Murdough (2010) explains that the Nuremberg Defense is a means by which individuals pass on the culpability (i.e. the responsibility) of a particular act to their superiors under the concept of them merely “following orders” (Murdough, 2010).
This particular terminology developed as a direct result of the Nazi war crimes trials that were held in Nuremberg during World War 2 wherein actions related to mass murder, genocide, violations of human rights and other related atrocities were charged to numerous Nazi military officials yet many claimed that they did such actions under duress or obligation due to fear of persecution on the part of their superior officers.
As such, the Nuremberg Defense can be stated as an appeal that defends a person’s innocence on the grounds that it was the organization and not necessarily them on a personal level that is ultimately responsible for a heinous act that occurred. This means of “passing the buck” so to speak is not limited to cases such as the Nuremberg trials; in fact the Nuremberg defense became one of the primary reasons behind changes in the Ethics code of the APA.
The primary reason behind such a decision was that the Council of Representatives noted that the language present in the iteration of the Ethics code prior to their February 2010 possessed a means by which the responsibility of a psychologist towards acts violating human rights could be passed along in a “robotic” fashion due to the psychologist in question following the letter of the law rather the intended spirit of the law as embodied by the APA code of ethics (American Psychological Association, 2009).
In fact the differential association theory created by Sutherland states that “crime does not originate from individual traits or a person’s socio-economic position rather it is a type of behavior that is created through a learning process” (Siegel, 2011). Thus, from a certain perspective, it can be assumed that violation of human rights in the case of psychologists would not be viewed as distinctly “unethical” since for them if an organization condones such acts due to war or testimony in a criminal act this would make certain violations acceptable, this is the primary situation that the APA Council is attempting to prevent from developing among members of the general population of psychologists.
In this regard, the Council focused on amendments which impacted “Conflicts between Ethics and Law, Regulations, or Other Governing Legal Authority” as well as amendments concerning “Conflicts between Ethics and Organizational Demands”. Through the work of Knapp & VandeCreek (2003), a list of the changes implemented by the APA Council can be seen wherein Knapp & VandeCreek (2003) explains that the new amendments entail a greater degree of personal responsibility and culpability towards actions done on the part of psychologists (Knapp & VandeCreek, 2003).
This means that psychologists who are part of procedures, experiments or other forms of examination that border on the inhumane (i.e. knowingly applying undue discomfort on an individual’s without any specific beneficial effect) cannot “pass the buck” so to speak in terms of absolving themselves of any responsibility for acts committed due to the organization deeming such actions as “necessary”.
This also applies to situations wherein psychologists knowingly violate the code of ethics (i.e. revealing private details about an individual under their care) without taking the necessary steps to ensure that the ethical conflict in question is addressed and rectified through some alternative means (i.e. giving only a small part of the client’s personality profile that does not violate any specific private details) (American Psychological Association, 2010a).
New Working and the Enhancement of the Ethics Code
First and foremost, it should be noted that the APA does not condone or endorse any act which specifically violates an individual’s human rights. This involves conditions wherein a psychologist is complicit in either violating a person’s basic human rights (i.e. through psychological torture) or is responsible in the creation of environments or general procedures which are meant to violate such rights (American Psychological Association, 2010b).
In its amendments to the APA code of conduct, the Council of representatives places a specific reference towards actions related to organizational demands or ethical concerns related to laws, regulations and governing authorities (Report of the Ethics Committee, 2011). Basically, it emphasizes that despite a situation or organization deeming that the code of ethics should be violated, a psychologist must (under no circumstances) violate the code of ethics especially when it comes to instances involving the violation of an individual’s human rights.
One example of such an instance can be seen during times of war wherein soldiers captured in the field are at times subject to various forms of torture of which a psychologist is consulted. In cases such as these, a psychologist should take absolutely no part in them as per the directives of the APA code of ethics. The amendments clearly emphasize this by indicating that the psychologist in question has to take reasonable steps in clarifying the nature of the ethical conflict and resolving it so as to preserve human rights whenever possible.
It is based on this that the new wording of the APA code of ethics places a clear emphasis on personal responsibility wherein even if it was an organization or specific law that compelled a psychologist to act in a manner that violated human rights, that individual is still directly responsible for such actions and cannot hide behind the veil of absolution due to their actions being controlled by an outside organization or law (Report of the Ethics Committee, 2011).
The new wording thus expects all psychologists that abide by the APA code of ethical conduct to take the necessary steps by way of personal or professional conduct to avoid or denounce situations which are against the ethical standards that they abide by (Joyce & Rankin, 2010).
Socially improving society or a socially declining society?
A socially improving society has characteristics related to a greater emphasis being placed on respect for individual rights, the creation of equal opportunities for all races and genders, instances where war and internal conflict are considerable lessened as well as the creation of a form of government where election is not limited to the rich and influential, rather, it is done through merit and dedication towards serving the public good.
When examining the amendments placed in the APA codes of conduct, it may seem like it reflects a socially improving society, however, in reality it is not. What you have to understand is that within a socially improving society placing a particular emphasis on the protection of human rights through greater personal responsibility is not necessary.
