A renewal of ethics

Mark Burton, joint winner of the Society’s 2013 Award for Promoting Equality of Opportunity, provides an action framework for responding to contemporary crises

We are living in a time of crisis: economic, ecological, social and political. Some of the consequences – poverty, exclusion, and the reduction and restructuring of education, health and welfare – define the working context of most psychologists. Other consequences are less visible, either because their physical consequences (climate change, for example) are not yet immediate, or (like super-exploitation in the majority world) they do not affect us in this country directly. But taken together the changed and worsening situation calls for a renewal of the ethical basis for practising psychology. This must go beyond professional ethical codes, setting out a basis for a scholarly activism that is orientated to community and social renewal while taking sides with the increasing numbers of the oppressed and excluded

I was very honoured to be awarded the Society’s Award for Promoting Equality of Opportunity 2013. But isn’t that a rather problematic concept? In ‘a world that’s ill-divided’, in the words of an old song from my home town of Manchester, isn’t the idea of equality of opportunity a diversion? Rather than addressing the root causes of disadvantage, oppression and exclusion, the idea of equality of opportunity cuts short the debate, ameliorating the effects of structural and systemic inequalities, compensating for the inequalities of circumstance that have already been allowed to occur.

This is a bit of a simplification and I don’t want to detract from the value of such ameliorative action, after the fact. But by only having such a focus the danger is that a wider, transformational, liberatory orientation is effectively silenced. To illustrate, British equalities legislation puts a duty on public authorities to combat discrimination, but while including discrimination on the basis of disability, age, gender, sexual orientation and race, it leaves the dimensions of class, income and location to one side. Living in city where, according to Save the Children (2011), more than a quarter of our children are growing up in severe poverty, I’m perhaps particularly aware of the limitations of conventional ‘equality of opportunity’ thinking.

I will instead talk about an ethical orientation that has evolved over the course of my career. It is grounded in community psychology, an orientation that perhaps best exemplifies what I see as a necessary perspective of being both of psychology and beyond the discipline. Community psychology is certainly concerned with people’s actions, experiences, thoughts and beliefs, but its interest is at the level of the community rather than the individual. As such, it offers a corrective to the psychologisation that can occur within psychology, and indeed the wider so-called psy-complex.

The mess we’re in
A perfect storm of economic, ecological, social and political crises is upon us, crises that threaten not just our standard of living but the very basis for human life. The present conjuncture, however, is not just a list of problems, but a time of crisis for dominant ways of understanding and managing our society, and indeed the world system. For the problems we now confront are indeed systemic in nature, whether we are thinking of the extraordinary, tolerated, levels of inequality, or climate change, or the privations inflicted on elderly and disabled people using our publicly funded service systems. Taken together the changed and worsening situation calls for a renewal of the ethical basis, not just for practising psychology, but for our whole society.

First let’s explore two very different manifestations of the present malaise.

Working in the field of intellectual disability, I have seen for myself cases of staggeringly poor practice in general hospitals and in the deaths of apparently healthy people from undetected  conditions, and the reluctance, nay refusal, of much of the primary care health service to carry out its basic responsibilities to carry out positive health checks, screening for treatable conditions. In terms of the unnecessary deaths of learning disabled people, typically due to a failure to identify and treat remediable illness, the reduction in life expectancy is estimated to be around 13 years for men and 20 years for women (Heslop et al., 2013), by my calculation 1800 preventable deaths in England and Wales every year.

But denial of the conditions for living, in its broader sense, is not just a problem of mainstream health care. We have seen the appalling cruelty at Winterbourne View, not just the result of a few malign staff, but an incompetent system that failed to treat those young people as citizens in need of a combination of kindness and technical know-how if they were to flourish. Nor, again, is this just a problem facing the relatively small group of intellectually disabled people, as the Mid Staffordshire scandal shows. In that case my initial instinct is to blame the neoliberal commodification of care, together with an allied approach to performance management that lost sight of the real content of the caring relationship.

Yet I fear there is a second dynamic at work. How could it be that staff acted so callously, leaving their hearts at the entrance of the hospital? Is this just reducible to the particular conditions of the NHS under the neoliberal regime or is there more to it? I remember the conditions endured by vulnerable people in ‘mental handicap “hospitals”’ and ‘geriatric hospitals’ under the pre-Thatcher NHS and it was nothing to celebrate at all. Care scandals are not new, despite being made more likely by running the system instrumentally and with tight resources.

