Good ethics can sometimes mean better science: Research ethics and the Milgram experiments

Science and Engineering Ethics 15 (1):69-79 (2009)
All agree that if the Milgram experiments were proposed today they would never receive approval from a research ethics board. However, the results of the Milgram experiments are widely cited across a broad range of academic literature from psychology to moral philosophy. While interpretations of the experiments vary, few commentators, especially philosophers, have expressed doubts about the basic soundness of the results. What I argue in this paper is that this general approach to the experiments might be in error. I will show that the ethical problems that would prevent the experiments from being approved today actually have an effect on the results such that the experiments might show less than many currently suppose. Making this case demonstrates two conclusions. The first is that there are good reasons to think that the conclusions of many of Milgram’s commentators might be too strong. The second conclusion is a more general one. The ethics procedures commonly used by North American research ethics boards serve not only to protect human participants in research but also can sometimes help secure, to an extent, the integrity of results. In other words, good ethics can sometimes mean better science.
Keywords Milgram experiments  Research ethics boards  Ethics and experimental social psychology  Harman  Doris  Situational pressures
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DOI 10.1007/s11948-008-9083-4
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