The ethical duty to know: Facilitated communication for autism as a tragic case example

By Scott O. Lilienfeld, Ph.D.

Scott O. Lilienfeld is a Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Psychology at Emory University. He received his A.B. from Cornell University in 1982 and his Ph.D. in Psychology (Clinical) from the University of Minnesota in 1990. His interests include the etiology and assessment of personality disorders, conceptual issues in psychiatric classification, scientific thinking and evidence-based practice in psychology, and most recently, the implications of neuroscience for the broader field of psychology. Along with Sally Satel, he is co-author of Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience (2013, Basic Books).
I’m a clinical psychologist by training, although I no longer conduct psychotherapy. In the course of my graduate work at the University of Minnesota during the 1980s, I – like virtually all therapists in training – learned all about the ethical mandates of clinical practice. By now, all mental health professionals can practically recite them by heart: don’t sleep with your clients, avoid dual relationships, don’t show up drunk to work, don’t violate client confidentiality, always report child abuse and elder abuse to appropriate authorities, and so on. To be sure, all of these ethical requirements are exceedingly important.

Yet, with few exceptions, clinical psychology and the allied fields of mental health practice, such as psychiatry, social work, mental health counseling, and psychiatric nursing, have largely neglected another crucial set of ethical requirements, namely, what University of Nevada at Reno clinical psychologists William O’Donohue and Deborah Henderson term epistemic duties – responsibilities to seek out and possess accurate knowledge about the world. As these authors pointed out in a 1999 article, all mental health professionals should be “knowledge experts.”

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.