Seventy years on, the Nazi regime remains a chilling memory, even to those born decades after the fact. The atrocities committed in this time could not have been achieved without a large mass of people power behind them. This raises the question of how so many individuals were able to overcome fundamental moral principles. Were they all depraved and inhuman? How could ordinary people carry out such brutality? These are questions that social psychologist Stanley Milgram set out to answer in one of the most ethically controversial experiments ever devised.
When presented with a hypothetical moral dilemma, we can often say “This is the right thing to do. I would do the right thing.” But people are complicated. Situations are complicated. Research experiments can give us an insight into how people really do act in these complex situations. But should it? Before an experiment can begin, the participants must sign an Informed Consent Form which outlines exactly what will happen in throughout the experiment. Anything that isn’t outlined in this form is known as deception, which can be permissible in certain situations. If the value of the experiment is dependent on the participant’s lack of knowledge, the deception doesn’t cause any physical or emotional distress, and the participant is informed of this deception at the earliest possible time, it can be ethically acceptable.
There are three main arguments against the ethical procedures in Milgram’s experiment:
- The use of deception – Milgram justified with its necessity for accurate results.
- Harm caused to the participants – Milgram argued that this was only short-term stress caused during the experiment. He had also not anticipated this high level of stress. Once this effect became apparent to him, he investigated for potential harm. After the experiment, each participant received a questionnaire regarding their participation. These were the results:One year after the experiment, 40 participants were psychiatrically examined, and none were found to have sustained any harm.
- Right to withdraw – Some argue that participants were not given the opportunity to withdraw from the experiment, as they were prompted on multiple occasions to continue. Milgram argues that the nature of the obedience study required this prompting, and that despite the prompting, it was still possible to withdraw (as 35% of participants did).
Ultimately the concept of ethics is about right and wrong, which is subjective. Thankfully there are many organisations around the world that govern ethics in research, in order to maintain research conducted responsibly and with integrity. Milgram’s study, while justifiable, does raise important questions about ethical research practices. In the past, many morally questionable studies have been completed. While the data from these experiments can sometimes reveal fascinating information, this comes at a cost. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?