Being professional: Ethics and practice…

We all remember the Suarez biting incident a few weeks back. Given my background in sport psychology, I found it particularly interesting and even thought about writing a blog about it. At the same time, I had several requests (from the media) to speculate on why he’s a biter. I had to decline.

Ethics roadsign

It’s tempting to speculate on the behaviours and motives of others, and in the context of gossip, it’s normal human practice. It seems that there are few things we enjoy more than making assumptions about other people with other people (whether we know them or not). When this gossiping involves celebrities, or other ‘famous’ people, it helps us to feel connected to them, or gives us a feeling of superiority (we, of course, know better than they do). But in a professional context, it’s neither appropriate, nor ethical.

Psychologists and members of many other professions (here and in other countries) are bound by a professional code of conduct. For psychologists, this code is pretty comprehensive, and it’s there to ensure that we behave ethically and appropriately (in itself a reasonable definition of professionalism) with our clients. Our code includes guidelines covering a number of areas, including not taking advantage of the power imbalance between a psychologist and his or her clients, ensuring that what we do is empirically based, and maintaining confidentiality. It also discourages gossip, or unfounded speculation. In the Suarez case, it would be profoundly unprofessional to speculate on the reasons for his biting. I don’t know him, or his history, and if I did, it would be unethical to break confidentiality.

Sadly, whether we’re psychologists or other professionals (including politicians and others in leadership positions), we often assume that our qualifications, position, or experience give us free reign to comment on things that don’t concern us. It’s often extremely difficult to keep our mouths shut, especially when we’re expected to have an opinion. And holding opinions on things we know something about often emboldens us to speculate on things we don’t have experience, expertise, or first-hand knowledge of. Once we’re encouraged and rewarded for sharing these opinions, it’s pretty hard to stop.

As I mentioned, my profession has a pretty clear-cut code of conduct that regulates much of our professional behaviour. But even this document doesn’t stop psychologists from behaving unprofessionally. Human nature being what it is, everyone screws up from time to time, and some simply don’t care (i.e., they’ll try and get away with poor behaviour). Moreover, there are plenty of situations which fall outside of the guidelines, but which require an ethical stance. So even with guidelines in place, it can be difficult or confusing to recognise how to behave in a given situation. But what of the professions in which there are no such set of guidelines? How do we act professionally, and within ethical boundaries in the absence of professional guidance?*

It’s probably worth taking a brief sidestep into the world of ethics. I mean brief, because the discussion of ethics is legion, not to mention downright confusing. So I’ll centre on a branch of ethics that is often used by psychologists: utilitarianism. Utilitarianism (an aspect of teleological or normative ethics) is the doctrine that an action is right if it is useful or beneficial to the majority. A person’s actions should, therefore, maximise total benefit and reduce suffering or negative consequences. Unfortunately, determining what is meant by increasing benefit and reducing suffering can, if care isn’t taken, be the object of abuse. Throughout history, individuals, organisations and governments have decided for themselves the most beneficial (for themselves) definition of the greater good, resulting in behaviour that is anything but ethical. This is where professional guidelines can be extremely useful. Nevertheless, maximising wellbeing and minimising harm is a pretty good stance to take when acting in a role in which you have power over another person (or animal or ecosystem, etc.).

So how do we make ethical, professional decisions in the absence of guidelines. Well, for one, we can use a critical-evaluative response, which encourages the reasoned use of ethical principles in order to resolve complex, difficult or ambiguous situations. Within this approach we can apply five tests, in order to determine whether an action is likely to benefit or harm another. The first, autonomy, represents an individual’s freedom to make choices and decide his or her actions. This translates to the maximisation of a person’s ability to choose what he or she wants from a particular situation. Removing this choice becomes, therefore, unethical action. Beneficence, or working to promote the greatest good for others, segues neatly into the notion of autonomy. Under this principle a professional has an obligation or duty of care to help others to best of his or her ability, and despite any concerns, biases, or misgivings he or she might hold. Likewise, the principle of nonmalfeasance implies that we do no harm to others or, at the very least, do everything we can to reduce any harm. This includes the responsible use of power and the avoidance of exploitation of that power. Justice implies fairness and an appropriate balance between costs and benefits. In everyday life, this equates to ensuring quality of access to our services despite any personal issues or misgivings we might have (e.g., not withholding our services because of a person’s beliefs or actions). Last, fidelity represents communication that is trustworthy and unpretentious, and the establishment of clear boundaries, including respect for individual autonomy.

Hmmm. That’s a pretty tall ask. Reading through the list, you might notice that most, if not all of these principles are regularly violated by those in powerful positions. You might have even acted contrary to these guidelines in your own work (to a greater or lesser degree). The point of this discussion is not one of finger pointing, however. It’s to point out that professional behaviour requires an ethical base, and that that ethical base should be at the forefront of our reasoning when we make decisions that might impact others. It’s about adding complexity to your decision making and attempting to remove some of your normal, inbuilt biases, especially in the context of professional practice, and particularly in the absence of a set of professional guidelines.

Why does this matter? Professionalism is a melange of integrity, honesty, and balance, alongside the removal of self-serving behaviour, or actions that enhance your position at the expense of others. It’s also about the recognition that this sort of stance is extremely hard to sustain in the context of modern-world pressures. The real-world presents all sorts of coercion (subtle or otherwise) to act unprofessionally: direct pressure to act from an organisation, employer, or superior; institutional pressure to act because “that’s the way things are done”; the pressure of tradition; peer pressure; pressure from financial obligations; pressure from our internal beliefs, biases or prejudices; pressure from outside sources such as the media; pressure from evolutionary processes and the desire to make ourselves look or feel more important; and pressure from unconscious processes that we’re often completely unaware of (the topic of my next blog).

So what will you do next time you’re placed in (or engineer) a position in which you might benefit (directly or indirectly) from taking action that is dodgy, demanded of you, or at the expense of another (or (d) all of the above)? How will you even recognise that you might be behaving unprofessionally, especially when the standard of practice around you sets a benchmark for a certain type of behaviour?^ You can start by looking at the thing you do, or believe, from a critical-evaluative stance. Do your actions contravene the standards of autonomy, beneficence, nonmalfeasance, fidelity and justice? Can you take a stand?


*^ It’s tempting to single out certain groups here: politicians, bankers, etc. I couldn’t possibly comment.

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