Ethical codes of practice have evolved throughout history as a consequence of events, studies, and human nature. Ethical consideration was first documented by the American Psychology Association (APA) when founded in 1892, a majority of the first psychological articles published focused on ethics. A review of the articles indicated that psychologists were exploring ethical issues that are still currently researched such as confidentiality, conflict of interest, and consent (Sinclair, 2017).
The Nuremberg Code of Ethics in Medical Research (1947) was developed as a response to the harmful experiments conducted in the concentration camps on inmates during World War 2 (WW2). The code of ethics involves a ten-point statement of rules was designed to protect participants including the emphasis on the need for informed consent the responsibility of researchers to balance the risk and benefits of the study, and that causing harm to individuals is unacceptable regardless of the purpose is to be beneficial to society. This code establishes a strong legal code that can be applied universally based on the principles of natural law and human rights. However, it fails to acknowledge participants' welfare after a study by not addressing care for the participants after a study ends. Furthermore, WW2 led to Milgram (1974) examining the possible justification for those accused of acts of genocide at the Nuremberg War Trials. He discovered that people are likely to obey authority figures, even if it means killing innocent people as obedience is ingrained in us from childhood. However, the ethical issues in this experiment including deception psychological harm right to withdraw, and lack of debriefing have meant that this experiment would be difficult to conduct in present times.
The President’s Council of Bioethics was established in 2001 in response to a national outrage that caused President Clinton to formally apologize and develop this council now responsible for fundamental inquiries into developments explore ethical questions provide a forum for discussions on ethics relating to bioethical issues and explore possible international collaboration on bioethical issues. This national outrage was in response to a longitudinal study conducted between 1932 and 1972 called the Tuskegee syphilis experiment. 399 patients with syphilis were compared to 201 healthy controls. Participants were given free health care but not informed of their diagnosis of syphilis but told they were being treated for “bad blood” a term used to describe several illnesses including anemia, syphilis, and fatigue. However, participants were not being treated even as the drug penicillin, was introduced in 1947, participants were not offered it. This study was deemed unethical as it was conducted without participants' consent and therefore participants were not given the choice to withdraw as well as the harm caused both emotionally and physically. The findings from this study were also not deemed significant enough to warrant the study happening. Furthermore, a response to the Tuskegee syphilis experiment the National Research Act (1974) which created the National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioural Research which drafted the Belmont Report (1979). The report states basic ethical principles and guidelines that should be adhered to, to avoid issues in research on human subjects including respect for people, beneficence, and justice.
The American Psychological Association (APA) implemented a new Standard 3.04(b) (2010): which states that psychologists do not participate, aid, assist or engage in any way with torture including physical and mental acts when responding to Handlesman et al (2017) investigation. APA assured that human rights and ethics are a core principle of psychology education to prevent psychologists from engaging in harm. Handelsman et al investigated the collusion between APA and the United States Department of Defence. Detainees at the Guantanamo Bay detention center were subjected to “enhanced interrogation techniques” including waterboarding, forced stress positions, deprived of necessities such as sleep. Hoffman et al (2015) stated such techniques are considered torture according to Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions (1949). APA’s response reiterates “The Obligations of the Professional Psychologist” (1939) established by the American Association for Applied Psychology’s Committee. Which states firstly the professional psychologist’s first consideration is the welfare of humans and secondly, the scientific psychologist’s first consideration should be the advancement in knowledge.
APA’s ethical guidelines were formally recognized establishing that studies must be extensively reviewed by an institutional board or an ethics committee before being implemented in response to The Stanford Prison Study. This study was conducted by Zimbardo (1971) and was terminated twelve days early, after only six days due to the severe distress the participants were in. The study consisted of a mock prison on the Stanford University campus where participants were assigned to prisoner or guard roles. The findings showed how individuals conform to social roles and extended the conclusions from Milgram (1974), representing one of the most extreme experimental demonstrations of the power in situational determinants in shaping behavior as well as predominating over personal attitudes and values.
The importance of informed consent was highlighted by Ford’s (1976) executive order on intelligence activities which banned the use of drugs on humans in experiments unless informed consent in writing is given and witnessed by an unbiased subject. This was the result of participants not always being informed they were participating and so could not give consent in Project MK Ultra, subproject 68. A CIA’s program of research in behavioral modification occurring from 1953 to 1973. The main objective was to discover chemical agents that would erase minds, modify behavior, and alter personalities. The program consisted of over 150 human experiments involving psychedelic drugs, paralytics, and electroshock therapy.
Overall, Sinclair (2017) illustrated that the development of ethical codes of practices has been altered throughout the mid 19th century to the present day, influenced by events, challenges, and society's perception of ethics. From natural disasters such as war to medical and psychological studies, codes of practices have been developed in the hope to protect participants from psychological or physical harm.