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Can Virtues Be Taught?

Can Virtues Be Taught?


No course could automatically close the gap between knowing what is right and doing it.

—Pellegrino (1989, p. 492)

Some have argued that psychology professors cannot change graduate students’ moral character through classroom teaching, and therefore ethics education should focus on understanding the Ethics Code rather than instilling moral dispositions to right action. Without question, however, senior members of the discipline, through teaching and through their own examples, can enhance the ability of students and young professionals to understand the centrality of ethical commitment to ethical practice. At the same time, the development of professional moral character is not to simply know about virtue but to become good (P. A. Scott, 2003). Beyond the intellectual virtues transmitted in the classroom and modeled through mentoring and supervision, excellence of character can be acquired through habitual practice (Begley, 2006). One such habit is that the virtuous graduate student and seasoned psychologist are committed to lifelong learning and practice in the continued development of moral excellence.

Ethical Awareness and Moral Principles

In the process of making decisions regarding their professional behavior, psychologists must consider this Ethics Code, in addition to applicable laws and psychology board regulations.

—APA (2010c, Introduction)

Lack of awareness or misunderstanding of an ethical standard is not itself a defense to a charge of unethical conduct.

—APA (2010c, Introduction)

Ethical commitment is just the first step in effective ethical decision making. Good intentions are insufficient if psychologists fail to identify the ethical situations to which they should be applied. Psychologists found to have violated Ethical Standards or licensure regulations have too often harmed others or damaged their own careers or the careers of others because of ethical ignorance. Conscientious psychologists understand that identification of situations requiring ethical attention depends on familiarity and understanding of the APA Ethics Code, relevant scientific and professional guidelines, laws and regulations applicable to their specific work-related activities, and an awareness of relational obligations embedded within each context.

Moral Principles and Ethical Awareness

To identify a situation as warranting ethical consideration, psychologists must be aware of the moral values of the discipline. Although the Ethics Code’s General Principles are not exhaustive, they do identify the major moral ideals of psychology as a field. Familiarity with the General Principles, however, is not sufficient for good ethical decision making. Psychologists also need the knowledge, motivation, and coping skills to detect when situations call for consideration of these principles and attempt to address these issues when and if possible before they arise (Crowley & Gottlieb, 2012; Tjeltveit & Gottlieb, 2010; see also the Hot Topic “The Ethical Component of Self Care” at the end of this chapter). Table 3.2 identifies types of ethical awareness corresponding to each General Principle.

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