Milgram, Method and Morality

Journal of Applied Philosophy 13 (3):233-250 (1996)
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Abstract

Milgram’s experiments, subjects were induced to inflict what they believed to be electric shocks in obedience to a man in a white coat. This suggests that many of us can be persuaded to torture, and perhaps kill, another person simply on the say-so of an authority figure. But the experiments have been attacked on methodological, moral and methodologico-moral grounds. Patten argues that the subjects probably were not taken in by the charade; Bok argues that lies should not be used in research; and Patten insists that any excuse for Milgram’s conduct can be adapted on behalf of his subjects. (Either he was wrong to conduct the experiments or they do not establish the phenomenon of immoral obedience). We argue a) that the subjects were indeed taken in b) that there are good historical reasons for regarding the experiments as ecologically valid, c) that lies (though usually wrong) were in this case legitimate, d) that there were excuses available to Milgram which were not available to his subjects and e) that even if he was wrong to conduct the experiments this does not mean that he failed to establish immoral obedience. So far from ‘disrespecting’ his subjects, Milgram enhanced their autonomy as rational agents. We concede however that it might (now) be right to prohibit what it was (then) right to do.

Author's Profile

Charles R. Pigden
University of Otago

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