Problems in the APA Code of Ethics

Assignment – Article Review – Ethics & Laws in Psychotherapy: Recently, there has emerged concern about the cultural competence/responsiveness of the APA ethics code. This concern has emerged in the research literature. Please find one peer-reviewed article that discusses the various aspects of this emerging issue. Specifically, find and review an article that discusses the APA ethics code’s adherence to cultural competency or the lack there of.  Please write a 1-3 page summary of the salient themes of the article.

Article Review of William O’Donohue’s article:
Oppression, Privilege, Bias, Prejudice, and Stereotyping: Problems in the APA Code of Ethics

Concerns about the APA Ethics Code’s cultural competence and responsiveness have been raised in the research literature for some time. To gain a better understanding of some of the issues, in this paper the article “Oppression, Privilege, Bias, Prejudice, and Stereotyping: Problems in the APA Code of Ethics” by psychologist O’Donohue (2016) is reviewed. According to O’Donohue, one of the major problems is the phrase “age, gender, gender identity, race, ethnic origin, culture, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, disability, language, or socioeconomic status,” (p.527) in the current version of the Ethics Code. It causes a number of problems in a variety of areas, such as whether a psychologist can acquire scientific or professional knowledge or competence in relation to all of these 12 categories is a source of debate.

Who is morally to blame if a psychologist’s suggested actions, as prescribed by the Ethical Code, are not possible to carry out? Is it the psychologist, the Ethical Code, or the authors of the Code themselves? This is essentially one of the issues raised by O’Donohue when he claims that assigning moral responsibility for actions over which individuals have no control is useless. Or, as Griffin (1992, as cited in O’Donohue, 2016) so eloquently stated, “Moral norms regulate human action; a norm that ignores the limited nature of human agents is not an “ideal” norm, but no norm at all” (p. 105). This means that moral standards must be shaped to accommodate the limitations imposed by the psychologist’s competence, defined by Knapp et al. (2013, as cited in O’Donohue, 2016) as the capacity to act in accordance with professional standards and divided into three components by Pope and Brown (1996, as cited in O’Donohue, 2016)): knowledge, emotional competence, and technical skills.

A critical question raised by O’Donohue (2016) is whether psychologists can possess these three levels of competence in all 12 domains, for example, as outlined in Ethical Standard 2.01(b) of the Ethics Code, concerning Boundaries of Competence, which states:

Where scientific or professional knowledge in the discipline of psychology establishes that an understanding of factors associated with age, gender, gender identity, race, ethnicity, culture, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, disability, language, or socioeconomic status is essential for effective implementation of their services or research, psychologists have or obtain the training, experience, consultation, or supervision necessary to ensure the competence of their services. (APA, 2017, p. 5)

According to O’Donohue, knowing all relevant “scientific or professional knowledge” about each of the 12 categories may be “beyond anyone’s cognitive abilities” (p. 536). In the spirit of Dr Martin Luther King’s statement, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” (p. 541) O’Donohue suggests that it may be better to abandon categorizing people according to the 12 dimensions listed above, as these may be what divides us rather than what unites us. Instead, O’Donohue proposes that the Ethical Code be revised to include more general restrictions against prejudice, bias, and stereotyping. O’Donohue makes the following suggestion:

Some individuals experience or will have experienced prejudice and discrimination due to one or more of their characteristics. This kind of experience is one source that can contribute to individual differences. Psychologists have an ethical obligation to recognize when this is the case and both insure that their behavior is not prejudicial and not discriminatory as well as incorporate these individual differences into their professional behavior through appropriate assessment, treatment planning, teaching and consultation. (p. 543)

To further promote unity and understanding, O’Donohue discusses whether the Ethical Code should consider whether there are any critical skills that can assist in dealing with a wide variety of group differences, such as a greater emphasis on cultural sensitivity and the ability to empathize with diverse individuals. Finally, O’Donohue argues that psychologists should engage in self-exploration in order to increase their awareness of how to respond ethically to individuals or groups who have or are experiencing oppression, privilege, bias, prejudice, and stereotyping. Overall, I believe that increased cultural sensitivity, empathy, and self-exploration are all necessary skills for establishing rapport with members of any group that may be described as distinct from mine, as well as becoming aware of and understanding how to resolve potential misunderstandings and conflicts that may arise as a result of too many differences between me and a client.


American Psychological Association. (2017). Ethical principles of psychologists and code of conduct (2002, amended effective June 1, 2010, and January 1, 2017).

O’Donohue, W. (2016). Oppression, Privilege, Bias, Prejudice, and Stereotyping: Problems in the APA Code of Ethics. Ethics & Behavior, 26(7), 527–544.

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