October 16, 2011 by Dr. Bob Weathers
Here’s Part II of my previous introduction of ethics for future forensic psychologists:
In a class of masters-level forensic psychology students, I asked them next to remember a time when they had done something that they’d never imagine doing; something that ran squarely against their previous ethical values.
I required them to keep the actual content of that behavior completely to themselves.
But I did ask for them first to journal privately, then share in dyads, their best recollection of what they had believed before, and what that ethical belief had felt like; as specifically as possible.
Next: to remember what they felt like after violating or overriding that ethical value or belief; plus, what was the context in which they had behaved so differently…again, in as absolutely much detail as they could recall.
Third question for their self-reflection and analysis: what might anyone have said to them that could possibly have made a difference in their choosing to go against their earlier, unquestioned values?
And finally: what might have made a difference for them, in hindsight, by others’ responses to them after the crossing of ethical boundaries?
Each individual spent close to 20 minutes journaling answers to the above questions, once having identified the selected instance of newly unethical behavior. They then shared, animatedly, with one another, in twosomes, for another 20 minutes. We finished by summarizing insights gained.
I posed: how might this exercise inform our discussion of “Don’t Do Dumb Stuff”? And, how might this exercise inform our own building of core skills for being an ethical and effective forensic psychologist?
Two key insights, content-wise, and maybe most importantly, one having more to do with the process (rather than content) of ethical decision-making arose organically out of the entire exercise:
One student said:
“If only someone could have come to me with empathy, rather than judgment; whether before or after the ‘offense.'”
Another student said: “I was given a second chance (to prove myself). I would never aim for less with any individual I might face in my line of work.”
So: empathy…and grace.
Most crucial: what became clear from this exercise is that simply reading “about” ethics—right and wrong, good and bad—doesn’t “touch” real-life moral dilemmas or quandaries. Anyone of us, given a certain context, can and will violate previously dearly held ethical principles.
The instruction to “Don’t Do Dumb Stuff” misses the mark. We all “do dumb stuff.” What might, just might, make a difference is empathy before and/or after such moral “stumblings.” And the opportunity to be forgiven, and to seek restoration to community, once have “crossed the line” (even our own ethical line).
And those latter two responses are, I believe, not learned by memorizing professional or personal ethical codes. Rather, they are written on the heart of the earnestly seeking and ego-surrendering individual faced with the utter boundaries of his/her own personal existence. Abraham faced with slaying his own son. Job on the edge of giving up on himself and his God. Jesus nailed to the cross for having violated Hebrew and Roman law; himself faced with abandonment from his friends and his Creator. No collective ethical code, under such extreme circumstance, will nearly suffice.
And everyone of us, if we are “true human beings,” has faced—and will face again in our lifetimes—such extreme circumstance!
P.S. Perhaps there might be a place for adding to Danish theologian, ethicist, and existential philosopher Soren Kierkegaard’s brilliant, and indelible, insights expressed in “Either/Or”; a companion volume, respectful to the core, called simply “Both/And”…