What are the Milgram Experiment Ethical Issues?

The Milgram Experiment was a series of experimental studies that took place in the 1960s to investigate how willing subjects were to obey an authority figure even when their actions directly conflicted with their personal conscience. The experiments proved to be extremely controversial and were considered to be highly unethical at the time, and although they have been replicated many times over the years using more stringent ethical controls, the results have remained fairly consistent. So what are the Milgram Experiment Ethical Issues and what did the results of the experiment show?

The experiments were conducted by Stanley Milgram, a psychologist at Yale University, and were designed to see if ordinary people would blindly follow immoral orders, just like many had done during the Nazi era. As part of the experiment, participants were instructed to teach a “learner” pairs of words and administer an electric shock if they gave an incorrect response. With each incorrect response, the electric shock was amplified, despite the fact the “learner” had already warned the subject he had a heart problem.

In reality there were no electric shocks and the “learner” was an actor, but the participant had no way of knowing this and as far as the teacher was concerned, they really were obeying instructions and administering electric shocks to another individual in a separate room.

Interestingly, despite hearing a recorded soundtrack of screams of pain as well as believing that the subject had a heart condition, 65 percent of the participants from the first experiment continued until the end and administered the potentially fatal 450 volt electric shock, although all of them questioned what they were being told to do at some point in the process.

The conclusions drawn from the Milgram experiment were summarized in an article written in 1974 titled ‘The Perils of Obedience’.

“Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority.”

What are the Milgram Experiment ethical issues and has the design of the experiment been altered over the years to accommodate current standards for the ethical treatment of participants?

One of the biggest criticisms of the Milgram Experiments was the extreme psychological stress inflicted on the participants. Many were reported to be very uncomfortable about what they were being asked to do, although a large number of the participants in the early experiments were later said to be very grateful to have taken part.

There were also many questions raised about the implications of the experiments. The early experiments were conducted in the shadow of the Adolf Eichmann Nazi war crimes trial and there were many uncomfortable parallels drawn between Milgram’s results and the blind obedience exhibited by thousands of Nazi accomplices during the Holocaust.

The Milgram Experiments have been repeated in different guises numerous times over the years. In all cases, the results have remained largely consistent, even when modern ethical guidelines were followed and participants were given details of the experiment.

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