A Brief History of the Development of Research Ethics
Ethical Guidelines in Psychology
Psychologists are increasingly faced with situations of great responsibility in which
values may conflict. Ethics is a branch of philosophy that addresses questions of
how people ought to act toward each other, that establishes judgments about values,
and that develops rules of ethical justifications. Psychologists assess and treat
clients, teach, consult, and do research.
Other professionals such as lawyers, nurses,
and physicians face similar ethical concerns that reflect moral and normative values
The question that immediately arises when considering ethical issues in the practice,
research, and teaching of psychology is which morals and values ought to guide the
thinking and actions of psychologists. Adhering to a code of ethics that governs their
professional behavior can help psychologists to solve ethical dilemmas. Ethical
guidelines are living documents that are dynamic and constantly changing. Time,
for example, can reveal inherent contradictions and gaps in codes of ethics that may
not provide professionals with sufficient guidance when faced with a decision of
ethical consequence. A review of the history of the development of ethical guidelines
first, at the international level, then within the discipline of psychology will illustrate
Concerns about ethical practice of research have a long history but, until the middle
of the 20th century, they were mostly centered around the practice of therapeutic
medicine, not research.
Most researchers were thought to act responsibly and
ethically, but did not have a code to guide them.
Ethical guidelines for the conduct of research involving humans were
formally codified in the late 1940's.
The need for a code for research was prompted
after twenty-three Nazi physicians were tried at Nuremberg, Germany, for research
atrocities performed on prisoners of war. This resulted in the
the first internationally recognized code of research ethics, issued by the Nazi War
The Nuremberg Code, which set forth ten conditions that must be met to justify
research involving human subjects, represented the most enlightened thinking of the
time. The two most important conditions were the need for voluntary informed
consent of subjects and a scientifically-valid research design that could produce
fruitful results for the good of society.
Unfortunately, there were no mechanisms for implementing the provisions of the
Code and many researchers did not know about them or did not apply this guidance