The APA Code and Perils of the Explicit

I doubt we need one more discussion about the APA’s new Code of Conduct, yet I do want to raise something I haven’t seen addressed. The Code is, I think, a failure, but maybe not for the reasons raised so far. To my mind, it’s a failure because it exists, because it is needed.


Early Confucianism is all over the importance of moral micropractices (i.e., manners) and one insightful result of this is their recognizing the difference between unstated, socially shared, collective norms and explicit rule or law. Flourishing social environments largely operate by the former, enjoying a shared ethos that governs interaction without ever having to be made explicit. People tend to accommodate themselves to the ethos, influenced by the atmospherics it provides and, optimally, internalizing its values. Law and rule are seen as safeguards – the ugly stuff you have to bring in when ethos has failed. So, rules are always failures of a sort or, more precisely, they remark social failures and try to repair these. And they’re always going to be disappointing and problematic, for they’ll have to work by rendering explicit and into something formula-like what a shared ethos does more naturally, fluidly, and with a commendable, happy vagueness. All this is tricky business. Rules will often appear to replace situational judgment with abstract, general principle, have to try defining values very difficult to capture precisely, and by their explicit nature have a coercive feel. By their nature, they have to say, “We can’t rely on you to be ‘good’ or ‘collegial’ or ‘respectful’ or…” And they thus can affront and insult, making good conduct feel less voluntary. Because of all this, while law or rule can be necessary, their necessity, whether the need to make them or to appeal to them, is always a disappointment, always a symptom that things have gone wrong or are not well-functioning.


The difference the early Confucians were remarking is one I think we all experience. E.g., every time I have to add a new rule or policy to my syllabi, I feel a little sigh of disappointment since each of these confess some new domain in which I can’t rely on my students to simply fulfill the expectations attached to being students. I have to tell them how to be instead of relying on an educational ethos. In contrast, I’m happy to say I work in a department where we don’t need this kind of code, for while we regularly disagree about various things, our disagreements seem answerable to a collective ethos. I can’t define that ethos because it’s but a subtle sostenuto beneath interaction, but that’s sort of the point. When it works, it doesn’t need precise accounting. And that’s a fine thing.


I know all that I’m here saying elides many complexities and doesn’t address the APA Code itself. I understand that many critics have lodged reservations about specifics within the APA Code, but that seems rather inevitable given the kind of document it is. But the kind of document it is owes far less to the work of those constructing it than to the profession as a whole, to the failures out of which it became needed. Consequently, even if we have strong disagreements with how the committee framed the Code, I wish any criticism were first framed by hearty, collective self-accusation: “Look what we made them do!” That might be – maybe – the first step in restoring an ethos or building one for the first time.