The Question of Ethics in the Milgram Experiment

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During World War II, there was the massive genocide in Germany, known as the Holocaust. After the war, Nazi German soldiers defended themselves, saying that they were “just obeying orders” of higher authority (Hitler). The purpose of Stanley Milgram’s experiment was to observe the common response of people to authority, even when faced with inflicting pain and “death” on others. This was to test if the defence of the Germans’, was even valid, and if their defense was true among most people. He applied the self-selected sampling method, getting his volunteers for the experiment through newspaper advertisements and mail solicitation. There were 40 male participants, ages 20 to 50, with different careers and levels of education.

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The experiment took place at Yale University. It was assumed that possibly a prestigious location could influence participants to have higher rates of obedience, as they might feel they are a part of something prestigious. In each trial of the experiment, two participants would select from two folded slips of paper, in which one said “learner”, with the other being the “teacher”. But, the slips were not randomly taken. The “learner” would always be Mr. Wallace, one of Milgram's partners’. Electrodes would be attached to the “learner’s” arms. Then the experimenter (the authoritative figure) and “teacher” would go into another room, which contained an electric shock machine. The “teacher” would believe that the electric shock machine was connected to the “learner’s” arms. After reading a list of words in pairs to the “learner”, the “teacher” would say one word and four possible choices for the second word in the pair. The ‘learner” would then respond by pressing one of four buttons labeled numbers 1 to 4, and a box in front of the “teacher” would light up the number choice of the “learner”. If the “learner” answered incorrectly, the “teacher” was to shock him with the first switch on the electric shock machine, with 15 volts, and increase the volts that the “learner” receive for each other incorrect answer until all the switches were flipped. The last switch of the machine was 450 volts.

When voltage increased, the “teacher” heard pre-recorded responses of pain, to the point where the ”learner” seems to want to leave the room because the shocks are affecting his heart physically. In the case the “teacher” increases to a large voltage, the “learner” eventually doesn’t respond or give any answers. Every time the “teacher” was resistant, worrying of the safety of the “learner”, the experimenter claimed the responsibility if anything happen to the “learner” and would insist that it was imperative for them to go on with the full experiment. More than 50% of the “teacher’s” followed through with the full experiment, reaching the maximum voltage of 450. After the experiment, “teacher’s” would receive a questionnaire, pertaining the “teacher’s” nervousness and how much pain they thought the “learner” received, from a scale of 1 to 14. After the questioning, “teachers’” were informed that the “learner’ (Mr. Wallace) was not harmed in the experiment. It was concluded that majority of people, even if harming others, obeyed orders given by people of higher standing/authority.

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