Our planet
Until recently the ecological crisis was just one more dimension of our present predicament, but now I believe it to be the central problem. The Arctic is melting, methane is being released, reflectivity is reduced and CO2 concentrations have reached 400ppm, unprecedented in human history and prehistory. We are on the threshold of runaway global warming (Anderson & Bows, 2010), and that is just one of the three planetary limits that we are now crossing, along with biodiversity loss and the biogeochemical flow boundary (Rockström et al., 2009). This is an emergency that puts all the other crises into relief. We don’t know what window might remain to mitigate runaway climate change, probably none, nor do we know what window there might be to adapt. But we are very likely on the threshold of the greatest population crash in the life of our species.

The climate crisis is curious. There is the well-known denialism and even psychological analyses of it (Weintrobe, 2012). Much of it is funded by oil companies and right-wing US think-tanks (Corporate Europe Observatory, 2010; Goldenberg, 2013; Leonard, 2010) – I call this vulgar denialism. But there is also a finessed denialism, evident in the coexistence in government policy of climate change legislation together with the prioritisation of economic growth, incompatible with emissions-reduction targets, not to mention the establishment of an office for the exploitation of unconventional oil and gas. And to some extent we are all denialists – it’s how we stay sane in the face of impending catastrophe.

This manufactured ecological crisis has an equalities dimension: continued inaction is condemning people to pain and suffering, treating them as of less worth than others. But while this starts with people in places like the Andean altiplano, the Sahel or the coast of Bangladesh, it extends potentially to all of us – certainly to my children and grandchildren – an inequality constructed inter-generationally.

I have come to think about these issues in terms of what I call ideology-action-structure complexes (I-A-S Cs) in which ideology, action (practices) and structure support one other. This reality is layered and contradictory, so some elements can at times appear to be in conflict even though they hang together as an overall hegemonic complex. I suggest the following list of the most important
I-A-S Cs:
I     The rational administration of complexity: This is the administrative impulse to order and simplify rather than describing the dimensions and layers of complexity, working with the flow. By reducing complexity to a few elements, controlling them, the hope is to manage the complex system itself.
I     Taming natures: The wild, the natural, is to be controlled, to be mastered, enclosed and channelled, or suppressed. It is seen as or turned into resources. It is seen as separate from humanity, and humanity as separate from it. When valued it is appreciated in a distorted version of itself.
I     Linear progress: Progress is a culturally located idea, absent in some languages. It implies a linear path from the primitive to the modern, with no detours and no end. It is authoritarian since it defines ‘out of scope’ other paths. After all, ‘you can’t stand in the way of progress’.
I     The dominance of exchange and possession: As Marx and Engels said, ‘All that is solids turns to air…’ …or rather money. What was once free is subject to exchange relations. That which was once common is now owned. All that is intangible is made concrete, possessed, processed and sold.
I     The primacy of exploitation: The system depends on exploitation. The high levels of consumption of the few (globally) depend on labour exploitation of varying degrees
of savagery and on the ruthless exploitation of the planet’s living and mineral resources.
I     Mono-culturality and the suppression
of other cultural systems: Particular cultural forms dominate, where culture means the ordinary ways we live, and pass on and share that way of life through traditions, crafts, arts, rituals and the material trappings of everyday life. Alien cultures are variously suppressed, trivialised or co-opted. And we are now faced with ever greater homogenisation just as identity politics is celebrated.
I     Assumed superiority: That ‘European civilisation’ is the pinnacle and other cultures (and hence peoples) are inferior, is deeply ingrained in our education, culture, foreign and domestic policy. The assumption appears savagely in the far right and more subtly elsewhere.

But where do these complexes come from?

Where did it all go wrong?
It has been said that we are no longer  in the holocene epoch but in the anthropocene, where the influence of the human species on our planetary systems is decisive. Dating the point at which it all started to go so wrong is difficult. For some it was the adoption of agriculture, leading to sufficient surplus for urban communities, and to the depletion of soils and forests, the first localised instances of climate change. For others it was the evolution of capitalism, a system the goal of which is to accumulate more and more capital, without end. For others it was somewhere in between, perhaps the adoption of monotheism.

Personally, I am increasingly persuaded by the thesis that an absolutely pivotal moment was the colonisation of the Americas, from 1492. This is an analysis made by a number of decolonising thinkers and activists from the Global South and Latin America in particular, for it was there that other humans appear to have been first redefined as subhuman (Dussel, 1995, 2000; Lander, 2000a; Lander & Past, 2003), a problematic explored by Shakespeare in The Tempest (Fernández Retamar, 1974; Mannoni, 1956).

A key hypothesis is that the colonising moment ushered in a then new, but now dominant, way in which Western society treats ‘the other’ – the marginal, the frail, the inconvenient, the outsider, the ‘lower orders’, extending to those we don’t know, future generations, people in other parts of the world.

