Do the ends justify the means?
November 21, 2011, 11:29 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Some of our greatest findings have come from very controversial studies where standards of ethical practice have been questionable. So why do we need and follow ethical guidelines when all that they do is restrict what we can and cannot do and slow up the process of discovery and development.  Doesn’t most research rely on a little bit of deception?  If all information is disclosed to participants it may undermine the purpose of the study.  If all information is not disclosed then participants are not giving informed consent.  In the case of harm, should the discomfort of the few condemn influential and positive research findings?

Milgram’s study of obedience (1963), demonstrated that many people are susceptible to manipulation by those in positions of authority and were capable of committing heinous acts.


Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison experiment (1973), demonstrated how people conform to the social roles they are expected to play, especially if the roles are strongly stereotyped and that the roles that people play can shape their behaviour and attitudes.


Although the above studies have greatly attributed to our knowledge and understanding they have been heavily criticised for breaching ethical standards.

Other studies have gone far beyond an acceptable level of ethical standards with human beings treated in the most depraved and appalling manner.

The Tuskegee syphilis experiment (1932 –1972) was a research project intended to document the natural progression of syphilis. The subjects of this study did not have a meaningful understanding of their condition or the nature of the research that was being conducted.  Many subjects thought they were receiving beneficial medical care and did not understand they were participating in research designed to specifically observe the course of their illness. The subjects were followed, untreated, many years after penicillin was known to cure syphilis. Physicians deliberately denied these men treatment for syphilis and also attempted to prevent treatment from other sources.


The Jewish Chronic Disease Hospital (1963) performed experiments on chronically ill, mostly demented patients.  The subjects of this study who did not have cancer were injected with live human cancer cell into their bloodstream. The purpose of the research was to determine how a weakened immune system influenced the spread of cancer. The physicians did not inform the patients as to what they were doing, rationalising their actions as they did not want to scare the patients and they thought the cells would be rejected.


In 1948 In the Nuremberg Code was developed in response of judgment by an American military war crimes tribunal conducting proceedings against 23 Nazi physicians and administrators for their willing participation in war crimes and crimes against humanity. Nazi physicians had conducted medical experiments on concentration camp prisoners who died or were permanently affected as a result.  The Nuremberg Code laid down 10 standards for physicians to conform to when carrying out experiments on human participants.


In 1964, the World Medical Association developed ethical principles as guidance for medical doctors in biomedical research involving human subjects. The World Medical Association adopted the Declaration of Helsinki in response to concerns with research on patient populations. The Declaration of Helsinki has been regularly revised.


For the American psychological Asociation (APA) guidelines –


For the British Psychology Society guidelines –


All psychologists are bound by these codes of ethics, for which I am thankful, as they guard against conducting research which may be detrimental to another human being, which may cause feelings of guilt.  I would not ask someone to do something that I myself would not do.  Ethical guidelines give protection for the participant and the researcher.


8 Comments so far
Leave a comment

I see your point with the atrocities that have happened in the past, some of the things you can read about and watch could be in horror films. These trends for cruelty have been witness for centuries, dictators free themselves and enslave the people and it has been seen that the will of a single man can lignite a world war killing 50+ million people. The human race has to be looked at in the same way we look at pack animals because lets be honest, that’s what we are. We yawn at creation and yet marvel at destruction, that’s just our nature. The news i filled with awful things which you take time to digest but you don’t care about the charity work that’s been going on in your local area. Most of your example given are in times of war when the rules don’t apply anymore, I’m not disagreeing with your argument im just pointing out that you, me and anyone reading this would have a different view of life and people if you was in the brutal reality of war. Ethics outside of war should be looked at in a different light, i don’t believe it is necessary on the simple fact that in modern society EVERYBODY is watching, and psychologists would be crucified if there experiments hurt participants. ( Zimbardo did this, I know before somebody mentions that) He has spent the rest of his career treating the people and throwing money at that problem which he made, but experiments like that haven’t been done like that since because psychologists dont want the media coming to them hurting there career. I think that this is my final point, peoples views are to important these days and that will govern bad experiments in the future .

Comment by bprowlatt

In reference to the Milgram study at the time and for many years after the study was considered to have met all ethical guidelines and was given support to be carried out. Though if it was carried out today it wouldn’t get approval from the ethics board. But as you said we can not disregard both Zimbardo and Milgram studies because their findings have made us understand what factors lead us to behave a certain way.
I noticed that the Jewish Chronic Disease Hospital (1963) took place 15 years after the development of the Nuremberg code, so it is questionable how this research had still gotten approval to take place. Because it goes against the 4th code ‘the experiment should be so conducted as to avoid all unnecessary physical and mental suffering and injury’. Yes the participants were terminally ill so it could have been argued that the benefits of this study (gaining a deeper understanding of the effects of cancer) out weighed the costs (the patients suffering). So do people suffering with a terminal illness of mental disability have less rights then a person in good health well this study would say yes. Ethics will continue to dictate how far we can push the boundaries of research but it is key in order to protect participants.

Comment by itsstats3453

The guidelines set by the BPS are incredibly important as without them, people would continue to push the boundaries as in some of the experiments you have talked about above. We can still investigate sensitie areas, as Milgram did, as his research was completely ethical, participants were thouroughly debriefed and followed up after the study and did have the right to withdraw as many did. Even though participants were protected by followin these guidelines, this did not hinder the research in any way and so I think this is a perfect example of how ethics do not have to prevent us carrying out the research we want to.

Comment by laurenpsychology

[…] https://ellies1mpson.wordpress.com/2011/11/21/do-the-ends-justify-the-means/ Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. […]

Pingback by Comments for my week 11 :) « laurenpsychology

I believe that not only did Milgram’s research tell us one of the most important psychological discoveries in history, but that it was entirely ethical. He engaged in procedures that not many had bothered with in his time, and in fact many were glad they had taken part. But I suppose that you can’t always gamble that people will be glad they took part. Also the experiment has been replicated as recently as 2009 (Burger, 2009)! So it can’t be all bad.
I think one of the more dangerous ethical problems we must contend with as psychologists is socially-sensitive research. Studies as recent as Levin (1990) have been used to advocate racism.

Milgram, S. (1974). Obedience to authority: An experimental view. Harpercollins

Burger, J. M. (2009). Replicating Milgram: Would people still obey
today? American Psychologist, 64, 1–1


Comment by statisticallybloggingisuncool

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: