You can view a modern replication of the experiment here where people just like you and me deliver lethal shock to nice people. Note that the people are British. I don’t think that a similar study would receive IRB approval in America. Also, because the study would probably not work if participants had already heard of Milgram’s study, is the UK the only place where they could find people who had never heard of Milgram’s experiments?
Anyway, 60-65% went on to deliver lethal shock in Milgram’s experiment. Do you think we are more enlightened today? Well in the modern-day replication of Milgram’s study, 75% of people went on to deliver lethal shock.
Milgram’s experiments are often mentioned as a classical example of what not to do in a study. It is the whipping boy of unethical studies. The people delivering the shocks in Milgram’s original experiment experienced great discomfort as they were pressured to deliver increasingly levels of shock. Some people delivering shocks even convulsed.
Usually my students agree that the study was unethical. They didn’t like how Milgram coerced people to harm others. They did not like how Milgram did not warn people of the potential for emotional and physical discomfort. And they did not like how Milgram continued to replicate the study after witnessing the discomfort people experienced in the first trail.
However, I would raise two thought-provoking questions that made my students question their conclusions.
First, is it fair to judge Milgram’s study by today’s more rigorous and enlightened standards on what constitutes and ethical study? Milgram appears to have satisfied all the criteria necessary for carrying out an ethical study that existed back then. Second, would our ethical criticism of Milgram’s study be different if he found out that most people refused to deliver harmful levels of shock? Put another way, if average Americans refused to deliver high levels of shock to complete strangers, would we even be having this discussion? Probably not.
Milgram’s study suggests that most of us will harm innocent people in the name of authority. This is not a comforting thought. We don’t like to think of ourselves as possibly no different than the Nazi thugs who slaughtered Jews during WWII.
What Milgram’s findings suggest to me is that it is important for people to be sensitive to the whisperings of the Spirit of the Lord. The Spirit of the Lord, or Light of Christ as Latter-day Saints sometimes call it, is given to all people when they come into this world. It is our God-given conscience that enables us to determine right from wrong in ambiguous situations.
But the Spirit of the Lord alone is not enough to stop people from harming others. We must also have the courage to stand up for our convictions, to stand up for what we *feel* is right. In all the videos where people expressed concern about harming the other person but went on anyway, courage to take a stand seems to be what’s missing. For all of us, finding the courage to refuse is not an easy thing, especially when an authority figure demands that we go on.