Human Rights Protection and APA Ethics Code

The field of psychology and its applications experienced rapid growth since the end of World War II. Even though psychologists in general are committed to professionalism and ethical conducts, as they “became more professionally active in such areas as industrial consulting and diagnosis and treatment of mental disorders, the need for an ethics code increased” (Hobbs as cited in Nagy, 2011, p. 30). Ethical standards can help guild psychologists to conduct research and services in ethical manners and avoid incidents and harmful effects to clients and patients.

In professional practice, psychologists often work under supervision of authorities and follow directions of rule and regulations. When such obedience leads to ethical conflicts such as human right violations, a psychologist faces a tough choice to either standing up for human rights or defending him or herself for unethical actions as the so-called Nuremberg Defense. To study the dilemma of ethical conflicts in practice of psychology, this article overviews the concepts and principles of ethics and human rights and analyzes ethical concerns to Nuremberg Defense. The development of the APA Ethic Code and its revision in response to human rights protection are also discussed.

Ethics and Human Rights

According to Gauthier (2009), the concept of ethics pertains to universal values that “are aspirational and inspirational in nature” for human beings (Gauthier, 2009, p. 26). The ethical principles to psychologists include “respect for the dignity of persons and peoples, competent caring for the well-being of persons and peoples, integrity, professional and scientific responsibility to society” (Gauthier, 2009, p. 28). Unlike ethics, the concept of human rights is about human entitlements that are “specific and prescriptive in nature” (Gauthier, 2009, p. 26).

As elaborated in Krippner, Pitchford, Davies, and Adhikari (2012), the United Nations (U.N.) created “the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 and the declaration took on the force of international law” (p. 598) in 1976. For the first time in human history, this declaration set forth basic rights inherently entitled by all people in the world without distinction of their race, sex, national origin, social and cultural background, religious beliefs, and political opinions. On the basis of this declaration, “everyone has the right to life, liberty, and personal security, and no one shall be subjected to torture of degrading treatment or punishment” (U.N. as cited in Krippner, Pitchford, Davies, & Adhikari, 2012, p. 598).

Gauthier (2009) stated that ethical principles and universal human rights bond strongly with each other on a common ground of shared goals. Both ethics advocation and human rights protection aim to building a better society to improve the quality of life for all people around the world. To achieve the common goals, all people should adhere to recognized moral imperatives in the society.

The Development of APA Ethical Standards

The American Psychological Association (APA), established in 1925, is the dominant professional society for psychologists in the United States. The great demand for psychological services at the end of World War II brought ever more psychologists to join the APA, thus “the need for ethical guidance became increasingly apparent” (Nagy, 2011, p. 30). In 1947, the APA formed the first Committee on Ethical Standards for Psychologists for the development of ethical code. The committee implemented a critical-incident method to investigate complaints of field incidents and formulate rules, principles, and standards for regulating ethical compliance of APA members. The first APA Ethics Code was published in 1953, which made a significant milestone in the modern history of psychology (Pickren & Rutherford, 2010).

According to Smith (2003b), an important point regarding the 1953 APA Ethics Codes is that “the crafters of that first code set the stage for psychologists’ code of ethics to be a continual work in progress” (p. 63). From time to time, revision of the code becomes imperative in order to continuously guide psychologist to identify and resolve moral issues when they deal with new researches, theories, and technologies. In 2002 the Ethics Code was significantly revised to feature two distinct sections: the General Principles section outlines ideals and concepts of ethics for the profession of psychology; the Ethical Standards section covers rules and procedures to be enforced. As explained in Smith (2003a), for the first time the 2002 Ethics Code “lays out the parameters of informed consent explicitly for psychologists conducting intervention research on experimental treatments” (p. 62). The enhancement of informed consent is an important addition to the code because it ensures that the confidentiality and basic rights of subjects and clients are protected.

Ethical Concerns to Nuremberg Defense

Nuremberg Defense refers to the major war criminals’ defense of obedience to superior orders in the International Military Tribunal. According to Ghooi (2011), Nuremberg Defense was named after the Nuremberg Trials which consisted of “a series of military tribunals held by the main victorious Allied forces of World War II” (p. 72) during 1945-1946 in the city of Nuremberg, Bavaria, Germany where “prominent members of the political, military, and economic leadership of the defeated Nazi Germany” (p. 72) were prosecuted. The Nuremberg Trails also included the Doctors’ Trial in which several Nazi doctors were accused of violating medical ethics and acting “in a manner incompatible with their education and profession” (Ghooi, 2011, p. 73). In these trails the Charter of the International Military Tribunal (Nuremberg Charter) denied the superior orders defense and rejected automatic immunity on the grounds of obedience to superior orders (Sato, 2009).

