​​​​​​​Stephen Soldz, "Is Psychological Ethics in Crisis?"

This month’s post is from Stephen Soldz, Professor at the Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis, where he directs the Social Justice and Human rights Program. Soldz is a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst with a specialization in research methodologies. For the last decade he has been a leader in a movement to remove psychologists from sometimes abusive national security interrogations and to change the American Psychological Association's (APA) permissive policies allowing that involvement.

Is Psychological Ethics in Crisis?
Stephen Soldz

Among the issues I’ve been pondering during my fellowship year at the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics is the state of ethical thinking and training in my field of psychology. My involvement with psychological ethics as an area of inquiry comes from a decade of involvement in a movement opposing psychologist participation in torture and other adversarial national security operations. This movement attempted to remove psychologists from national security interrogations and to change permissive interpretations of the American Psychological Association’s (APA) ethical rules—rules that appeared to permit involvement in problematic national security operations despite a history of seemingly strong anti-torture statements from the Association.

As colleagues and I investigated the activities of psychologists in “enhanced Interrogation” and other torture—at CIA black site prisons, at Guantánamo and elsewhere—I began to realize that there were two distinct but related ethical questions at play. First, is it ethically permissible to participate in torture? Based on my research, the answer appeared straightforward: Whoever you are, wherever you are, don’t do it! It’s wrong. However, there was an additional question that received less attention: beyond torture, what other national security activities should also be off-limits for psychologists?

This question has become especially important with the expansion in recent decades of “operational psychology,” the use by professional psychologists of psychological science and expertise in support of military operations. Operational psychology is in contrast to the traditional clinical health provider role of psychology in the military, that of treating and preventing emotional disorders. In addition to interrogation support, other examples of operational psychology include psychological operations against enemy populations (PSYOPS); hostage negotiation; screening of personnel for intelligence and other high-risk missions; profiling of opponent leaders; and resilience training in the military’s Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape (SERE) program. Among psychologists, many of these activities are widely considered to constitute ethical practice, while disputes remain regarding the ethicality of others.

As a profession, psychology claims to be based on several fundamental principles, including, most notably, respect for the dignity and welfare of all individuals, nonmaleficence or “do no harm,” beneficence or doing good, and respect for personal autonomy. These principles are presumed to apply to the work of all psychologists, whether they be practitioners, academics, consultants, or researchers. When considered in the context of operational psychology, these principles appear to potentially conflict in various ways with military ethics. Thus, “do no harm” is potentially in conflict with the military requirement to protect the nation, including fighting wars. And all national security activities give greater value to the welfare of Americans than to those of putative opponents, thus conflicting with psychologists’ universalistic ethic of commitment to the welfare of all people. Additionally, there are aspects of military culture and identity that make sense in the context of the military mission, but that contribute to potential conflicts with the mission and ethics of psychology. Among these are the central emphasis on discipline and obedience, hierarchy of authority, the importance of cohesion, the emphasis on physical courage, selflessness, and other personal virtues that are different than the virtues emphasized in psychology.

Many of the ethics experts in psychology have seemed reluctant to explore in depth the complex questions raised by psychologists’ involvement in national security interrogations and related activities that became more prominent in the post-9/11 world as the pressure to contribute to counterterrorism efforts substantially increased. In fact, the only text devoted to the broader ethical issues involved in operational psychology was an anthology published by the APA with contributions solely from operational psychologists (Kennedy & Williams, 2011). Its major source for ethical reasoning is the now-discredited report of the 2005 APA Presidential Task Force on Psychological Ethics and National Security (PENS), a report designed to avoid constraining psychologists’ involvement in national security operations. In the anthology, the conflicts between the principles of psychological ethics and national security operations received short shrift.

The lack of in-depth ethical reasoning in the text called to mind my own ethics training. Whereas I took a course in ethics in grad school and have attended a number of workshops since then, what was discussed in these venues was not really “ethics,” but rather risk management. The message conveyed was “here are the steps to take to keep out of trouble." This training was limited to communicating basic rules to follow. Thus, I learned that sleeping with patients is verboten and that I am now required to report suspected child abuse or plans by a patient to kill someone. Taking notes is a good idea so that I can document my due diligence, should a crisis arrive. And I should obtain informed consent for research, except where my organization allows me not to. But what was missing was deep discussion of what was right and wrong, of what should and shouldn’t be done, and why.

The practices covered in my ethics training provided little foundation for our efforts in taking on powerful interests in the APA and in the intelligence community. Rather, we were guided by a fundamental sense of right and wrong and the commitment to pursue truth at whatever cost. However, we received serious pushback, including personal attacks and threats. Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of this pushback was the willingness of so many to accept psychology leadership’s claims without analysis and to dismiss us as “dissidents," without seriously engaging with the facts or arguments we brought forward.

