Well welcome back to the blogs. To kick start semester 2 blogs I am going to discuss a topic which we all know about and are possibly sick of hearing about. However, I thought it would be a good time to think about ethics and what is ethical, especially as we will all be thinking about ethics soon enough for our projects.
So as I said we are constantly reminded about ethics and ethical principles in research and how important it is to meet the criteria. However, ethics are a code of conduct, meaning they are only guidelines not law. So it can make it difficult to decide whether someone is truly being unethical.
There are many aspects to consider when deciding what is ethical. There are 5 key principles to consider when deciding if something is ethical or not. These are:
- Beneficence and non-malificence
- Fidelity and responsibility
- Respect for others’ rights and dignity
Personally when I first heard all of these words I was a bit taken aback and didn’t really know what they all meant. So just to make if clear, for everyone reading this blog, I will just briefly explain each one. Beneficence and non-malificence basically means that the research should be beneficial socially and not harmful. The costs (eg. Duration) to an individual taking part in the experiment should outweigh the social benefits. Fidelity and responsibility refers to the trust and responsibility on local and global levels. On a local level, the participant should be able to trust the researcher; especially when it comes to their well-being and their data being kept confidential. On a global level researchers should be able to trust other researchers in the field. Integrity is important as this is how honest and accurate the research is; basically if it is reliable or not. Integrity states that it is wrong (unethical) to deceive participants. However this is sometimes necessary; for example in observational studies. If you told a person before you observed them that they were going to be observed then they wouldn’t act normally so you would not get true data. Therefore, sometimes you have to ‘deceive’ participants in a way so you can observe them and then afterwards ask them for consent to use their data. Justice is one of the more simple principles to grasp. This principle states that it is considered ethical for everyone to be able to benefit from the research. It is important to not introduce biases (e.g. gender) that will affect how people will benefit from the research. The last of the 5 principles are respect for others’ rights and dignity. This is quite self-explanatory as it means that you should have enough respect for the rights of the participants. Examples of their rights are: that they are fully informed so they can make their own informed decisions, they are aware of any risks and the benefits, their data is kept confidential and their right to withdraw. A participants right to withdraw is really important as if can protect the participants from harm. If a participant is feeling uncomfortable in the situation or is just feeling ill that day then they can withdraw without penalty. This can protect them from harm as it is their decision to continue or not and they will not be penalised if they do end their participation early. This principle does also state that you cannot observe someone without telling them. This is pretty much what I was saying about deceiving participants in observational studies and this is why they can sometimes seem unethical. As I said there are ways to resolve this problem and people obviously do because there are plenty of research out there that is conducted in this way.
There are a few iconic experiments that have been criticised and deemed unethical. Probably the most famous one would be Milgram’s obedience study. Milgram wanted to conduct an experiment to see how obedient an ordinary person would be to an authority figure. This was due to the mass public opinions after the second world war on the Nazi Germans behaviour. Many people said that it was because they were German and something genetically made them behave in this awful manner. Milgram disagreed, which is why he did this study as he believed any human could act in this way depending on the situation. i know the vast majority of you will know this experiment but here is a brief (and I mean brief) overview. There was an experimenter who acted as the authority figure and a ‘victim’/learner; both of these hired by Milgram. The real participant had to take on the role of a teacher. When the learner got answers wrong, the teacher (i.e. the real participant) would have to administer an electric shock to the learner as punishment. These shocks increased in severity with each wrong answer reaching 450 volts (the maximum score), this was labelled ‘XXX’. These shocks were not real even though the victim/learner acted as if they were with increasing shouting and banging which finally led to the victim falling silent. Participants did not know these shocks were not real and truly thought they were giving dangerously high shocks to an innocent person. An astounding 26 out of 40 people continued until the end of the experiment, giving the maximum electric shock of 450 volts.
Now I will go through the ethical principles one by one and discuss Milgram’s obedience experiment. Beneficence and non-malificence – this experiment does benefit society as it gains an understanding of how the Nazi Germans could have acted the way they did and that every single one of us is capable of doing the same. This experiment did not cause serious harm. There was no harm towards the victim. However, some participants experienced symptoms similar to a nervous breakdown; these symptoms were not long lasting. Fidelity and responsibility – in this section we need to decide whether participants could trust the experimenter. Well in the context of the experiment maybe not due to the deception but Milgram kept people anonymous and did not use real names of the participants. Integrity –this is similar to fidelity and responsibility as participants were deceived as it was an observational study and Milgram wanted to observe how people would naturally react in this authoritative situation. However, does this make it unethical? Justice – the main issue with this experiment was it only tested men, which is a gender bias. Under this principle it would make it unethical as it would not benefit women. After these criticisms Milgram conducted a similar experiment with women and found similar results. Does that still mean this experiment is unethical? And the last principle respect for others’ rights and dignity is where there is a massive downfall with this experiment. Milgram deceives his participants meaning they cannot make informed decisions as they are informed on the wrong thing. Also the risks and dangers to the victim were not real and participants were deceived on this count too. It was also questionable whether participants could withdraw from the experiment or not as when they requested to do so they were prompted, however, after requesting 3 times the experiment ended. Another major thing is participants were filmed during the experiment without consent which is unethical.
After considering all these points I would say Milgram’s methods were unethical. This experiment has been replicated so is it truly unethical or did it benefit society? This piece of research opened hundreds of people’s eyes to how people can act when put under pressure from authority. The results were shocking so was it worth being unethical to find these fundamental results? Personally I think some aspects of Milgram’s experiment were unethical (as I have mentioned) but to find out that people can act in such an inhumane way in certain situations because they are told to is hard to believe.
There are other beneficial pieces of research that are unethical but have revealed things about humanity that we wouldn’t know if these experiments hadn’t been done. An example is Zimbardo’s Stanford prison experiment. There is a brief description and quote from Zimbardo in Aronson’s ‘The Social Animal’.
I would recommend looking at http://www.simplypsychology.org/ethics.html if you are bit confused about ethics. I stumbled across it on google and it explained things really clearly.
http://www.garysturt.free-online.co.uk/milgram.htm this website explains in depth Milgram’s experiment (the methods, the results and a discussion) and has a good discussion about whether it was unethical or not. I would recommend having a look if your interested.