Is It Ethics or Law?

By Stephen A. Ragusea, Psy.D.
May 5, 2015

ThinkstockPhotos-478368485In my position as chair of the Florida Psychological Association’s Ethics Committee, I frequently received telephone calls from psychologists asking for guidance about ethical concerns.  However, the majority of questions I hear actually have nothing to do with ethics, per se. Rather, they are queries about the law and psychologists often seem surprised to find that they are blending the two realms in their minds. I’ll try to clarify the distinction in this column.

Laws are rules of conduct established by a community or authority and enforceable by that entity. The underlying philosophy of the law is called jurisprudence. Certainly, it may be claimed that ethical concerns are often at the root of our laws but ethics do not carry the power of law. In order for laws to have real meaning, a system of punishments is often established and enforced. In the United States, laws are established and enforced by federal, state, county and local governments.

Psychology’s ethical system is promulgated by The American Psychological Association. APA’s current Code of Ethics was adopted by the Council of Representatives and establishes our ethical guideposts. As stated in the code’s introduction, “The Ethics Code is intended to provide guidance for psychologists and standards of professional conduct that can be applied by the APA and by other bodies that choose to adopt them.”

What follows is 16 pages of “guidance” covering many of the ethical challenges with which psychologists must wrestle on a daily basis. The code is, quite literally, the end product of decades of work by thousands of psychologists who committed their time and energy to carefully considering the relevant issues. However, the code is not law and specifically addresses that point in its introduction by stating:

“The Ethics Code is not intended to be a basis of civil liability. Whether a psychologist has violated the Ethics Code standards does not by itself determine whether the psychologist is legally liable in a court action, whether a contract is enforceable, or whether other legal consequences occur.”

The code provides further clarification in section 1.02, Conflicts Between Ethics and Law, Regulations, or Other Governing Legal Authority:

If psychologists’ ethical responsibilities conflict with law, regulations, or other governing legal authority, psychologists make known their commitment to the Ethics Code and take steps to resolve the conflict. If the conflict is unresolvable via such means, psychologists may adhere to the requirements of the law, regulations, or other governing legal authority.

Ultimately, therefore, we may obey a law that conflicts with our ethical code. However, if our ethical obligations represent a higher moral standard than the law, we are obligated to embrace that higher level. And, we are bound to consider a variety of sources of guidance, including that found in our own conscience.

The instructions continue:

“In the process of making decisions regarding their professional behavior, psychologists must consider this Ethics Code in addition to applicable laws and psychology board regulations. In applying the Ethics Code to their professional work, psychologists may consider other materials and guidelines that have been adopted or endorsed by scientific and professional psychological organizations and the dictates of their own conscience, as well as consult with others within the field. If this Ethics Code establishes a higher standard of conduct than is required by law, psychologists must meet the higher standard.”

We are required to engage in a “process” that can be complex and not always satisfying. An example of this process may be briefly discussed relative to laws requiring psychologists to report child abuse.

What is to be done if a nearly 18 year-old patient tells you that he was abused by his stepmother when he was 12? He has had no contact with his stepmother for five years since his father divorced her and she moved to New Zealand. Therapeutically, is it in the patient’s best interests to report the abuse? If not, our ethical standards would suggest that it not be done. However, the law requires it.

Therefore, law trumps ethics. However, your consultation with peers and a personal examination of conscience may ultimately lead you to consider not making the report. Yet, to not report the incident is a violation of the law. What do you do?

Nobody said it was going to be easy.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published as a column for “The Ethics Corner” in The Florida Psychologist. Stephen Ragusea, Psy.D., is in private practice in Key West, Fla. His email is:

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