Do the ends justify the means?

It is common, necessary practise to follow strict ethical guidelines when carrying out psychological research. Research will be heavily criticised if it fails in any one area of ethical guidance. That could include: informed consent, right to withdraw or protection of participants. The main argument in regards to ethics is do the ends justify the means. I will discuss the main points of this argument in the blog, using the Milgram study as a key example.

If someone attacks you, then is it okay to fight back? Self defence does sound like a viable argument, but is it also okay once someone has attacked you, to counterattack them without the obstruction of any moral restraints? This is the issue with this topic; the boundary between what is acceptable and not is very thin.

Take for example Stanley Milgram. He looked into the effect of obedience in response to an authority figure. Milgram was guilty of deception and harming participants during the study. Consequently, he was criticised by his peers due to his apparent lack of ethical considerations. However, roughly 80% of all participants later said that they were happy to have participated in the experiment.

Despite the lack of ethical guidance, Milgram was able to uncover some very interesting results. He helped to explain the influence that authority can have on an individual. This influence can lead people to do things of disastrous proportions. An example of this is the individuals who tortured others in Cambodia, during the control of the Khmer Rouge, despite many of the torturers failing to share the same principles of the Khmer Rouge.

If Milgram hadn’t of presented such interesting results, it is likely his research would have been discarded. Combined with the fact that he followed few ethical guidelines, his ends wouldn’t have justified the means. Nevertheless, even though Milgram failed on various aspects of ethical standards, he managed to display some incredible results in regards to social influence. Therefore, I would argue that his methods were justified by his results.

For any researchers’ end results to be viewed as being justified by unethical methods, those results have to be of great interest, significance and/or relevance. If the results are viewed as such, the research will be considered to have ends which are justified the means. However, if the results prove to substandard and uninspiring, such end results are not justified by the means.


15 responses to this post.

  1. Milgram, although a commonly used study to emphasize ethical guidelines, can also be used to support the theory that such guidelines are just that …. Guidelines! They do not have to be followed to the strictest standard as even undergraduate students will fail at revealing everything about their studies. For example; our future SONA studies will encourage us to deceive, in some way our participants so that our data is not corrupted.
    In respects to the law with moral standards, there are strict rules enforced. Lets take Tony Martin into consideration (the farmer who shot a burglar). Although it was self defense as he had been burgled before, because he shot the intruder in the back (meaning the attacker was of no harm at this point) he was sentenced to life imprisonment. This therefore states that there is a universal moral code that must be adhered to.
    Another point to note, is that the ethical committee now do not take ‘the end justifies the means’ approach. For example; Zimbardo’s prison simulation study, although of great importance now to psychology, when it was first reviewed (taking also into consideration his findings) the board were close to stripping him of his title, and destroying his evidence. However due to certain legal parameters, and holding friends in high places he just managed to publish his work.
    However minus these points (which I am sorry for saying!) I do agree with your views and you’ve described your argument really well.


  2. Yes, “do the ends justify the means” is a very important question that has to be asked in psychology and I agree it is very difficult to determine what is acceptable and what is not. There are some things that a vast majority of people nowadays are likely to view as unacceptable research, such as the Tuskegee syphilis experiment ( which resulted in an official apology from the US President. The issue with this study was that as a result of the deception participants’ were being harmed because they were unable to receive proper treatment for syphilis. The Milgram study at the time it was conducted was perfectly ethical and although participants’ were deceived no harm was caused to the participants’ as they reported being ok afterwards.

    What about Harlow’s monkeys? This study taught us a lot about attachment, so it can be argued that the ends justify the means even though the monkeys experienced a great degree of distress. I guess this opens the question, what gives us the right to conduct an experiment on animals, that are unable to give their consent, when we know it is not right to conduct the experiment on human children? The problem with ethics is that it is relative to time and culture.


  3. It is unfortunate that in our area of study the participant is human because yes, unfortunately it does hold back our ability to explore slightly. A lot of research neuropsychology research has to be done on rats, using monkeys for experiments it is an do the ends justify the means question. We think it´s okay to use animals for these kinds of research but not humans. We often as well give them drugs and harm them. If we do it to animals without their consent we should be able to do it with humans if they agree for monetary rewards. People get paid to try drugs and medicines.


  4. Yes it can be argued that Miligram deceived their participants but he debriefed them and told them the aim of the study ,which many agreed that deception was neccessary. He failed to protect them from harm but he offered them psychological support later on . Evidence show that none of the participants suffered from long psychological harm or distress. As you said 80% of the participant were happy to participate. Therefore did he really violated the guidlines? Are the ethics are not made for diferent reason than participant feelnes of satisfaction? . Like you said he made an contribution into understanding of the obedience. I dnt think his reserch would be discared if he didnt presented interesting findings. First of all he would not become famous for it therefore noone would look closly at his reserch. Every single reserch is not able to fullly satisife ethics guidlines. It is accetable if we do not follow certain rules in ethics as long as our participants feel comfortable.
    I do not agree with psuc9f comment that guidlines does not have to be followed at all. Students have to follow the guidlines if they dnt they reserch project wont be accepted. Plus yeah some experiments require participants to be deceived but later on they are debriefed. And is deception really that harmful? does change them forever. Every reserch has to be aproved by BPS therefore if deception was that harmful the reserch would not be accepted. And would you like to be harmed at experiment by for example electric shock? Because the guidlines were not followed. Yes morals are imposed by the law , and we follow it . However there is a distinction btw the law and morals. The example that you gave of Tony Martin we might think it is moraly wrong to put him in the prison because he was self defencing himself but at the end of the day is murder. Law has certain rules that has to be satisified in order to go to prison for mens slaughter. First of all the intention to kill, he defenitly intended to do some serious harm by having the gun .Therefore he was convicted for menslaughter which is not less serious offence than murder. Secondly yeah self-defence but the rule of the resonability of the self defence has to be satisified. Was it reasonable for him to acctually shoot. He wasnt at serious danger. The burgelers did not intend to kill him but rob the house. Therefore he used more than resonabled power of the self defence. He later on apiled against the decision on grounds of the dismished responisbility (menatlly uncaptable).


