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A Reasoned Argument Against Banning Psychologists’ Involvement in Death Penalty Cases

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Prompted by the involvement of psychologists in torturous interrogations at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, the American Psychological Association (APA) revised its Ethics Code Standard 1.02 to prohibit psychologists from engaging in activities that would “justify or defend violating human rights.”

Prompted by the involvement of psychologists in torturous interrogations at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, the American Psychological Association (APA) revised its Ethics Code Standard 1.02 to prohibit psychologists from engaging in activities that would “justify or defend violating human rights.” The revision to Standard 1.02 followed APA policy statements condemning torture and prohibiting psychologists’ involvement in such activities that constitute a violation of human rights (APA, 2010). Cogent questions have subsequently been raised about the involvement of psychologists in other activities that could arguably lead to human rights violations, even if the activity in question is legal. While this language was designed to be expansive in defining psychologists’ ethical responsibilities, it remains difficult to determine whether and how Standard 1.02 might apply to a particular situation.

In the present analysis, we focus on the question of whether psychologists should be involved in death penalty cases. We assert that the APA should not take an ethical stand against psychologists’ participation in death penalty cases. Our position is not intended necessarily to reflect approval or disapproval of the death penalty although we recognize that there are serious flaws in the American legal system with regard to capital punishment. Our perspective is that psychologists have an important role in the administration of due process in capital cases. We oppose a bright-line rule prohibiting psychologists’ involvement in death penalty cases for several reasons. We begin by considering whether the death penalty per se constitutes a human rights violation, move on to describe the basic functioning of the legal system, analyze how the involvement of psychologists actually affects the capital trial process, and end with providing practical advice for psychologists’ provision of ethical services in capital trials.

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2013