Assignment 470

What would you do?


There is a famous and controversial story about a 1961–62 experiment by Yale social psychologist Stanley Milgram to investigate how people respond to orders given by people in authority. Much has been written about this experiment and details have been changed and embellished over the years, but the basic ethical issues it raises are still worth considering, even if the details of the actual study have been distorted.


The participants were ordinary residents of New Haven who were asked to administer increasingly high levels of electric shocks to participants when they made errors in the tasks they were given. As the electric shocks got more and more severe, so did the apparent pain of the participants receiving them, to the extent that some appeared to be on the verge of dying. Not surprisingly, those administering the shocks became increasingly disturbed by what they were being asked to do, but several continued, believing that they should do as their superiors told them. What they did not realize was that the so-called participants were, in fact, very convincing actors who were not being injured at all. Instead, the shock administrators were themselves the real subjects of the experiment. It was their responses to authority that were being studied in this deceptive experiment.


This story raises several important ethical issues. First, this experiment reveals how power relationships can be used to control others. Second and equally important, this experiment relied on deception. The experimenters were, in fact, the subjects and the fake participants colluded with the real scientists to deceive them. Without this deception the experiment would not have worked.


Is it acceptable to deceive subjects to this extent for the sake of scientific discovery? What do you think?


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