1. Top of page
  2. Background
  3. References

Candilis and Neal (2013) note that the welfare of individuals is often secondary to the justice interests of the community, particularly in relation to criminal justice and national security settings. Disappointingly, psychologists have contributed little to the public policy debate regarding the human rights of offenders and detainees. Candilis and Neal explore the unbalanced dichotomy between welfare and justice in relation to the dual role of psychologists within national security settings. This commentary will focus on the role of psychologists in terms of dual obligations in general, and as managed by the American Psychological Association (APA) in particular.

Conflict in dual roles occurs when psychologists balance the needs of their clients (the treatment provider role) against that of their employer (the organizational consultant role). An imbalance of these ethical obligations leads to the risk of violating human rights, ethics, and professional principles (Clark, 2006). As is well-documented, psychologists were engaged in cruel and inhumane treatment and torture against detainees after the terror attacks against the United States in September 2001 despite several international declarations and conventions signed and enacted by the United States (see Coalition for an Ethical Psychology). One reason given by the military at this time was lack of human rights training to health professionals but, as noted by Clark (2006), poor training alone does not justify what are viewed as unethical acts. Clark views the failure of health professionals to report and to prevent such abuses as the consequence of legal and ethical boundaries not being developed and/or enforced by the military.

Professional organizations play an important role in ensuring that their members do not engage in unethical actions or fail to report and to prevent abuse. Candilis and Neal (2013) indicate that while the American Psychiatric Association clearly reiterated the ethical principle of ‘do no harm’ as the primary obligation and community protection as secondary, the APA chose to balance individual and community interests by allowing psychologists to consult to interrogations under ethical guidance that included not serving as a treater and interrogator, not being involved in coercive interrogations, not using client information to inform the interrogative methods, and reporting unethical behaviours. However, the APA also included a revision of the APA Ethics Code in 2002 to allow psychologists to be guided by laws and regulations rather than professional ethics, and the establishment of the Presidential Task Force on Psychological Ethics and National Security (PENS Report) in 2005 that supported this position. Drawing on the official timeline of policies and actions from 1985 to 2011,1 Candilis and Neal argue ‘the ethics of relative balancing’ (p. X) was not directly addressed by the APA. This choice resulted in a slippery slope towards human rights violations.

In short, the PENS Task Force met briefly and has been criticized for being too weighted towards members of the military and intelligence agencies (with additional security ‘observers’); demarcating the role of treatment providers (seen as inappropriate) from organizational consultants (seen as appropriate) thus weighting community protection over individual rights; and the majority of Task Force members relying upon US domestic laws rather than international human rights laws (Olson, Soldz, & Davis, 2008) even though the APA is a UN-accredited Non-Government Organization bound to honour international law. In summary, the APA allowed community rights to trump detainee rights and for the profession to treat detainees as objects or as a means to an end (Birgden & Perlin, 2009). In addition, it took a member-initiated resolution for Standard 2.01 of the Ethics Code to be revised in 2010 to clarify that a conflict between ethics and law/regulations cannot be used to justify human rights violations. The APA expressed a preference for national security over psychological ethics when a ‘bright-line position’ ought to have been established (Olson et al., 2008).

In relation to the psychology profession to date, Soldz (2010) has noted that

…our ethics code and ethics office have not been up to the task of offering the clear guidance necessary to help our operational psychologists navigate the myriad ethical minefields that are inherent in such dual roles…we need to develop new ethical principles and standards to decide first if such work can be ethically employed, and, if so, to then provide the guidance that would be required. (p. 83)

To maintain moral integrity, Candilis and Neal (2013) suggest ongoing dialogue regarding community, professional, and personal values regarding the balancing of welfare and justice. The conversation needs to develop clear ethical guidelines to ensure that members do not engage in unethical actions or fail to report and to prevent abuse.

  1. 1

    The APA timeline can be found at: and an alternative timeline established by the Coalition for an Ethical Psychology can be found at:


  1. Top of page
  2. Background
  3. References