Earlier this year, the American Psychological Association voted (at last) to ban its members from participating in interrogations at U.S. detention centers, including the notorious Guantanamo Bay. This marked a major shift from its previous stance, which permitted work with interrogation (some of which is known in certain circles as “torture”) despite the fact that both the American Medical Association and the American Psychiatric Association have banned any affiliation with the practice for years.
So what’s different about psychologists, that it took them this long to decide that participation in torture wasn’t something the field should strive for? Stanley Fish at the New York Times blog “Think Again” offers the following explanation:
One answer can be found in the A.M.A.’s explanation of its prohibition: “Physicians must not conduct, directly participate in, or monitor an interrogation with an intent to intervene, because this undermines the physician’s role as healer.” The American Psychiatric Association is even more explicit: “Psychiatrists . . . owe their primary obligation to the well being of their patients.”
Psychology, on the other hand, is not exclusively a healing profession. To be sure, there are psychologists who provide counseling, therapy and other services to patients; but there are many psychologists who think of themselves as behavioral scientists.
It is their task to figure out how the mind processes and responds to stimuli, or how the emotions color and even create reality, or how reasoning and other cognitive activities are affected by changes in the environment. Their product is not mental health, but knowledge; their skills are not diagnostic, but analytic.
Fair point, though it doesn’t really weigh the fact that ethical considerations govern all scientists, psychologists or no. From the Stanford experiment to the controversy surrounding self-experimentation, scientific discovery has never operated on a separate, removed level from human rights. Certain behaviors—such as torture—could very well provide valuable data for psychologists, and maybe even lead to breakthroughs in the field. But do the potential benefits outweigh the ethical landmines of participation (at least through silent concession) in human rights violations? Put another way: Do we really have to condone torture to learn about the human psyche?