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Psychological research, obedience and ethics
Psychological research, obedience and ethics

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2.4 The judgement

So what do you think should be the final judgement on the ethics of Milgram’s study? As you can see from the debate between Milgram and Baumrind, ethics is something that psychologists debate and often disagree on. Ethics principles, like all rules, are subject to interpretation and disagreement.

And yet, while individuals might have their personal view about whether a piece of research is ethical or not, what really matters is the judgment of institutions that regulate the profession. In the USA the regulatory body is the American Psychological Association. Its equivalent in the UK is the British Psychological Society. These institutions have ethics committees which issue guidelines and codes of conduct related to ethics in research and can reprimand researchers who can be shown to have violated the rules. At the time of Milgram’s study, his research was investigated by the ethics committee of the American Psychological Association, who eventually came to the conclusion that it was ethically acceptable. Notably, however, Milgram’s studies could not be carried out today, as the ethics guidelines have become more restrictive since the 1960s.

Finally, one further issue regarding Milgram’s study is worth pointing out. Although the ethics of Milgram’s research have been questioned, it could be argued that the obedience study, more than any other study in psychology, demonstrated why ethics are important. Recall that what Milgram’s study showed was that ordinary people were willing to harm another human being just because they were told to do so by a person they believed was a psychologist, and because doing so was supposedly ‘required by the experiment’. This shows that people generally are ready to give scientists the benefit of the doubt and go along with what they are doing, even when it involves harming individuals. This in itself illustrates how important it is to have some moderation of scientific activity, and have limits imposed on what scientists can and cannot do.