So the colonisation that took place in the American continent both supported and provided models for the new ideology-action-structure complexes there, in the later regions of colonisation and in the heart and hinterland of the imperialist centres themselves. Coloniality did not require a colony any more, but was a model of domination that applied between classes and also in relation to other groups: the poor, the disabled, the unconventional and the delinquent. As Grosfoguel (2008) puts it: ‘Coloniality is not equivalent to colonialism. It is not derivative from, or antecedent to, modernity. Coloniality and modernity constitute two sides of a single coin. The same way as the European industrial revolution was achieved on the shoulders of the coerced forms of labour in the periphery, the new identities, rights, laws, and institutions of modernity such as nation-states, citizenship and democracy were formed in a process of colonial interaction with, and domination/ exploitation of, non-Western people.’ The social technologies, and the ontological assumptions behind them (Quijano, 2000), that emerged within the action moment of the colonial ideology-action-structure complexes were generalised to other contexts and are with us still, as exemplified in the list I referred to earlier. If this account is taken seriously, it means that coloniality is integral to the modern world and to all the problem areas described above. To tackle these problems requires something much more radical than most previous or current reform movements or proposals envisage. Rather than trying to fix the capitalist-colonial-ecocidal systems that we are all embedded in, it is necessary to work for their replacement, and this requires work that tackles the ideology, the action-systems and the structures of the present systems of domination of populations and nature.

This is a hypothesis but, if supported, it calls for a different approach to ethics, one that starts from the ethical relationship between people and especially with the vulnerable, marginalised, oppressed, excluded and invisible, and the rest of us, and between people and nature. It means a focus not so much on the administrative techniques of the state and market (within which I include the technologies of psychological assessment and intervention) as on the very nature of social relations that we mean to construct.

This orientation has a lot in common with those early opponents of the modern regime, the Levellers, the Ranters and the Diggers. It connects with concerns of feminism and (in that it rejects the duality people–nature) with the ecological dimension. You can find it in a number of contemporary social movements,  for example the Buen Vivir/Vivir Bien movements of the contemporary Andes (Fatheuer, 2011; Gudynas, 2011; Lanza, 2012). It has its echoes in those approaches to the position of the very disabled that start from an ethical problematisation of their situation in society and in our lives; for example in the work of Vanier and Wolfensberger who criticise technocratic approaches to care of these ‘others’, instead emphasising the need to proceed from close, respectful and humble relationships (Vanier, 2006; Wolfensberger, 1994). The alternative approach suggested here is also to be found in the orientation known as liberation psychology, which specifically starts from the perspective of the oppressed, the excluded, the other, aiming to turn psychology on its head so that its knowledge and practice is continually interrogated from the perspective of the other (Burton, 2004).

Beyond the ethics of professional bodies
With this in mind let us turn to the ethical orientations provided by professional bodies. The cynic might say that such codes are the cosmetic trappings that legitimise the profession,  as profession. It might also be said that the attempt to codify ethics in terms of do’s and don’ts is antithetical to the process of acting ethically – in Kohlbergian terms it is tantamount to an immature stage in moral development. There may be some truth in both these critiques, but the British Psychological Society does at  least stress the need for constant critical reflection in its 2009 Code of Ethics and Conduct (www.bps.org.uk/code).

Yet on re-reading that Code I find a different kind of gap. Consider its four underpinning ethical principles: respect, competence, responsibility and integrity. What is missing? Let me contrast this list with the, admittedly unconventional framework of the philosopher of liberation Enrique Dussel (1997, 2013; Marsh, 2000). He identifies three ethical principles: I     the material: the production, reproduction and development of the life of each an every human subject,in its biological, social and spiritual dimensions;
I     the communicative or inter-subjective principle: focused on procedures for reaching agreement (equivalent to the school of discourse ethics); and
I     the practical, which leads us to a consideration of what it is actually possible to achieve (equivalent to the pragmatic school of ethics).

But Dussel then makes clear that  each one of these must be subjected to a constant critique from the perspective of the oppressed other – in both a negative critical sense and in a positive reconstructive sense. The central idea is the critique of the conditions caused by the dominant system from the perspective of the ‘oppressed other’, the victims of the system. By revisiting each principle in turn, he articulates a practical approach to ethics in a world where the majority are excluded from the possibility of producing, reproducing and developing their lives not just in the narrow material sense but also in the wider social, cultural sense of living with dignity. And indeed this seems to me just what we have seen in the critiques of the established order of things from say, disability activists or mental health system survivors, as well as from other groups that suffer oppression or exclusion via the dominant ideology-action-structure complexes, leading in turn to the (always provisional, imperfect) reconstruction of theory  and practice. For me, compared to any professional ethical code this approach is both more positively focused on the consideration of what is good and right, and more critical, recognising the conflictual nature of any social action.

