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The Ethics of Milgram Essay

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When this question is posed, immediately we are confronted with a subject of ethics. In three studies by; Milgram, Zimbardo and Hofling, conformity and obedience are tested to extreme levels. Thus bringing ethics to the forefront of the psychological community and the world, concerning the treatment of subjects/participants. Milgrams study addressed obedience to authority. This began three months after the start of the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, his accomplices and his/their part in the genocidal holocaust.

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Eichmann had said that he was simply following orders. The experiment was set up to see how varying members of society would respond to a figure of authority when asked to deliver electric shocks to another person. Milgram’s orthodox view was that few subjects would administer harsh shocks to another human. The test however showed Milgram that though the participants questioned whether they should continue, surprisingly it took little prompts to get them to continue. In this scenario 65% delivered the full, potentially fatal shock to the subject.

These findings are of enormous importance both from an ethical and psychological viewpoint. This simple experiment showed and extreme willingness to follow the commands of an authority’s figure, against their own morals, even when confronted with the screams of another person. In Zimbardo’s experiment obedience and conformity are addressed within a prison environment. This was a mock prison setup at Stanford University, participants were requested in a local newspaper, 24 were chosen. This study showed the knock on effect of demoralisation.

The prisoner participants were kept in a constant state of uncertainty from the moment they were arrested, to when the guards took over. In having their individuality removed through complying with the processes applied by the rules of an institutionalised system, the display of obedience grew dramatically. The guards in turn conformed to their perceived position of authority. On the second day the guards put down a rebellion. In response the guards decided to break the prisoners moral by dividing and conquering, developing distrust amongst the inmates and consolidating themselves into a working unit.

The effects of this from an ethical point of view is that the inmates were subject to mental and physical mistreatment on a grand scale, meanwhile the guards it seemed had forgotten that the situation was experimental, as they grew more sadistic an abuse of power was displayed. Every prisoner fell under the guard’s arbitrary control as their living conditions continually fell into the realms of degradation and depravity. When an inmate had been in the prison for approximately thirty six hours he displayed acute emotional disturbance, crying and rage. After interview it was decided that he was trying to con his way to early release.

He was given the option of remaining but as an informant in exchange for no further harassment from the guards. This did not seem to work as this lead him to telling the other inmates that they could not leave or quit, this lead to his condition worsening as he screamed cursed and began to act crazy. He was released. This strongly raises the issue of ethical practice, though the experimenter wanted to maintain a ‘real life’ prison scenario, the protection of the prisoner’s human rights were not taken into consideration enough, especially in view of the guards sadistic and aggressive methods.

Possibly a real prison guard should have lead the other guards for better reality between guard and inmate. The next day the family and friends of the inmates arrived to visit them, the experimenters became concerned that the extreme conditions, if witnessed by the family and friends would possibly effect the continuation of the experiment. So they cleaned and fed the inmates, played music through a speaker system, had a cheerleader greet the awaiting visitors. The visitor’s mood was good, as they saw the whole thing as a bit of fun, in this way the experimenters systematically brought the visitors behaviour under situational control.

Though the parents complained about the arbitrary rules they complied like good middle class citizens trusting implicitly the words of educated men of medicine. When the parents were reunited with their children they were shocked to see how drawn and fatigued they seemed to be, when this was raised, the experimenter simply used reverse psychology on a typical American family, by challenging the strength of their child’s resolve and in turn challenging their parenting skills.

These methods paid off, and the parents didn’t want to waste anymore of the experimenter’s times and left. Ethically this was a poor decision as the parents weren’t part of the experiment, but were used without thought to how they may react or feel when they would eventually find out that they had been party to a hoax and that their children were actually being treated badly. It is impossible to tell how much the aftershock would affect a family.

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