In late 2014 the APA engaged Chicago attorney David Hoffman to conduct an independent review of claims, long brought by critics, that APA’s interrogation policy was influenced by collusion between APA staff and the defense/intelligence establishment. Hoffman’s report, issued in July 2015, supported the essence of critics’ claims over the last decade. As the report states:

Our investigation determined that key APA officials, principally the APA Ethics Director joined and supported at times by other APA officials, colluded with important DoD [Department of Defense] officials to have APA issue loose, high-level ethical guidelines that did not constrain DoD in any greater fashion than existing DoD interrogation guidelines. We concluded that APA’s principal motive in doing so was to align APA and curry favor with DoD. There were two other important motives: to create a good public-relations response, and to keep the growth of psychology unrestrained in this area (Hoffman et al, p. 9).


Hoffman’s conclusions raise an important question: how is it that many outside the APA inner sanctums drew similar conclusions to Hoffman’s team (based on the public record years earlier), whereas those more involved in the APA had dismissed evidence of APA-DoD collusion and expressed shock at the report’s findings? When the Hoffman report came out, I asked several APA officials why they had ignored the evidence we had provided; while some apologized, none provided an explanation. It seemed to me one major factor was that many were unprepared to seriously consider a position that would put them at odds with their colleagues, and with the professional organizations they valued.

I thus started considering the extent to which, in our profession, there was little discussion of how to stand up for ethical principles against a majority that opposes or ignores them—for example, when a professional group or listserv silences dissent through mockery or attack. Nor was there discussion of what to do when wrongdoing is discovered but reporting it may place the informant in jeopardy. For ethics is not just about following the rules, it is about doing the right thing, even in difficult circumstances. Current psychological ethics involve little acknowledgement that obedience to rules is an insufficient basis for addressing the complex ethical issues facing the field; neither are utilitarian approaches concerned only with the outcomes of actions. General Antonio Taguba understood this when he chose to carefully investigate the abuses at Abu Ghraib even when issues of command responsibility were raised, a choice which cost him his career. Unfortunately, subsequent investigators made different choices, often protecting their careers by obscuring command responsibility for abuses. 

Any discussion of professional ethics that ignores standing up to bullies at the possible cost of personal attack or social isolation, or truth-telling at personal cost, or whistleblowing when one’s colleague or organization is doing wrong, lacks something vital. It is not preparing psychologists for the real world, where right does not necessarily triumph and standing up for principles may be punished rather than rewarded. And it ignores the possibility, as occurred in the APA, that ethics experts were as likely to be part of the problem as part of the solution.

Our profession has much to learn from a decade of psychologist involvement in torture, including the refusal of many well-intentioned professionals to open their eyes to this involvement, even in the face of clear and overwhelming evidence. Psychologists need to think deeply about the actual meaning for us of our values and come to terms with the institutional and professional impediments to implementing those values in difficult circumstances. We need to move from solely relying on rule-based ethics codes to creating, in addition, a code based on principles, including the expectation that we will stand for what is right even when most disagree or when we might suffer negative consequences. And we need to grasp the exceptional aspects of psychology as a profession—its foundational principles such as careful examination of evidence, “doing no harm,” valuing and promoting welfare of all people, and respecting human autonomy—while integrating these values with other important aspects of our profession, such as the emphasis on civility, and our concern for group identity and cooperation.

Although my primary purpose here is to stimulate thoughtful discussion and deliberation by psychologists on the issues I raise, rather than to provide answers, I have a few preliminary suggestions for directions in which the field should move. We should work to foster a culture accepting of dissent; treat issues of harm (and especially harm to marginalized populations) much more seriously, building consideration of possible harms into our routine thinking regarding psychological interventions; insist upon transparent organizational processes throughout the profession; develop the capacity to recognize and challenge loyalty to and capture by third party interests; become more objective about the limits of good intentions; and treat potential corruption, financial or otherwise, more seriously.

Some of these suggestions, especially those dealing with the potential of interventions to cause harm are, to some degree, specific to psychology and related professions. The other suggestions are manifestations of broader cultural trends. To the extent to which the psychology profession can successfully address them, it may provide a model for other groups in our society.

The future of the profession of psychology requires that we openly confront the current ethical crisis and find ways to build upon our profession’s strengths while reducing its weaknesses. Only by doing so will we create a profession true to the fundamental values we avow, a profession worthy of the noble passions that led us to join it, and one which will inspire the young people who follow us.


Hoffman, D. H., Carter, D. J., Lopez, C. R. V., Benzmiller, H. L., Latifi, S. Y., & Craig, D. C. (2015). Report to the Special Committee of the Board of Directors of the American Psychological Association: Independent review relating to APA ethics guidelines, national security interrogations, and torture. Chicago, IL: Sidley Austin, LLP. Retrieved 2/25/2017 from http://www.apa.org/independent-review/revised-report.pdf.

Kennedy, C. H. & Williams, T. J. (2011). Ethical Practice in Operational Psychology: Military and National Intelligence Applications. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.