Ethics applied




Is it important? Some argue it's a luxury to have ethics get in the way of any decision for example. A luxury for the rich, or those in a position to make choices. 


But philosophy really is at the essence of commitment too. And that applies to a choice of profession as well. A philosophical dislike of an action is likely surely, to lead to a lack of commitment to any decision, so maybe it's not just ethics. 


Consider the psychology profession: a helping profession designed to assist those who need mental help, it says. If that profession transgressed ethics in any major way, such as by lending itself to a process of intimidation or allowing itself to knowingly be used as a threat to force people into compliance with criminal or unethical situations, one could argue it is no longer what it says it is. 


Psychology is a career many choose because they say they want to help people. But for the profession to be credible, surely, it has to also refrain from politics, and abuse of its own power as a group.  


If a profession gets involved in law such as obtaining scientific approval as a 'science' and then allows itself to be used as judge in criminal cases, disputes and other situations where the psychologist's judgment is the deciding factor in what happens legally to the client, it could be argued it has crossed the line from profession to legal enforcement. 


Psychology: 'helping profession' or 'legal enforcer'?

But it is still classified as a profession, a 'helping profession'. The other status it has, as experts in legal cases regarding clients, deciders of who is to be committed to an institution and who is okay, and the many other rights they now have such as expert court witnesses and witness report-writers, is not really acknowledged much in the literature. It is also not something the psychologists advertise much in promoting their services to the people.


It could be argued this is somewhat deceptive. The public should be possibly made more aware than they are of the true rights of the psychology profession before they consult them for personal problems. They should be informed of the powers of the profession in detail. It could be argued that psychologists should have to, by law, advise the client of all their professional rights, and all risks any client could face in consulting them, so as not to be misleading. 


The public should be informed that these people, who are accepted as professionals, can if they so choose, decide that any client is mentally unfit, incompetent, paranoid, schizophrenic, delusional, unintelligent, or whatever classification they choose, and that, usually, evidence is not required. The decision is based on the 'expertise' of the professional. The law as to who and what is considered legal is very unclear. Maybe some might argue that psychologists and counsellors don't have legal power, and that only psychiatrists do, but this is highly challengeable. Psychologists write court reports don't they? That's legal power. They are often used by lawyers for decisions in legal cases aren't they? ('we need a psychologists report to argue this or that' says lawyer to a client). That's legal power. 


A mental health worker is a mental health worker is a mental health worker. And these people, often, have legal power. Niceties really are often ignored, in the real world, as opposed to the safe and theoretical world of psychological academia. 


The profession now has a dual role. Legal, and 'helper'. It has, for years, had this status. It is no longer what it started out to be. Yet, the law is very unclear on how these people should be allowed to market and promote their service.  


Why is psychology a 'science' ?

Because the profession argued it should be considered one.


So now it is considered okay to have it in a courtroom, or have psychologists and counsellors and psychiatrists submit documents based on its scientific status - that like other sciences, it is credible, reliable, accurate, and records with impartiality.


But it is not physics. It is not chemistry. It is based on human behaviour. is a 'science of human behaviour' then? A nice phrase and one that's often used.  It gets around the tricky requirements that might be required of descriptions of other sciences like chemistry. 


The academics, no doubt aware of the pitfalls in claiming a scientific status, have taken many steps to prevent direct comparisions to physics or chemistry by arguing that it is a science - but a science of human nature. It is not perfect, they often say.


But who decided human behaviour can be accurately scientifically coded and categorised? Presumably, psychologists did. In addition, they often emphasise that they take rigourous steps to make sure their results are ' replicatable' as this, they assure the readers, is the true nature of rigourous science. That the result can be repeated. 


How is Freud replicatable? The writings of a person years ago, incorporated into literature and forming the basis of much of modern day science. His writings on slips of the speech for instance. A set of observations he made on observing a few people, or things people told him? This anecdotal evidence is now ingrained in the psychoanalytic literature as scientific fact? This is nothing more than the anecdotal obsrvations from one person. (See: The psychopathology of everyday life by Sigmund Freud).


Many of these anecdotal obsrvations are likely to form the basis for much of what is now considered in the psychology profession as science. Then written into what they call 'diagnoses' (The DSM is what is consulted by many practitioners and classifies illnesses according to the criteria they have established as forming the basis of many psychiatric illnesses. Some of these it should be mentioned, no doubt include things like 'slips of speech' (which was originally observed in the above previously mentioned book by Freud). 


This is 'science' ? Anecdotal stories? No. So how does it get accepted, eventually, in a courtroom a hundred or so years later? By endless rewriting of the original ideas, possibly. Psychology has experts who specialise in Freud and rewrite his theories which then are picked out by students in an academic library and studied, which then form the basis of their degree or clincial psychology training, which is then applied to..... the public. 


The origin of the ideas is lost and its often just anecdotal observations, surely. Is that science? There are various models and so on, and studies published in psychology journals, which use science-like presentations such as abstract, introduction, methodology and so on.... and behavioural psychology could in theory claim some relevance to science as it uses guinea pigs and pigeons for testing. But it's all rather theoretical, and it relies on human observations often that are categorised.  To say it's a science is really quite a statement. 


