Forgetting the lessons of Nuremberg: a prominent psychologist resigns from the APA

By , February 8, 2008 3:36 pm

Last night, many psychologists like myself found a letter in our inboxes from a colleague for whom we have tremendous professional and personal respect. The letter was written by Kenneth S. Pope, Ph.D. to the American Psychological Association explaining why he was resigning from the APA. Ken’s letter has been published in CounterPunch in its entirety and is already being discussed in the blogosphere in places like Daily Kos. Some excerpts from Ken’s letter:

With sadness I write to resign from the American Psychological Association. My respect and affection for the members, along with my 29 year history with APA, make this a hard and reluctant step. Chairing the Ethics Committee, holding fellow status in 9 divisions, and receiving the APA Award for Distinguished Contributions to Public Service, the Division 12 Award for Distinguished Professional Contributions to Clinical Psychology, and the Division 42 Award for Mentoring reflect a few chapters in my APA history. I respectfully disagree with decisive changes that APA has made in its ethical stance during the past 6+ years. These changes moved APA far from its ethical foundation, historic traditions, and basic values, and beyond what I can in good conscience support with my membership.

I would like to note two examples of disagreement. First, the years since 9-11 brought concern over psychologists’ work that affects detainees. APA has stressed psychologists’ “vital role” regarding “the use of ethical interrogations to safeguard the welfare of detainees” and ways that psychologists “help advance the cause of detainee welfare and humane treatment.” Yet in its ethics code, APA chose not to recognize any humane treatment requirements governing psychologists’ work with detainees as enforceable standards.

Historically, when concerns arose about the impact of psychologists’ behavior on groups at risk, APA moved decisively to create specific requirements and limitations in the ethics code’s enforceable standards. These groups included persons “for whom testing is mandated by law or governmental regulations,” “persons with a questionable capacity to consent,” research participants, “subordinates,” clients, students, supervisees, and employees. Facing concerns about the impact of psychologists’ behavior on research animals, for example, APA created an enforceable standard supporting the “humane treatment” of laboratory animals. But for detainees, APA chose not to adopt any enforceable standards in the ethics code mandating humane treatment.

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My second area of disagreement concerns the ethics code that Council adopted August 21, 2002 (which took effect June 1, 2003). The 2002 code echoes the earlier code in setting forth the following enforceable standard: “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.” But the 2002 code created a new enforceable standard: “If the conflict is unresolvable via such means, psychologists may adhere to the requirements of the law, regulations, or other governing legal authority” (Standard 1.02).

This new enforceable standard, in my opinion, contradicts one of the essential ethical values voiced in the Nuremberg trials. Even in light of the post-9-11 historical context and challenges, I believe we can never abandon the fundamental ethical value affirmed at Nuremberg.

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Over the decades I’ve written articles and books examining APA’s earliest discussions about ethical responsibilities and accountability, the choice to create an ethics code, the innovative methods used to create a unique code, the revisions and controversies over the years, and APA members’ ethical views, dilemmas, and behavior. During the code’s distinguished history, it has set forth APA’s essential ethics and the standards to which members agree to hold themselves accountable through the Ethics Committee’s formal enforcement. For me, the two examples above represent defining issues for APA. Steps that APA has taken or avoided since 9-11 mark a sharp shift in values and direction. I respectfully disagree with these changes; I am skeptical that they will work as intended; and I believe that they may lead to far-reaching unintended consequences.

These changes take APA so far away from its ethical foundation, historic traditions, and basic values, and from my own personal and professional view of our responsibilities, that I cannot support them with my membership. In light of my respectful disagreement with APA about these fundamental changes, it is with great sadness and regret that I resign my membership.

While Ken is probably the most prominent (or one of the most prominent) APA members to resign over the APA’s stance on crucial ethical issues, he is not the first psychologist to do so (cf, this recent letter of resignation and this earlier letter by other psychologists). In correspondence with the APA earlier today, an APA spokesperson informed me that as of Feb. 1, 61 psychologists have resigned from the APA over the interrogation issue and another 347 are withholding dues in protest of this issue. According to the spokesperson:

These numbers are a very small percentage of our 148,000 members. Nevertheless, we remain concerned and have sent personal letters to almost all of these individuals, further explaining APA’s position on interrogations and inviting those who remain members to submit comments to the Ethics Committee, which is compiling a casebook and commentary.

As someone who wants to see the bar kept high on ethical standards for psychologists, it is sad to see what has happened to the APA and what its position on the interrogation of detainees has done to the image of professional psychology. Had I not already quit the APA before 9/11 because I was dissatisfied with their failure to enforce high standards for their members, I certainly would have quit them over the interrogation issue.

Whether Ken’s resignation will carry more weight with them and really get them to re-think their position, I don’t know. But protecting the rights of lab rats to humane treatment more than the rights of human beings, well, that’s just fundamentally wrong. And like Ken, I believe that we must never forget the ethical lessons of Nuremberg.

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