SO220 Ethical Issues in Social Science
2 October 2011
For years many experiments have been scrutinized for their ineffective use or lack of establishment of ethical principles within their research. Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment and Milgram’s Obedience experiment were ridiculed for the lack of ethics involved. Although these experiments caused unnecessary harm to their subjects they also acted as the foundation for the establishment of the Belmont Report, which in itself, would change research forever.
Ethics in the Name of Science Two very controversial experiments have been dissected a thousand times over by some of social science’s most amazing minds as well as the academic populous worldwide. Though the Milgram experiment of 1962 and the Stanford Prison Experiment in 1971 were entirely different, they both shared the groundbreaking task of identifying the affects of “Obedience to Authority” (Milgram, 1974). Both social scientists believe they had identified the possible risks but fell short in their attempt to alleviate any ethical repercussions. This paper will address the attempts made to ensure moral and ethical studies were accomplished as well as identify where both experiments had major flaws in their plans to ensure no physical or emotional harm came to it’s subjects.
To establish a baseline for this paper we must first define the basic principles of ethics. The Belmont report of 1979 states “Three basic principles (among those generally accepted in our cultural tradition) are particularly relevant to the ethics of research involving human subjects: the principles of respect of persons, beneficence and justice.” Although the definition relates itself to a cultural tradition we must take into account that this report was written 8 years after the Stanford prison Experiment. In 1973, the American Psychological Association (APA) conducted an investigation into the allegations of unethical treatment during the Stanford experiment. The investigation concluded that the study resided within the ethical standards at that time. It wasn’t until years later, and after much ridicule, that the Stanford experiment was deemed unethical on many levels. The same can be said for the work of Stanley Milgram throughout the 60’s. Colleagues viewed his experiments as groundbreaking in 1962 but many years later his work was used as one of the founding cornerstones of the Belmont Report.
In review of the Belmont Report as it relates to ethics, these two experiments fell terrible short. Non-maleficence by itself is just a word but when applied to social science it becomes a strong catalyst for ethical treatment when participating in social research. Both Milgram and Zimbardo, however unintentional, missed the mark when it came to this powerful word. Milgram polled 40 of his fellow colleagues about their predictions concerning his upcoming experiment regarding obedience. 40 recognized psychiatrists estimated that most would not go beyond 150 volts and that fewer than 4% of the participants would still be obedient at 300 volts. They further predicted that only 0.1% would continue administering shocks up to 450 volts. It is a safe assumption by many that Milgram pressed forward based upon these predictions. In actuality over 65% obeyed authority and administered the maximum voltage even after they protested that is was wrong to do so. Imagine the morality struggle that stormed within each of the subjects as they were taunted and manipulated into falsely causing harm to an innocent individual.
The protection of the innocent that is implied by the word beneficence was severely overlooked in the Stanford experiment as well. Zimbardo was quoted as saying, “I was interested