  5. Milgrams results did justify his means but he did not break any ethical guidelines then or now. Yes he did deceive his participants but they were not harmed, received any psychiatric help they felt necessarily and were fully debriefed even months after the study was conducted. So maybe Milgram’s study isn’t the best example.
    Sheridan and King (1972) asked participants to give puppies electric shocks if they did not behave in the expected way. He supported Milgrams results resolving any issues that were raised such as participants playing along because they knew no one was being hurt. But does this justify hurting an innocent puppy?


  6. Fantastic blog. I think you are absolutely right about the ends needing to justify the means. I think that although studies can be controversial as long as the research at the end of it is meaningful then any issues which arise during the study are acceptable. Take the research into polio vaccinations for example apparently over 100 thousand monkeys died in the pursuit to trying to find a cure for polio. However this has saved thousands of life as without testing on Monkeys we may never of found a cure.


  7. You make an interesting argument in this post.

    I’ve inferred from what you said that, in your opinion, the ends do often justify the means. You go on to say that the methodology of Milgram’s study was justified by the results, which had a great impact on the scientific community and current understanding. However, you also imply that had he not found any important results, his research would have been much less justifiable. But surely he would not have had any idea what he was going to find; that was why he conducted the research! Following this argument to its logical conclusion, you are suggesting that you can only know whether an experiment was ethically sound AFTER the completion of a study, when such information is essentially useless. How is this a workable approach to ethics? Or have I misunderstood your arguments?

    Good blog anyway, enjoyed reading it.



  8. You make good points about the necessity of ethics in Psychological researchand I’m glad you mentioned the benefits that were gained when ethics were not so stringent. (which so many people forget to mention). The Stanford Prison experiment for example, a lot of useful information was gained about behaviour when someone is given a position of total authority ( I for one am glad this experiment took place as its findings have affected policy in military prisons across the world to ensure that the carnage that occurred during the experiment won’t be replicated in the real world. Obviously there have been cases, such as the abuse in Abu Ghraib ( But the research conducted by Zimbardo et. al. allows us to understand why this terrible scenario was allowed to happen and lets us make sense of why the guards acted as they did.
    If the I had to answer yes or no to the question “do the ends justify the means?” I believe in this case that yes, they certainly do. There was certainly suffering during the experiment but surely the knowledge gained and policy made after the findings can justify this? (that is my opinion for both Milgrams and Zimbardo’s work)
    However I would like to add, if curren BPS guidelines were less stringent for every piece of unethical research that teaches us more about humanity, we could possibly have countless cases that were unethical and show us nothing.
    Ethics is a delicate ballgame and I’m still not sure if it’s been approached the right way.


  9. I understand what you mean about the realtionship between the importance of the findings of the results in relation to its ethical esteem. It is understandably so that when the balance is weighted more greatly toward a desirable finding, we are more ready to turn a blind eye to its shortcomings. The Milgram study is really rather unique in the way it came against ethics in that the ends would only have ever justified the means; many psychologists flat out refused to believe that any normal person would ever give the electric shocks. Therefore, if that had been the case and people hadn’t have ‘shocked’ the participants then the breach of ethical principal which is so often criticised (failure to protect participant from psychological harm) would not have been an issue. It only ever could have become an issue (as it did) if the participants did administer the shocks. And in this case, as such a result was the exact opposite of what was expected, the findings were enormously significant and so the ends could easily be seen to justify the means. Particularly as like you say, so many participants were glad to take part, and more on top of that felt indifferent about the study, making the tiny proportion of disgruntled participants poor reason to discredit such an important study on the basis of ethics.

    Having said this, I have always felt that ‘ends justifying the means’ has always been a rather wooly phrase when used as an excuse. Whether harmful intentions yield helpful results, or helpful intentions yield harmful results, the enactor must be prepared to face the consequences. While the behaviour that was exhibited by such famous examples as the Khmer Rouge and the Nazis may be exactly the same response any of us would have had, ultimately there has to be consequence; there may be the Hobson’s choice of committing these acts or being killed, but ultimately, the choice is made by the person and so that person must then be held accountable. In the same way, a psychologist who finds interesting results using nefarious means must be prepared to risk their credibility and career on such a venture – maybe they will be fortunate as Milgram to have tightrope walked to the end of the thin line!


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