Was Stanley Milgram's Study of Obedience Unethical

Tags: Milgram experiment, Obedience (human behavior), Suffering

One of the primary concerns a psychologist must address when preparing to carry out an experiment are the effects, both short and long term, of the experiment on the subjects. Some experiments positively affect the subjects and need not be debated, but those that have the possibility to create negative short or long-term effects in the subjects must be reviewed thoroughly. There are several general guidelines that have been set to determine whether an experiment is ethical. A small degree of suffering by the subject can be tolerated if no better way can be found to obtain the important and beneficial information desired in the experiment and if the subject's suffering is quickly and fully alleviated after the experiment. When questioning whether Stanley Milgram's study of obedience is ethical, one must address these questions in the context of his experiment.

The purpose of Milgram's study of obedience was to determine the degree to which a person will be obedient to an authority's orders or requests if they do not agree with the requests being made. This situation occurs in many aspects of society, including the military, employer/employee situations, and most disturbingly, Nazi Germany. For this reason, a general understanding of obedience is a worthy and important goal.

The ethicality of the study was brought into question when the subjects began to undergo severe emotional and sometimes physical distress during the experiment. The subjects were asked to deliver an increasingly dangerous shock to a confederate who would, after a substantial 'shock' was given, protest to the treatment by the subject and display a painful response to increasing shocks. Surprisingly, a large percentage of the subjects would administer the highest shock when told to do so by the researcher, even if they felt strongly that to do so would not be right. The emotional stress this situation put on the subjects caused many of them to break down, some to the extent that they would...
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