As indicated by Intravia, Jones & Piquero (2012) and their work on social control theory, the bonds that make up society ensure that people function in a manner that is conducive towards better social relations and the improvement of society as a whole since they value they bonds they share with others within the society that they currently reside in (Intravia, Jones & Piquero, 2012).
If the bonds are weaker or nonexistent, this often results in behavioral predispositions that are not oriented towards social benefit; rather, an individual becomes more self-serving and emphasizes the “self” rather than the “other” (Boman et al., 2012). When looking at the reasoning behind the amendments in the 2002 APA codes of conduct, it can be seen that it was done as a direct result of fears related to the self serving behavior of some members of the APA.
(Joyce & Rankin, 2010) This is reflective of a socially declining society rather than one that is improving since self-serving behavior is one of the first signs of the deterioration of social bonds that ensure the continued existence of society. Social control theory developed by Travis Hirschi specially states that all individuals actually have the potential to become criminals however it is the “bond” they share with society whether in the form of friendships, recognition of societal rules and norms of conduct, parental influences etc. that prevent them from actually committing a crime (Payne & Salotti, 2007).
Hirschi goes on further to explain that it is actually quite normal for an individual to desire to commit a crime or even think about it such as desiring to steal and object, injure a person or other forms of criminal activity however they are prevented from doing so because of a distinct fear of the impact of this type of activity on their position in society (Payne & Salotti, 2007).
The concept of fear in this particular case comes in the form of the loss of societal bonds, careers, social relationships and other connections that individuals have come to rely on due to a person’s inherent nature to rely on social connections to retain a stable psychological state (Payne & Salotti, 2007). In other words people are normally so dependent on social bonds and maintaining them that the thought of losing them after committing a particular action is sufficient enough to deter them from committing a crime (Payne & Salotti, 2007).
Hirschi goes on further to state that crimes occur due to individuals either losing or weakening the various bonds which bind them to society and as such results in them not caring of the social ramifications of certain criminal actions (Payne & Salotti, 2007). In the case of Charles Manson (noted psychopath) it was seen that from early childhood he did not have a particularly strong bond with his mother due to her incarceration and the fact that she rejected him when he came looking for her (Youtube, 2008).
Manson even states in the A&E interview (refer to the YouTube link in the reference list) that his loss of trust in his mother taught him a lesson never to trust anyone and as such based on Social control theory this loss of a connection early on would have precipitated the occurrence of criminal behavior since there was no bond present to incite fear over its loss (Youtube, 2008).
Similarly, it is suggested by Siegel (2011) that it is socialization and not the social structure itself that produces either positive or negative tendencies (Siegel, 2011). Siegel explains that “the more social problems encountered during the socialization process, the greater the likelihood that youths will encounter difficulties and obstacles as they mature, such as being unemployed or becoming a teenage mother” (Siegel, 2011).
As social learning theorists suggest crime is a direct result of individuals learning norms, values, and behaviors associated with criminal activity (Siegel, 2011). It is based on this that when examining the placement of amendments within the APA code of ethics, the sheer necessity of placing them there in the first place is indicative of a socially declining society.
American Psychological Association. (2009). APA Council of Representatives directs change in its ethics code to prevent so-called Nuremberg defense. APA News and Events. Web.
American Psychological Association. (2010). American Psychological Association amends ethics code to address potential conflicts among professional ethics, legal authority, and organizational demands. APA News and Events. Web.
American Psychological Association. (2010). Standard 1: Resolving ethical issues. In Ethical principles of psychologists and code of conduct: 2010 amendments. Web.
Boman, J., Krohn, M., Gibson, C., & Stogner, J. (2012). Investigating Friendship Quality: An Exploration of Self-Control and Social Control Theories’ Friendship Hypotheses. Journal Of Youth & Adolescence, 41(11), 1526-1540.
Intravia, J., Jones, S., & Piquero, A. R. (2012). The Roles of Social Bonds, Personality, and Perceived Costs: An Empirical Investigation Into Hirschi’s “New” Control Theory. International Journal Of Offender Therapy & Comparative Criminology, 56(8), 1182-1200.
Joyce, N. R., & Rankin, T. J. (2010). The Lessons of the Development of the First APA Ethics Code: Blending Science, Practice, and Politics. Ethics & Behavior, 20(6), 466-481.
Knapp, S. & VandeCreek, L. (2003). An Overview of the Major Changes in the 2002 APA Ethics Code. Professional Psychology: Research & Practice, 34(3), 301.
Murdough, R. E. (2010). “I Won’t Participate in an Illegal War”: Military Objectors, the Nuremberg Defense, and the Obligation to Refuse Illegal Orders. Army Lawyer, (446), 4.
Payne, A., & Salotti, S. (2007). A Comparative Analysis of Social Learning and Social Control Theories in the Prediction of College Crime. Deviant Behavior, 28(6), 553-573.
Report of the Ethics Committee. (2011). American Psychologist, 66(5), 393-403.
Siegel, L. (2011). Criminal Behavior. ACP Criminology. (11 ed.). Cengage Custom.
Youtube. (2008). Charles Manson documentary. [Web Video].