1) Was it ethically correct to ‘fake’ an experiment, and mislead volunteers as to the nature of what was being investigated? Or given the nature of human beings studying human beings, is this the only way to properly carry out such research?

2) Was it ethically correct to put the volunteers under so much stress (many of them were visibly disturbed during the experiment, though a poll conducted later found that 84% of them professed that they were ‘glad’ to have taken part).

3) Can the subject matter be ethically justified – ie, the capacity of human beings to participate in something immoral – or should some things remain untouched by human scientists?

4) What are the ethical implications of the results, and how should we act on them?


According to the Oxford English Dictionary, ethics means:

1 the moral principles governing or influencing conduct.

2 the branch of knowledge concerned with moral principles.

Essentially, ethics means the same as ‘moral philosophy’ or the study of how to live our lives morally


Stanley Milgram experimented how far people would go in obeying an instruction if it involved harming another person. Milgram was interested in how easily ordinary people could be influenced into committing atrocities.

Eg.Germans in WWII.


“Volunteers were recruited for a lab experiment investigating ‘learning’. Participants were 40 males, aged between 20 and 50, whose jobs ranged from unskilled to professional, from the New Haven area. They were paid $4.50 for just turning up.

At the beginning of the experiment they were introduced to another participant, who was actually a confederate of the experimenter. They drew straws to determine their roles – learner or teacher – although this was fixed and the confederate was always the learner. There was also an ‘experimenter’ dressed in a grey lab coat, played by an actor.

Two rooms in the Yale Interaction Laboratory were used – one for the learner (with an electric chair) and another for the teacher and experimenter with an electric shock generator.

The ‘learner’ was strapped to a chair with electrodes. After he has learned a list of word pairs given him to learn, the “teacher” tests him by naming a word and asking the learner to recall its partner/pair from a list of four possible choices.

The teacher is told to administer an electric shock every time the learner makes a mistake, increasing the level of shock each time. There were 30 switches on the shock generator marked from 15 volts (slight shock) to 450 (danger – severe shock).

The learner gave mainly wrong answers (on purpose) and for each of these the teacher gave him an electric shock. When the teacher refused to administer a shock the experimenter was to give a series of orders / prods to ensure they continued. There were 4 prods and if one was not obeyed then the experimenter (Mr. Williams) read out the next prod, and so on.

Prod 1: please continue.

Prod 2: the experiment requires you to continue.

Prod 3: It is absolutely essential that you continue.

Prod 4: you have no other choice but to continue.”

Milgram was cleared of any ethical violations, but the controversy still rages today.



A major problem was the lack of “informed consent”. Informed consent roughly means that the subject is given an accurate description of the the risks involved before he or she consents to participate in the experiment. Milgram’s description of the experiment was deceptive: the subjects believed they were participating in an experiment on learning and memory.

The primary necessity for deception is to insure that the subjects will act naturally in the experiment. If they knew this was a study on obedience, then it might alter their behavior. For example, since we generally do not like to think of ourselves as blindly obedient, we might go out of our way to show the experimenter how independent we “really are”. To complicate things, learning that one would be asked to administer a great deal of pain during the experiment would likely cause a large number of subjects to decline to be part of the experiment. The results of the experiment would only be generalizable to the those who agreed to participate. As a result, it would be easy for us to say that the obedience in the study was simply due to the fact that these were people who liked to inflict pain. And that would miss completely the chilling results of the study.

I do not believe it was ethically incorrect to carry out a fake experiment, due to the fact that there was never a risk of anyone getting hurt. The only way to properly study the behaviour of the participants was to create a fake scenario for them and to keep them in the dark as to the real functioning and objective of the experiment. If the participants had known that they were being tested on their ability to follow orders, they might have felt a need to rebel or go against what they were being told, either consciously or subconsciously. If they had known that the ‘learner’ would not actually get hurt, then they would feel no objection whatsoever to following orders, and the results of the experiment would not be accurately representing general human nature.


Long Term Psychological Harm:

The realization that they could administer such lethal levels of shock to another human being could have long term negative psychological effects on the subjects. What might people think about themselves knowing that they were willing to administer possibly lethal shocks to a helpless learner.

Milgram’s Defense:

In addition to the post-experiment debriefing, Milgram sent each of the “teachers” a written report in which their performance in the experiment was treated in a dignified way.

Subjects also received a surve about their participation in the experiment and gave the following assessment of their participation:

83.7% I am glad/very glad to have been in the experiment
15.1% I am neither sorry nor glad to have been in the experiment
01.3% I am sorry/very sorry to have been in the experiment

Nevertheless, one participant, William Menold, who had just been discharged from a Regimental Combat Team in the U.S. Army and participated in 1961 said, “It was hell in there”, describing how it felt to be in the laboratory during the experiment. He said, “[I was] hysterically laughing, but it was not funny laughter…It was so bizarre. And I mean, I completely lost it, my reasoning power”. He said that he couldn’t believe “that somebody could get [him] to do that stuff”.

Blass says that another subject, Herbert Winer, said that his experience of the experiment was “very difficult to describe…the way [his] feelings changed [about it], and the conflict and tension that arose”, and that his “own heart condition went into an extremely tense and conflicted state”. The most revealing comment that shows the damage Milgram’s experiments had come from Winer when he was debriefed at the end of the experiment. He said he “was angry at having been deceived”. He said he “resented the whole situation” and”was a little embarrassed at not having stopped earlier”

Finally, Milgram reported that one year after the experiment was completed, 40 subjects who a psychiatrist felt would be most likely to have suffered consequences were further evaluated. After examination, the psychiatrist concluded that although extreme stress had been experienced by several of the subjects during the experiment, none were found to having been harmed by their experience.

In the end, in the long-term, I don’t believe there were any ethical implications in putting the volunteers under stress. The entire focus of the experiment was to see if ordinary people would succumb to pressure and follow direct orders, even if it were at the expense of probably another person’s life. For these purposes, it wasn’t ethically incorrect, yet I personally believe it is wrong/inappropriate to do so.


Milgram discovered that human beings are generally capable of performing terrible acts simply due to their unquestioning nature and willingness to follow orders under a figure of authority as well as being under incredible amounts of stress. In my opinion, this can be ethically justified to a certain extent – it is understandable that people will follow orders from their superiors as they are supposed to do, but they should know when they’ve gone too far and they should be able to properly determine when they need to stop, which is when they are hurting themselves or others. Nevertheless, it is important to know what humans are capable of and through this experiment be able to determine what we need to change, or rather improve of our nature.


The ethical implications of the results as previously discussed are presented as the following: psychological harm and deception.

Based on the results, it is shocking to find how easily humans follow orders, even if these could cost someone their life; especially if later they are not affected –glad– to have done this experiment (84% of participants). This is clearly ethically incorrect, as intentionally hurting or killing someone innocent is condemned by mostly all social and religious groups; since the “teachers” of this experiment didn’t know it was fake, essentially they were inducing this pain knowingly upon an innocent person conscious of the risk of killing someone.

The results therefore show that any person could commit crimes under intense pressuring orders. This demonstrates a frightening characteristic of human nature, since any criminal could be excused under these pretences. Therefore, we should work to correct this flaw that has been shown to be detrimental (WWII) and teach everyone from a young age to question everything and become independent.

milgram-shock-box milgram

This video is the first part of three, which gives a detailed recording of what a reenactment of Milgram’s Obedience Experiment was actually like:


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