federation of Psychologists' Associations (EFPA) developed in 1992 a meta code containg the main issues the national associations should include in their codes, leaving each country to adapt the code to its own circumstances.
Ethical codes aim to define values and practical techniques for identifying and solving moral dilemmas. However, they can also raise issues when in a particular situation some parts of the code seem to be in conflict. Associations require their members to adhere to the code in order to contain possible abuses of ethical principles and maintain the trust in the profession. Practitioners can lose their license to operate if they are found to be in serious breach of the code of practice.
Comparative studies of psychologist codes of conduct show a number of common issues facing mental health clinicians, researchers and consultants. They include exploitative relationships, confidentiality, competence and avoiding harm, fees and financial arrangements, false and deceptive statements, informed consent to therapy and informed consent to research.
A romantic relationship between the psychologist and the client can impair the professional judgment of the doctor and prevent the other side from being forthcoming. Providig psychological services to employees, students, trainees, friends or relatives is also likely to interfere with the doctor's ability to treat. Sometimes it is difficult to set precise boundaries between professional and personal relations and to decide if boundary crossing such as taking the client out to a meal or talking about the psychologist's personal matters could have a harmful or beneficial effect.
Confidentiality is important for psychotherapy as it involves discussion of very sensitive issues and clients assume that the things they say to their counselors will not be disclosed. Confidentiality can sometimes raise ethical dilemmas when it is in conflict with other moral or ethical issues. A psychlogist may feel obliged to breach the non-disclosure rules and report to the police a crime or abuse revealed by a patient.
Practising psychologists are expected to have comprehensive knowledge and skills as well as remain competent in their field by keeping up with the new developments. The psychologist bears responsibility for the consequences of the interaction with other persons in his professional capacity. Intervention is limited on the one hand by the professional's competence and on the other by the needs and expectations expressed by the person seeking help.When a psychologist does not have the appropriate experience or knowledge to treat a patient, he or she is obliged to refer the case to other professionals.
Fees charged for therapy can present an ethical issue. The psychologist may be compelled to prematurely terminate treatment for lack of payment or waive fees when the patient is in financial trouble. When psychologists do research, make assessments or provide therapy, counseling, or consulting services, they have to inform the individuals involved of its purpose, course and especially those aspects which could govern the subjects decisions and then to obtain their voluntary consent. When the conducting of such activities is mandated by law, then no consent is usually required.