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Milgram Experiment: The Question of Ethics


Any study involving human subjects should adhere to specific ethical guidelines. Although the primary goal of the research is to prove or disprove a hypothesis, the participants’ physical, psychological, and emotional well-being is also important. This essay will discuss the Milgram experiment and the conflicting views on its nature. The paper will also argue that it was ethical as medical research standards were met, and no undue harm to the participants was caused.

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Experiment Description

The Milgram experiment was a study involving 40 male subjects conducted by Stanley Milgram of Yale University. It focused on examining “destructive obedience in the laboratory” by asking the participants to deliver electric shock punishment to “victims” (Slife, 2009, p. 29). The settings on the shock generator the partakers were asked to use varied from a slight setting to a severe one, which could result in the target’s death (Cherry, 2019). The study’s goal was to discover whether the subjects were willing to obey the commands they were given and deliver the electric shock where could gravely harm or kill another human being. The researchers were interested in determining if individuals could reject their own beliefs and convictions if ordered to do so. Twenty-six men obeyed all commands and delivered the highest level of electric shock, while the remaining 14 refused to do it (Cherry, 2019). Most of them experienced adverse reactions, including nervous laughter, seizures, and general emotional distress (Slife, 2009). Although the experiment’s goal was achieved, its effect on the contributing men was considered ethically questionable.

Milgram Experiment as an Unethical Study

The Milgram experiment was argued to be unethical by many researchers, including Diana Baumrind. The main concern was related to the treatment of the study’s human subjects who experienced some unfavorable reactions to the task they were asked to perform (Slife, 2009). Baumrind argued that the participants’ distress was unnecessary, could affect their life afterward, and that the researchers did not show any interest in the partaker’s well-being (Slife, 2009). One of the arguments utilized against the experiment was that the men should not have been asked to perform the acts they “consider unworthy” (Slife, 2009, p. 31). Thus, these claims argue that Milgram’s research was highly unethical.

Nevertheless, some of the arguments employed to prove the study’s questionable ethics negate the purpose of the research itself. The ability to perform or refuse to execute the orders the partakers themselves find morally wrong was the experiment’s precise purpose. It can be argued that investigating whether people can complete tasks that are of no great significance to either the “executioners” or “victims” would be inconsequential and add little to the existing body of literature on human behavior. Stating that examining a controversial topic is unnecessary due to its effects on the participants can be interpreted as censoring scientific research and dictating what issues can and cannot be discussed. Furthermore, the long-term impact on the 40 men who took part in the experiment is speculative. Overall, the statement that the test was unethical stems from the personal belief of Diana Baumrind rather than actual data proving beyond a reasonable doubt that it was. Although human subjects’ well-being in any study is essential, there is no tangible proof that the Milgram experiment did not account for it and was unethical.

Milgram Experiment as an Ethical Research

The author of the research, Stanley Milgram, believed that his study complied with the necessary standards and should not be viewed as unethical regarding human subjects’ treatment. All the participants gave informed consent, were assured that their victims did not receive the electric shock afterward, and were given a chance to reconcile with them (Slife, 2009). The authors also explained to the subjects the feelings they were going through, with different explanations given to the obedient and disobedient participants to support their decisions and point of view (Slife, 2009). The subjects were also presented with written reports with a full explanation of the study’s goals and results (Slife, 2009). All these arguments support the assumption that the experiment was ethical and followed the required guidelines.

The participants’ adverse reactions to being asked to shock someone, including nervous laughter and seizures, were not predicted and can be viewed as an unexpected finding rather than a drawback. From Milgram’s point of view, the study’s significance far outweighed the momentary discomfort to the men recruited for the experiment (Slife, 2009). Their responses to being commanded to do something unethical and potentially lethal indicate how destructive obedience can affect the subjects’ decision-making process and their emotional and psychological well-being. Furthermore, the author of the research notes that the assumption of any long-term impact on the participants stems from the nature of the task they were asked to do (Slife, 2009). This notion denies the purpose of the experiment as it argues that people are incapable of being obedient if it harms others and “will not be able to live with themselves afterward” (Slife, 2009, p. 37). Overall, the adverse responses should not be regarded as the result of unethical conduct but as a finding pointing to the immoral behavior individuals are capable of under the conditions of destructive obedience.


Any psychologist must ensure that the study conditions do not physically, emotionally, or psychologically harm their subjects. In the Milgram experiment, the participants experienced temporary psychological discomfort, which did not impact them afterward, and they were reasonably reassured afterward. All the partakers gave informed consent, were notified about the research’s purpose, and were provided with the results. Overall, the experiment of Stanley Milgram cannot be viewed as highly unethical.

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Cherry, K. (2019). Milgram’s experiments and the perils of obedience. Very Well Mind. Web.

Slife, B. (2009). Taking sides: Clashing views on psychological issues (16th ed.). McGraw-Hill.

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