It is therefore more comprehensive and more challenging. In my view, psychology needs an ethical point of reference against which o check its content. But it is not enough to rely on internal self-correction within the discipline; the challenge needs to come from those affected or potentially affected (positively or negatively) by the discipline’s conceptual and practical constructions and actions. The 2008 BPS discussion paper on socially inclusive practice (tinyurl.com/bpssiprac) does suggest some places to start on such a journey.

In the best work within the framework of the psychology of liberation, an approach is taken where the oppressed other constructs, with the specialist, a liberatory praxis comprising both understanding and action – to transform lived reality (Martín-Baró, 1996). This is not a difficult idea, but it is one that is quite alien to the dominant approaches in psychology. I saw this approach in action last year in peripheral communities in Fortaleza, Brazil (Community Mental Health Movement of Bom Jardin) and La Paz, Bolivia (Pampajasi Urban Aymara Community): in both cases psychologists had worked for years with social movement organisations that provided collectively managed and designed services (although that word is somehow wrong) where it was hard to see the divide between therapy, community-based cultural activity and social action. The psychologists had an interesting role, not unlike that suggested by the Zapatistas of Chiapas – mandar obedeciendo: leading whilst obeying [the people], although in these cases the leadership tended to be specialist, concerned with co-conceptualising processes and with help in accessing resources, rather than directive.

This orientation to understanding and action implies the active involvement in principled social transformation – instead of merely being scientists, scientist-practitioners, technicians or professionals, a more engaged role is adopted, one that has been variously called organic intellectual/engaged scholar/scholar-activist/intellectual in the public sphere. And to reassure you that I am not just advocating political activism, the point is both to adopt a healthy and socially supported critique of psychology’s concepts and methods and to use them for human liberation.

One of Ignacio Martín-Baró’s associates and interpreters, the Venezuelan social psychologist Maritza Montero (cited in Lander, 2000b) discussed the new social-scientific perspective that emerged from the liberatory and decolonising movements in Latin America as ‘a way of seeing the world, interpreting it and acting on it’ with the following key organising ideas:I     A conception of community and of participation, in which knowledge is relational, both in its productionand in the way we conceptualise it.
I     The idea of liberation through social praxis, based on the mobilisation of conscience and the expansion of consciousness. It leads to a critique of the received ways of apprehending, constructing and being in the world.
I     The redefinition of the role of the social researcher in relation to the Other, who is recognised in their own right, as the subject and object of research, as well as its co-creator.
I     The historical character of knowledge: indeterminate, undefined, unfinished and relative.
I     The multitude of voices from a variety of life-worlds, with equal claims for authenticity.
I     A perspective that recognises domination, and consequently resistance too.
I     The tension between minorities and majorities and alternative modes of doing and knowing.
I     The need to rethink the methods and approaches of social science and social technology and their role in positive and negative social transformation. (Montero, cited in Lander, 2000b, translated and reworded MB)

It is a similar conception that has guided my own work, both as a public servant and as a scholar (Burton & Kellaway, 1998; Kagan et al., 2011), although I would add the responsibility to be  a public intellectual. (It is only in the English-speaking world where ‘intellectual’ is an insult.) I am not saying I have consistently done this, but for the last 30 and more years my commitment has been to work together with the disadvantaged, together building a better social reality, itself nurtured by experience in action and the integration of different forms of knowledge and expertise, not just from the professionals but from disabled people and their families, dissident social thinkers and social movement activists too. An example was the Manchester Getting a Life project that I was lucky enough to lead (see box).

I believe that this approach is fully consistent with the best traditions of public service and responsible professionalism and scholarship. It is not compatible with a self-serving, fashion-following technocratic elite, the anti-intelligentsia, that uses the cloak of professionalism to evade accountability and scrutiny of their arts. 

Building a better social reality (box text)
Getting a Life was a government-sponsored (but not funded) demonstration project aiming to improve both the outcomes and experiences of young severely intellectually disabled people as they moved to adulthood. It involved working with a variety of sectors, using person-centred planning approaches together with an emphasis on the supported employment model for gaining paid work (in contrast to the ‘train-and-place’ model with its ideology of ‘readiness’). For me, the project was notable for the role of family activists in challenging how we did things. It was their radicalism and creativity, not always expressed in ‘politically correct’ ways, but always rooted in their love for and profound knowledge of ‘our kids’, that enabled the building of a consensus among a variety of agencies as to what was required to really transform the very complex, multi-sectorial system we were all caught in, setting the scene for the next phase of participative policy experimentation while establishing on the ground some inspiring examples (and only examples so far) of what is actually possible (Burton, 2013; Upton & Burton, 2012).

Mark Burton is Visiting Professor at Manchester Metropolitan [email protected]


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