The profession now, however, has the legal right in many countries to call itself a science. A right it obtained itself, by arguing for it, and changing its status from its beginnings fom 'art' to 'science'.


The public have the right to know this, know its background, how it developed is scientific credibility and how decisions that can affect their lives are really made: based often on the word of an 'expert' or 'group of experts', and one could suggest 'self-proclaimed experts', too. 


It could be argued that many other organisations in history have also taken it upon themselves to be 'experts' and have descended into cult status. Unchallenged, unquestionned, and developing a power far in excess of what they originally started off with. This should always be monitored:  power corrupts and 'absolute power corrupts absolutely' as the saying goes. It would be very easy for the psychology profession to get carried away with its own sense of importance and develop into a tryanny rather than a force for good, and one could even suggest it has already gone too far. 


That it is considered 'science', looked at from one perspective - admittedly this one - is just ridiculous. One could suggest the entire 'profession' is a hodgepog of theories, models, weaved-in insights from long-ago theorists and observers of human nature, and endlessly developed, repeated, added to and extrapolated from until the entire meaning and basis of the original is often lost.


This is then applied to the people as 'science' and generally unquestionned.


As an illustration journalists interviews with psychologists...  how often do they challenge the psychologists they interview about various disorders (or new disorders 'just identified', for instance)? Ask the psycologist being interviewed to prove their statements, how they arrived at this or that decision, what is the basis of their materials they used, which literature did they consult, did they check out anything before they made any diagnosis, did the psychologist in making any clinical assessement try to ascertain facts? (Isn't it more likely the interview will assume competence at the outset and proceed from that assumption?)


But considering that the psychology profession has ingrained itself in the mind of a society as 'professional' maybe sometimes obsequience is only to be expected. 


Judge and jury? 

A profession that takes it upon itself to be judge and jury in such ways, also has an obligation to be able to be challenged, one could argue. Like any other profession. And in public, too. Not in private. The reason is: the decision these people make affect the lives of others, dramatically.  So any challenge has to be public, it could be argued, to protect the interests of the public from abuse of power.  Not in a peer-review session where maybe a bunch of psychologists have a meeting in which the psychologist is censured, and it's all hushed up 'to maintain confidence in the professon'. 


A profession that makes such bold claims as it does to competence, to expertise  - as they now do - also maybe, should be asked that they in matters of any dispute, be able to defend themselves and their decisions, publically. That they make available to the public the texts from which their judgements are made, the classifications they used. Since they say they are a science, this should be of no concern to them. If it is good enough to be considered for 'expert status' in law, it's good enough for the public to read it, being the logic. 


A psychologist's decisions should be allowed to be publically disputed, for this reason. Because they now have so much power in society. Because they are no longer just 'helpers' or 'carers' or 'listeners'.  Times change. The profession has changed, too.  


With that power, goes obligation, surely.  The obligation for instance, not to do the following:

1. Lie

2. Collude with any political organisation or government against the client, or support any  procedure that is politically motivated without obtaining written consent from any client and informing them of it. 

3. And finally one more ethic, suggested here, which is the following: 

A duty to refrain from abusing its own power, as group:

One could argue that a profession that - knowingly- allows itself to be used as a threat to force compliance from a victim of say, economic slavery or social intimidation, is not a profession with credibility. 


This last point is sufficient, should it occur, to destroy any credibility it has. It would represent a verifiable destruction of its credibility, ethically speaking. 


That is, to allow itself to be used as a 'threat'  in any way - knowingly. For instance: to gain compliance, to shield the public for abusing the profession for their own purposes, for political intimidation, to appease politicians, states, or countries. It is there for one reason only according to its stated ethics and that is to help the person who trustingly consults it. That is its only duty. It is not a political tool. And power can create a certain amount of wariness or fear, or fear of authority, just like for any other profession that has legal power. It is unreasonable to argue that a person should not be cautious, if they know what the psychology profession is allowed to do. It is perfectly normal to be wary.  Surely, no one wants to be told they're mentally ill for instance if they're not, which is - legally - character defamation, and  no one surely likes the idea of being framed which happens in many other professions and can happen in this one too, and who wants to have to fight legal battles to clear one's name from misdiagnoses? The statute of limitations alone can prevent civil claims against a psychologist if time elapses in some countries, for instance.


So this last point is concerning psychology and politics. The abuse of power, the potential abuse of power, the regulation of the industry to prevent it, and whether mechanisms are available, even, to punish those who do. In some countires, suing a psychologist is practically unheard of. Arguing against them is likely to be difficult, and trying to obtain a lawyer to challenge them may require endless further assessments to prove credibility.  Who would want that hassle? 



In the wish to gain power and status for itself over the years,the psychology profession has also now attained a legal status. It is also now a 'science'. 


But power corrupts. Throughout all history, if there was ever any lesson, it is this: the danger of letting any organisation unchecked and unmonitored power. 


Is the psychology profession still the profession it once was? Or has society forgotten to adapt the rules of accountability to it, due to a belief it is, by nature, trustable? 


It could be a mistake. 


written by Katrina Wood

November, 2018

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