The Nuremberg Defense brought up ethical concerns about people’s judgments, decisions, and behaviors when they face authoritative commands that violate human rights and moral standards. The choice between standing up for ethics and obedience to authority is often challenging to individuals since psychological studies had indicated that people tend to follow superior orders even in a situation of raising ethical concerns. As demonstrated in Milgram’s research on obedience to authority, an individual could be easily directed and pressured to follow an authority’s order and take undesirable actions against his or her own moral principles. As stated in Blass (2009), “it does not take evil or aberrant persons to carry out actions that are reprehensible and cruel” (p. 40) by simply following superior orders.

Ethics Code for Human Rights Protection

In professional practice, psychologists may encounter dilemmas similar to the Nuremberg Defense. When orders of organizational authorities and implementation of governmental regulations become conflictive to ethical principles, psychologists should make a right and balanced action to defend ethics and protect human rights. The latest APA Ethics Code provides updated guidelines to dealing with such difficult circumstances.

Because of rapid changes in social and legal environments, economics, technologies, and global conditions, it is imperative for APA to revise the Ethics Code accordingly in order to effectively direct psychologists in their practice to avoid incidences of violating human rights and harming people. For example, the APA Council of Representatives in 2009 initialized an amendment in the Ethics Code “to prevent so-called Nuremberg Defense” (APA, 2009, August 5), that means psychologists cannot exert the following-the-law defense to violations of human rights.

Prior to the 2010 Amendments, the APA Ethics Code of 2002 stated that in case of conflicts between ethics and law or governing authority, a psychologist “may adhere to the requirements of the law, regulations, or other governing legal authority” if conflicts cannot be resolved; the 2010 Amendments removed the above verbiage and added that “under no circumstances may this standard be used to justify or defend violating human rights” (APA, 2010, February 24). The 2010 revision of Ethics Code made a salient enhancement for human rights protection because it put human rights as the highest priority and clearly stated that psychologists may never violate human rights.

Comparing to Ethics Code of 2002, the revision by 2010 reflects a socially improving society where human rights are further understood, emphasized, respected, and protected in both workplace and people’s daily life. The humanistic improvement of our society requires APA to clarify and restate its longstanding policy to standing up for human rights. The revised code acknowledges the universal values of ethical standards that are above any authorities, regulations, and laws. In the field of psychology, practitioners are no longer suggested to follow regulations and governing authorities in case of ethical conflicts but are supported to act against violations of human rights.


The rapid growth and expansion of the field of psychology elicited ethical concerns for this profession. To address ethical issues in psychological practice, the APA Ethics Code was developed to provide standards to guide psychologists in their professional conducts. The APA Ethics Code requires psychologists to conduct research and services in ethical manners and make no harm to clients and patients. The Ethics Code was periodically revised to support psychologists’ professionalism and ensure the wellbeing of both professionals and clients. In 2009 APA directed a change of the code to prevent so-called Nuremberg Defense thus psychologists cannot use the defense of obedience to superior orders to justify their misconducts such as human right violations. The 2010 revision of the Ethics Code prohibits psychologists from human right violations, and psychologists are no longer asked to follow laws and regulations in case of ethical conflicts. This revision demonstrates APA’s commitment to human rights protection and reflects a socially improving society for respect of human dignity. Ethics and human rights share common grounds for improving quality of life for all people around the world.


American Psychological Association. (2009, August 5). APA Council of Representatives directs change in its ethics code to prevent so-called Nuremberg defense. APA News and Events. Retrieved from

American Psychological Association. (2010, February 24). American Psychological Association amends ethics code to address potential conflicts among professional ethics, legal authority, and organizational demands. APA News and Events. Retrieved from

Blass, T. (2009). From New Haven to Santa Clara: A historical perspective on the Milgram obedience experiments. American Psychologist, 64(1), 37-45. doi:10.1037/a0014434

Gauthier, J. (2009). Ethical principles and human rights: Building a better world globally. Counselling Psychology Quarterly, 22(1), 25-32. doi:10.1080/09515070902857301

Ghooi, R. B. (2011). The Nuremberg Code - A critique. Perspectives In Clinical Research, 2(2), 72-76. doi:10.4103/2229-3485.80371

Krippner, S., Pitchford, D. B., Davies, J. A., & Adhikari, K. (2012). Rethinking human values. Neuroquantology, 10(4), 595-600.

Nagy, T. F. (2011). A brief history and overview of the APA Ethics Code. In Essential ethics for psychologists: A primer for understanding and mastering core issues (pp. 29-48). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. doi:10.1037/12345-002

Pickren, W. E. & Rutherford, A. (2010). A history of modern psychology in context. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Sato, H. (2009). The Defense of superior orders in international law: Some implications for the codification of international criminal law. International Criminal Law Review, 9(1), 117-137. doi:10.1163/157181209X398844

Smith, D. (2013a). What you need to know about the new code. Monitor on Psychology, 34(1), 62. Retrieved from American Psychological Association:

Smith, D. (2013b). The first code. Monitor on Psychology, 34(1), 63. Retrieved from American Psychological Association: