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Thinking about thinking about ethics

30 April 2021 | by Guest

Please welcome Roger Paxton, Chair of the BPS Ethics Committee, with this guest article on the developing role of ethics in psychology.

Is there moral progress?

Celebrity psychologist Steven Pinker, using global historical evidence of improvements in human wellbeing, rationality and the way we treat one another, famously argues that there is progress.

Similarly, at the national level we can see the growth of understanding and respect.

It is now completely unacceptable for landlords to be overtly racist in specifying ‘no Blacks or Irish’, for men to catcall and whistle as women or girls pass, or for people to be prosecuted because of their sexual orientation.

In psychological and medical research it’s no longer possible for researchers to do more or less whatever they want, and using psychological therapies or even aversion therapy to try to change a person’s sexual orientation is now widely unacceptable.

Should we all think optimistically about ethics, or are the issues I have just raised merely less overt?

Progress can be seen, but there’s no doubt that much more is needed. A glance around the world shows enormous suffering, injustice and insecurity.

What about the racial injustice that sparked the Black Lives Matter movement, and what about women not being able to walk alone safely?

What about the largely untrammelled spread of malevolent conspiracy theories?

What about the continuing huge inequities in wealth, income and opportunities?

We all know they are not just morally wrong, but also damaging and dangerous socially, psychologically and physically.

And perhaps the biggest injustice of all: the rich world continues to consume and pollute while the poor and of course future generations suffer most.

We can’t only think optimistically.

In psychology we know we haven’t got it right yet, and so we think about doing better. Hence the BPS Equality and Diversity and Inclusion Task Force, and the need to continue examining and improving codes, standards and processes concerning ethics.

Hence also the efforts of universities to improve the gender and ethnic representativeness of their student intakes, and the work of applied psychology service providers towards equal accessibility.

In our professional lives as individual psychologists we all face ethical questions and dilemmas from time to time. How should we think about ethics?

The first thing is that we should think.

Sometimes ethical decisions seem to be a matter of intuition or even emotion rather than cognition. But when moral principles conflict or when morality conflicts with self-interest, cognition is needed.

And when you think beyond individual moral questions it’s clear that we use completely different sets of moral principles on different occasions.

Sometimes we think consequentially (which action will produce the best outcome?) but at other times the choice seems simply a matter of duty (this is just the right thing to do).

Sometimes we need to think about how we should think.

More fundamentally, thinking may be needed to recognise the existence of an ethical question in the first place.

Ethical sensitivity is the starting point of James Rest’s four-component model of ethical decision making, and this model underpins the new BPS eLearning course ‘Ethics in Psychological Practice’.

The course centres on case studies from the range of applied psychology professions, guiding systematic ethical thinking grounded in the BPS and HCPC Codes as well as the Rest model.

It’s worth thinking about.


Roger Paxton is Chair of the BPS Ethics Committee and one of the authors of the new BPS eLearning course ‘Ethics in Psychological Practice’.

It’s available for members now on BPS Learn

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