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Ethics in Plain EnglishReview - Ethics in Plain English
An Illustrative Casebook for Psychologists
by Thomas F. Nagy
American Psychological Association, 1999
Review by Larry Hultgren,Ph.D.
Oct 19th 2000 (Volume 4, Issue 42)

True to its title, this book transposes into “plain English” the 10 standards of the American Psychological Association’s (APA) Ethics Committee’s Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct, 1992 (hereinafter called the Ethics Code).  These standards are grouped into eight categories (the numbers of standards in each category are in parentheses): general standards (27); evaluation, assessment, or intervention (10); advertising and other public statements (6); therapy (9); privacy and confidentiality (11); teaching, training, supervision, research, and publishing (26); forensic activities (6); and resolving ethical issues (7).  For each standard, the author develops an illustrative fictional case vignette to “help the reader to better understand how ethical problems can naturally or suddenly emerge with competent and well meaning professionals, even under the most ordinary circumstances” (4).

Since this work deals with recent and reoccurring issues in psychological ethics, it will appeal not only to psychologists and psychiatrists, but to all providers and consumers of psychological services, including social workers, clergy, patients, teachers, students, administrators, and attorneys.  Happily, its format is suitable to such a broad audience, and it facilitates practical application for both psychology professionals and the public.  Dr. Nagy presents the original “dry, conceptual prose” of each ethical standard and then, in a different typeface, he rewrites the definition in non-technical language.  This helpful rendition is followed by a hypothetical practical dilemma arising out of ordinary experience that requires the application of the standard and a brief discussion of the case.  This novel feature allows the reader to compare and contrast the original ethical injunction with the author’s interpretive text and example.

Thomas Nagy is well positioned to transpose the 102 complex standards of ethics of the APA’s 1992 Ethics Code into the vernacular.  Experienced as a teacher, psychotherapist, and supervisor, he has served many years on several ethics committees, including tenure as chair of APA’s Ethics Committee, various state psychological associations, and other professional organizations, as well as consulting on numerous legal and ethical cases.  Most importantly for this current project, he participated in the 6-year effort to revise APA’s (1981) Ethical Principles of Psychologists.  Thus, as one of the code’s authors, he acknowledges the somewhat restricted pedagogical intent of this book and offers appropriate deference to the official language and power of the Ethics Code.


Eschewing tedious language, technical analysis, and intricate formal arguments, Nagy’s casebook closely resembles a combination how-to/how-not-to primer.   His fictional vignettes are meant to illustrate professional behaviors that are aspirational as well as those that are to be avoided.  However, in his desire to avoid using a level of language that is too “literary, scientific, technical, or legalistic”, Nagy, at times, dulls the point to the ethical argument that he wants to make.  His vignettes do not always convey clearly the ethical concepts or standards of behavior that he wants to prescribe.  For example, while discussing a potential violation of informed consent, Nagy concludes his illustrative case with the observation that the problem here is that  a psychologist’s “informality gave the appearance of a lack of objectivity and professionalism, was not conducive to good relations with employees, and increased the likelihood of employee complaints” (60).  Within the context of the example, all of this may indeed be the case.  However, it may not be clear to the reader why these issues present an ethical dilemma, or why we ought to go beyond labels of ‘boorish’, ‘unprofessional’, or ‘unscientific’ and rate such problems as unethical.

The author admits that his text is meant to be read in conjunction with both parts of the Ethics Code: the General Principles and Ethical Standards.  However, he includes the second part, the original text for each standard, but omits the first, the “generically broad philosophical constructs” or principles.  Nagy’s conscious exclusion of the General Principles part of the APA Ethics Code may harm his effort in some of the cases that he discusses.  If Nagy’s aim is to help his reader get his or her psychological ethics right, then he needs always to clarify the ethical nature of the conflict and resolution.  Perhaps some reference to those broader ethical notions, those underlying principles of integrity, professional and scientific responsibility, respect for persons, concern for others’ welfare, etc., would help the reader understand not only how but why the Ethics Codes’ provisions apply to each case.  Furthermore, the more philosophically inclined reader might wish for some discussion or justification for the author’s  apparent assumption that morality or ethics is primarily about duties, about following rules or standards.

Despite a lack of philosophical depth or intensive exegesis of the APA Standards, Nagy’s book - and this is its strength - is lucid and highly readable.  The author’s sometimes-humorous cases do illustrate how psychologists are to understand, interpret, and apply the APA’s principles and standards of conduct.  In doing this, Nagy’s book lives up to its promise of stimulating awareness of every day ethical issues in psychology.        

 

Larry Hultgren describes himself as follows:

A.B. Grinnell College majoring in Philosophy and Religion; Ph.D. Vanderbilt University in Philosophy. Currently Professor of Philosophy at Virginia Wesleyan College, Norfolk, VA. Since I am at a liberal arts college, my teaching runs the gamut of philosophy offerings. I am especially interested in interdisciplinary pursuits, and I direct the college's Social Ecology Program and our innovative PORTfolio Project which attempts to bring the liberal arts to life for our students by connecting the classroom with real world experiences. I also serve on the Bioethics Committee of the Children's Hospital of the King's Daughters in Norfolk, VA, and serve on the Board of Directors of the Bioethics Network of Southeast Virginia.


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