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A Thought Experiment About Psychological Ethics

By   Follow Me on Twitter     Message Roy Eidelson       (Page 1 of 2 pages)     Permalink    (# of views)   1 comment

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Despite evidence of psychologists' involvement in abusive and torturous interrogations of national security detainees, in 2005 the American Psychological Association's Presidential Task Force on Psychological Ethics and National Security (PENS) concluded that psychologists play a critical role in keeping such interrogations "safe, legal, ethical and effective." With this stance, the APA, the largest association of psychologists worldwide, became the sole major professional healthcare organization to support practices contrary to the international human rights standards that ought to be the benchmark against which professional codes of ethics are judged.

The Coalition for an Ethical Psychology is leading a petition campaign calling for annulment of the APA's PENS Report, which continues to be highly influential today. As part of this effort, the "thought experiment" letter below was recently sent to all members of the APA's governing body. Readers interested in supporting the annulment initiative can review and sign the petition at

Dear Members of the APA Council of Representatives,

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We have heard from some of you that the Council has begun to wrestle with the issue of annuling the APA's 2005 PENS Report. As reflected in our petition initiative (, we and many other individuals and organizations strongly believe that annulment is a necessary and urgent step.

However, for those of you who are undecided, we encourage you to consider a brief "What Would You Have Done?" thought experiment. Imagine that you personally had been in charge of creating the PENS Task Force in mid-2005, amid reports from the International Committee of the Red Cross, the New York Times, and other media outlets that psychologists were involved in abusive and torturous interrogations of national security detainees at Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere. Imagine that it was your responsibility to bring together a small group to examine the key question of whether the APA Ethics Code adequately addressed the ethical dimensions of psychologists' involvement in such interrogations and other national security-related activities.

Placing yourself in that decisive leadership role, how would you have answered these seven questions?:

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1. In creating a task force of nine voting members, would you have selected six individuals who were on the payroll of the military/intelligence establishment, including several who worked in the chains of command when and where instances of abuse and torture had reportedly occurred?

2. Would you have given leadership responsibility to a senior APA staff member whose spouse had been a Behavioral Science Consultation Team (BSCT) psychologist at Guantanamo, and was therefore a member of the cohort of psychologists for whom the Task Force was to provide guidance?

3. Regarding issues of torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment, would you have agreed that U.S. law, as reinterpreted by the Bush Administration, should supersede longstanding international human rights standards in the PENS Report?

4. Given that the task force's mandate included examining the role of psychologists in investigations related to national security, would you have permitted a Board Liaison to prevent task force discussion of reported instances of psychologists' involvement in abusive interrogations of national security detainees?

5. As the task force leader, would you have considered it appropriate to incorporate key language into the APA report drawn directly from military BSCT documents -namely, that psychologists serve to keep interrogations "safe, legal, ethical, and effective"?

6. Given that psychologists faced strong situational pressures (without access to independent outside consultants) and were subject to a military code that prioritized military orders over psychological ethics, would you have concluded that "a central role for psychologists working in the area of national security-related investigations is to assist in assuring that processes are safe, legal and ethical for all participants"?

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7. Would you have supported the Board's decision to approve the report through "emergency" procedures, bypassing the standard governance process of review and acceptance by the full Council of Representatives, which was set to meet within six weeks?

At the time, the APA Task Force leadership opted for "Yes" in response to all seven of these questions, and they have defended those answers ever since. As a result, the PENS Report continues to be an authoritative and influential document in military/intelligence and psychological settings. The report is used by the Department of Defense as guidance for BSCT psychologists; by military psychologists seeking to advance "operational psychology" as an area of specialization including aggressive counterintelligence and counterterrorism operations; and by the APA Ethics Committee as a guide to ethical behavior in national security settings.

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Roy Eidelson is a psychologist who studies, writes about, and consults on the role of psychological issues in political, organizational, and group conflict settings. He is a past president of Psychologists for Social Responsibility, a member of (more...)

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