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Graduate Course Presentation: Forensic Psychology I

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October 16, 2011 by Dr. Bob Weathers

Last night, I taught the 4th (out of 8) class sessions of my Ethics course for forensic psychologists-in-training at Argosy University.  I have been attempting, now in my third, graduate-level course of Ethics, to invite the kind of deep-level self-reflection in my students that I believe is necessary in their future careers as forensic psychologists.  I’d like to share my class outline, fresh from last night’s 3-hour class:

I started by acknowledging how that several students had, over the course of the previous week, completed essays regarding what are core ethical characteristics which typify the ideal forensic psychologist.

I then asked students to privately journal the first five such ethical characteristics which came to mind.  Upon completing that task, we broke into dyad discussions of what they’d recorded.  Finally, we came back to the entire class group, with me at the front whiteboard simply recording their responses.

What came was not surprising, though still inspiring: from “integrity” to “passion” to “intrinsically motivated” to “non-judgmental” to “positive” to “empathic and understanding”…the list went on for 20-30 items without significant overlap content-wise.  (What was, to me, most interesting was that I had asked the group to only share those items, when their turn came, which hadn’t already been mentioned.  The truth is there was incredible universality in their responses; so those 20-30 distinct responses actually were indicative of huge overlap between students, suggesting a common, implicit moral code wound deeply into the human heart, in this case with aspiring psychologists.)

Let me continue…

I next wrote on the front board the words directly reflecting a chapter title in their required textbook for this course: “Don’t Do Dumb Stuff.”

I asked my students for a definition of what might constitute “dumb stuff.”  We came up with a common definition: where “dumb” = blatantly or obviously unethical behavior.

My next question to them: how then do we cultivate truly “Ethical Intelligence,” or what I called, for the first time, “E.Q.”?

To up the ante a bit, I reviewed our previous week’s conversations about forensic case vignettes which I’d supplied the class; addressing, among other issues  confidentiality and legally mandated reporting (e.g., of abuse, suicidality, etc.).

What became clear in the ensuing discussion (again, the previous week) was the inherent moral complexity of such common, real-life ethical dilemmas in the life of a psychologist.

Next, I drew the class’ attention to this past week’s newspaper headlines, specifically, regarding the current statewide release of California prison inmates; including the wide-scale reunification of currently incarcerated parents with their families.

One major “fly in the ointment,” however, is the hugely common practice of denying life-term prisoners their constitutional rights in obtaining parole hearings.  (Los Angeles attorney, Michael Beckman, has come to previous Ethics classes of mine to describe this rarely discussed problem.  After all: who cares about the civil rights of convicted murderers, rapists, arsonists, even after they have served their debt to society with “good behavior,” qualifying them for at least the due process of a parole board hearing?)

How is this relevant to an Ethics course for forensic psychologists?  The individuals responsible for evaluating potential parolees fairly and impartially are: forensic psychologists.  Prior to only the past handful of years, again according to attorney Michael Beckman, it was by far the most common practice to simply diagnose life-termers as an ongoing menace to society, “at risk” for further crimes like murder and rape.

What, I asked my students, would it require for this next generation of forensic psychologists to reverse this officially sanctioned (even viewed as “ethical”) practice, which in fact denies individual human beings (the “lowest of the low” in our society) their promised constitutional rights?

In other words, if “dumb stuff” = flagrant violation of doing the right thing (ethics), could we find a much more egregious example of standardly practiced “dumb stuff” within our profession; one which turns its head the other way, blessed by the highers-up within the so-called criminal justice and “rehabilitation” system, to the very highest levels in our state capital, Sacramento?

Now it’s easy to find fault all around us.  My suggestion instead: let’s see if there’s an in-class experiment, maybe the first of many, with which we might truly “educate” a deeper morality, one which could in fact stand up to such abuses of justice as the previous, even within our hallowed profession of forensic psychology.

May I pause here, only to see whether you, the reader, might see the pertinence of what I’m sharing to a rigorously self-reflective, even self-critical, foundation for not only personal, but also socially committed ethics.  I believe that one, without the other, is quite simply a complete and utter contradiction…

Part II to follow..

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