The Milgram experiment has produced some astonishing results as to the inclination of people to submit to authority even if this submission will have negative effects on other people. These findings can be considered troublesome and perhaps, not everyone will want to believe them. However, the experiment was debated as to its ethics. Though some might take the opinion that the experimenter has improperly deceived the subjects of the research, it seems that it was the only way to attain reliable data from the experiment.
Despite the shocking nature of the results of the Milgram experiment, the procedure of the experiment in the course of which these results were attained is questionable from the point of view of ethics. The ethical side of the experiment was debated for more than a decade after it had been conducted. One may think that the subjects of the experiment were mistreated by the experimenter; in fact, they were put under stress without knowing that they were the subjects of the experiment, and, from the moral point of view, the experiment was improper.
On the other hand, the aim of the experiment was to observe the natural behavior of people in a certain situation. When a person is told that certain elements of their behavior will be observed, they are likely to modify their behavior to make it seem more proper and adherent to the general behavioral norms, but this is not the true way in which a person would behave in a real-life situation reproduced in the course of the experiment.
The subjects of the Milgram experiment did not know that they were being observed. In fact, they thought that another person was the subject as the experimenter said so. The true subjects were to administer electric shocks to the ‘subject’ who experienced more and more pain as the shock increased. Moreover, they hurt another person under the command of the experimenter, but they thought that the behavior of that person was observed, not their own.
The subjects of the Milgram experiment came thinking that they participated in an experiment on education, in fact, the aim of the experiment was to learn whether an ordinary person was likely to submit to authority even if such obedience caused destructive consequences. The truth was that the shocked person was an actor, and no shock was administered to him. All his replies, including those expressing his feeling of pain, were tape-recorded so that they would be the same for all the 40 subjects of the experiment.
At the conclusion of the experiment, as a way of comforting the subjects, they were told that actually they did not hurt anyone and were explained the true procedure of the experiment. They also had a meeting with the unharmed man to whom they thought they administered shocks. The 40 subjects were also explained that their behavior during the experiment was completely normal.
The participants also filled in a questionnaire on how they feel about participating in the experiment. The answers to the questionnaire stated that 84 present of the subjects were glad to have participated in the experiment, only 1.3% regretted taking part in it, the other 15% had neutral feelings about the experience.
Despite the mostly positive feedback of the subjects of the experiment, some possible moral consequences of the experience for these people should be taken into consideration. The fact is that 26 out of the 40 participants have administered the highest possible shock, and they did it voluntarily. They were not forced to do so, it is true that some of them wanted to stop, but after the experimenter told them to continue they did continue.
It does not seem likely even after the subjects learned the truth about the experiment that after reflecting on what they have done in the course of it, the participants would be happy with their behavior in that situation. It is a fact that they did not hurt anyone, but the experiment has proved that they could hurt a person in a similar real situation. The thought that one can severely hurt a person with no particular reason, just because someone says to do so, is not a comfortable thought at all. The experience of the 40 subjects might have lasting negative effects for their personalities.
Despite the fact that the Milgram experiment can be considered unethical in some respects, it is also true that the experimenter could not reveal the details of the experiment to the subjects as in that case the researchers would not attain data on the natural behavior of the subjects in a similar real situation. However, the experiment covered only 40 participants and its results might not prove truthful if they are generalized to a larger population group.
To be fully adequate the experiment needed to cover a much larger number of participants, but a large-scale experiment would put a bigger number of people under stress without their consent and would be even more doubtful from the ethical point of view. All in all, the 40 subjects of the experiment experienced stress, but the results of their experience are completely accurate only for the sample of 40 people, one can not generalize the outcomes of the experiment to a much larger population group with full confidence.
It can be considered that the subjects were mistreated in the course of the experiment; they did not know that it would involve stress, and they did not know the details of the experiment. However, it was completely necessary for the experiment. Whether one likes it or not, it is essential for many experiments that their participants are unaware of the true procedure of the research.
Surely, the researchers should not be allowed to deceive the subjects of their experiments, there should be some general moral and ethical limits put forth. However, designing any guidelines applicable to all experiments on human psychology will prove a much debatable issue and a problem, which will not be solved easily.
Every experiment has its own set of aims and means designed for achieving these aims. Any guidelines as to the procedure of a psychological experiment will limit a range of experiments, which will be conducted and thought ethically proper. If guidelines are too general, they will not have much effect as their terms will be vague enough for almost any experiment to fit into them from that or other point of view. On the other hand, if guidelines are too specific, researchers will be very limited in the ways they can conduct their experiments and many experiments will prove incoherent with ethical guidelines and, therefore, considered improper.
A partial solution for the negative ethical view of the Milgram experiment would be warning subjects that during an experiment they might experience anxiety and stress so participants would voluntarily agree to participate in the experience. However, subjects of the experiment have participated in it without knowing the experiment would cause stress to them and without consenting to it.
Some general ways in which experimenters can make their stress-involving experiments more compatible with ethical norms may be designed. These might come in a form of some general warnings for potential participants of that or other experiment.
For instance, an organizer of an experiment can mention in the description that it might involve subjects to experience stress. If such a warning was applied in the case of the Milgram experiment, this information would not affect the behavior of the subjects, but rather only inform them of feelings they might experience. Also, after reading such a description, a person who comes to participate agrees that they will experience stress in the course of the experiment and, therefore, will not regret taking part in it or have any complains to the experimenter.
Another solution would be for the organizer of the experiment to state that they conduct experiments, which might cause stress and anxiety to their subject, in the description of their activity and policy. In this way, potential participants will be aware of such activity of an organizer, and if they still choose to take part in their experiments they will be aware of risks involved in that decision and will consent to taking them.
The described examples of solutions regard only one of the two ethical problems of the Milgram’s experiment, namely the stress the participants were put under without their prior consent. As to the other issue, the fact that the researcher deceived his subjects, it might be considered that such a deception was unavoidable; otherwise, the results of the experiment would have been negatively affected.
In many instances, experimenters have to deceive subjects of their experiments in terms of the procedure of the experiment. As it is often essential for the experiment and its results, a deception can be considered proper if it does not cause any negative consequences to which subjects have not consented prior to the experiment.
To conclude, the Milgram experiment had some negative sides from ethics point of view. The subjects were put under stress, to which they did not consent, and of which they should have been warned; they were also deceived by the experimenter, which was unavoidable taking into account the aim of the experiment. The experiment has produced unexpected results on an important social problem, the issue, which need to be researched, and the research of which has shown some disturbing and unpleasant outcomes. The ethical problems of procedure of the Milgram experiment will serve as an example for future experimenters and will encourage them to seek ways of making their researches more compatible with ethical norms while researching human psychology.
This text was written by Ian Myles who is a writing editor at https://writer-elite.com/