Ethics – do ends justify means?

by Research Methods & Statistics

When the word ‘ethics’ is mentioned, the majority of people conjure up an idea of a set of rules used for distinguishing between right and wrong, similar to the Ten Commandments (‘Thou Shalt not kill’) This is the most common way of defining ‘ethics’; norms for behaviour distinguishing between acceptable and unacceptable.

Most individuals learn concepts of ethics whilst growing up in a social setting such as school. Due to the exposure of ethics from a young age as part of everyday life it is tempting to view them as simple common sense. However, if knowing the difference between right and wrong is nothing more than basic common sense then why are there so many ethical debates within society, especially in psychological research?

Debates occur in psychological research because ethics are extremely intricate and following all ethical procedures can sometimes diminish an experiment’s results. The real question that needs to be asked is ‘Do the ends justify the means?’ So, do the results from an experiment have so many positive applications within society that we can forget researchers didn’t stick to the BPS guidelines*? Well, consider the following example; Sherif (1935)** tested if people use the behaviour of others to decide what to do when uncertain. In a dark room participants focused on a single spotlight and were asked how far the light moved. They completed the same task again however, in groups of three instead of alone. He found individuals changed answers from when alone to be similar to each other in groups of three. Sherif’s research is very useful, highlighting the power of the group to influence behaviour and therefore, has many applications within social psychology. However, Sherif didn’t gain informed consent and therefore broke code of conduct within the BPS guidelines. The participants were not made aware of exactly what the experiment involved and therefore did not freely choose whether they wished to participate. Informed consent was not gained because if participants were told too much about the experiment it would interfere with the results, this refers to demand characteristics. These can threaten both internal and external validity by influencing how participants react in the experiment. So, do the ends of this research justify the means? The answer is yes, the results are very useful and no participants were hurt. Although some may consider the research unethical, the psychological well being of participants was not affected and after all this is one of the most important ethical principles to obey.

However, other social psychological research into obedience can be seen as extremely unethical such as Milgram (1963)***. He aimed to investigate how far a person was prepared to go to obey an authority figure. Participants believed they were administrating electric shocks to learners. This research raised many ethical issues. Firstly, participants did not give informed consent as they were lied to, thinking they were taking part in a learning task not an obedience task. Secondly, they were filmed without consent causing issues of confidentiality. The most shocking misconduct refers to the withdrawal from the experiment. Although physically the participants could, there was a strong social pressure on them to stay.  Also it is important to note the prompts used by researchers such as ‘you have no alternative, you must go on’ which are VERY unethical. Even more shockingly, participants were put under immense psychological distress and experienced symptoms close to a nervous break down! This emotional scarring lasted for months and even years after the study therefore, questioning Milgram’s experiment ethics is a necessary part of psychology. In this example, considering the serve distress during and after the experiment the ends certainly do NOT justify the means of research.

So to conclude a number of factors need to be considered before criticizing research for being unethical. 1, do the ends justify the means of the research? 2, which ethical conduct was broke? If consent was not gained does did it really matter? However, if participant’s emotional state was diminished then obviously the research should be scrutinised.




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