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.


4 thoughts on “The APA Code and Perils of the Explicit

  1. Not familiar with the discussions around APA code, but it strikes me that there is an issue around power and privilege involved.
    The rules that are “officially understood” are very often miles away from what people really behave like, and the latter is generally to the advantage of some and the detriment of others. At least some of the resistance to explicit rules is likely the resistance of the privileged to having to *even know* how low the bar of actual behaviour towards the least privileged is.
    A bit like rich people objecting to seeing homeless people?

  2. Not familiar with the APA code or its issues so can’t speak to that. On the other hand, I hear a “paradise lost” lament about a fragile ethos that rarely survives once new people come into the culture that supports it. Rules are our (maybe clumsy) way of trying to pass that culture on to the new people and at the same assimilating them. There’s nothing wrong with our efforts to maintain fairness and reasonableness–and also trying to ensure people meet our expectations–it’s just that rules tend to address bits of the cultural structure, not the whole. Rules are also vulnerable to factions and individuals who want to shape the organization to meet some particular need of their own. Still, they are what we have to work with.

  3. Delft, that seems right to me and I do think rules tend to be “low bar” standards. They’re rarely the stuff of aspiration but instead tend to establish floors beneath which we want people not to sink. Maybe that’s the nature of rules…?

    Jennifer, uh oh! I don’t think we ever had a paradise to lose, though I do think the recent contractions and agonies in the professions are likely a result of incomers shaking things up (rather than just leaving as historically was more likely the case). Rather than assimilation being a goal of the rules, I think the “old ways” they purport to replace or amend presupposed a more homogenous population than many would now like. And faction worries are indeed part of the responses to this code.

  4. Sorry, maybe I wasn’t too clear.
    My point is that resistance to having explicit rules often lies in the fact that without them the privileged can keep pretending to themselves that all’s right with the world, all people are treated well and of course fairly and equally. “Heile Welt” the Germans call this.
    Setting up rules forces those at the top of the heap to acknowledge that in fact the world is not as rosy, and many people are treated abominably. And while some may simply object to having their “right” to treat others badly curtailed (e.g. groping women, or making sexist remarks), others may not want to have to acknowledge that they are indeed privileged, what those less privileged have to contend with, and that these things are indeed wrongs.
    As I said, I don’t know about the APA, but am thinking e.g. of the resistance to codes of conduct at tech conferences.

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