Why is Ethical Behavior Important in the Field of Psychology?

The first organized professions were centered in upholding moral virtue. The church, law, and medicine were these first professions and, as such, moral values (many in the church, and not so many in law) have been viewed as critical to professional practice. Professional ethics and moral philosophy should be the cornerstone of any person wishing to study or practice psychology. The mind is one’s most personal asset, so a psychologist must always tread with care when exploring someone else’s most personal and innermost thoughts. As one that delivers a valuable service to society a psychologist must also be cognizant of the general rules that businesses and other professionals operate. In a way, today’s society is in an ethical drought. Government scandals, large-scale mortgage and investment fraud, and personal and professional compromises abound in any 6 o’clock news report. There are rules and mores in a society that must be adhered to. Those with responsibility over people’s lives (and minds) are held to a higher ethical standard. Also, as a member of a community of professional peers and professional organizations may shy away from a psychologist with loose moral foundations which could leading to being ostracized to complete career failure. A natural moral basis may not be enough to guide a psychologist on the right path (Tjeltveit, 2001). Core values and tenets should guide a scholar-practitioner on a journey though moral minefield of a professional practice.

One core tenet that a psychologist professional should borrow from medicine is the portion of the Hippocratic oath of, “first do no harm”. This principle has been the cornerstone medical practice since Hippocrates himself. When dealing with the mind one should first seek to tread gently and not make the situation or problem any worse than it already is. Psychologists naturally deal with helping people solve problems and issues. Those who are healthy psychologically rarely need or ask for help, and would have no need to seek it. As creative problem solvers working in intimate areas a poorly worded comment or judging glance could serve to reinforce a patient’s condition instead of fixing it. What is fascinating is that the Hippocratic Oath has changed over time to reflect modern topics such as the removal of a portion concerning abortion (Sapatkin, 2009). Overall, the concept of not making a situation worse is one that the psychologist should borrow from the physician.

The next core tenet of morality that a psychologist should follow is confidentiality. The only breach to this sacred part of practice is when a person has suicidal or homicidal intentions. In that case the psychologist has a legal and moral responsibility to act to preserve human life. In some states this involves reporting to the situation to the police. It is important that a patient understand this legal responsibility before undergoing treatment. If a person is expected to bare their soul and innermost foibles and issues trust and report must develop. Unless the patient has the confidence that their inner-most secrets will be kept confidential there will be significant barriers to treatment. Confidence and trust is the key, and simply, without confidentiality, this is impossible. Practitioners in all medical-related and consulting fields are commonly faced with the moral dilemma whether to report information or not. When risk of disease, death, or injury is at hand there are laws and guidelines that one must follow (O’Connell, 2009). A psychologist that is conducting research must also execute due diligence to ensure the personal data that is collected is stored responsibly and not compromised. Confidentiality is key, and without it research and practice of psychology would flounder and then quickly cease to exist.

Another cornerstone of psychology is caring and empathy. One exceptional definition of caring from Tronto (1998) is, “a species activity that includes everything that we do to maintain, continue, and repair our ‘world’ so that we can live in it as well as possible”. That world includes our bodies, our selves, and our environment.” This seems like one that is so ingrained in practice that it is a given. However, it is for exactly this reason that one in the field must not lose sight of it. The study of psychology should seek first to understand and then to apply. Showing concern for others and trying to identify with them is critical to help them along the path to self-healing. One must always look at hard facts and studies, but when a person comes to a psychologist for help, they are not just a name or a number; they must be treated as a person first and foremost. If a psychologist hopes to guide them through a journey of self-healing, they must connect with the person they are trying to help. Caring means more than simply meeting needs or alleviating a condition, it includes being attentive and respectful (Engster, 2009).

Another concept that should drive a psychologist as a scholar-practitioner is honesty. When a person seeks help it is critical that a psychologist gives them their honest opinion and best possible advice. Again, this may seem like a given for any profession, but unfortunately it is not. In school and college cheating is on the rise. During their studies is the first time a young psychologist may feel pressure to cheat, plagiarize a portion of an article, or pay for a paper online. In a 2007 study, Choong and Brown call the extreme pressure students are under as “grade pressure”. Later in the research field, financial pressure could push a psychologist into telling lies. Finally, in delivery of patient services honesty is critical to building rapport and trust in the same way confidentiality is. From college until retirement one can expect grade, financial, or other pressures that would cause them to lie. One must be always aware of this and always tell the truth, copying a sentence or painting an overly rosy picture creates a slippery slope and could lead to bigger professional problems later on.


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Tronto, J. (1998). An Ethic Of Care. Generations. 22, no. 3 (Fall).