The Ethics of Using Human Participants to Deepen Research

I wanted to write today about ethics. Ethics is an interesting topic, because people’s perception of what is humane and inhumane plays a large role in what research we may carry out, or not as the case may be. Now, obviously there are absolute red zones, surgically opening people with insufficient prior evidence that a successful outcome will be obtained, or a similar testing with drugs would not be appropriate. However there are areas where we work with people, engineering experiences for them to go through to measure how they respond, or observations upon subjects, without informing them prior to the experiment, what exactly the purpose of the experiment is. And this is an area which we, as psychologists are interested in, and where we could learn a lot.

I consider this an important topic, because while ethics are ensuring that we as scientists do not harm humanity, could they potentially limit progress?

During my hunt for my answer, whether psychology is a science or not, one of the debates is of the strength of our research. Obviously, the brain is firmly encased inside our skulls, and, it being and essential component of life, it makes it difficult to perform a scientific study on it, so resultantly, we often have to rely on less scientific methods, e.g. retrospective studies or gathering evidence through introspection in order to learn more. And to bring this all back to ethics, there is the question of informed consent. Is it appropriate to put subjects through experiences, which are potentially distressing, in order to gather further more useful or more accurate data?

An example of this would be the Milgram Experiment, where Stanley Milgram of Yale University performed an experiment to measure participant’s willingness to obey orders given by an authoritative figure, even though participants perceived that others were being harmed as a result of them carrying out their orders.

While a question of ethics was raised, interestingly, in his defence, Milgram said that 84% of former participants surveyed, were “glad” or “very glad” to have participated, while a further 15% responded neutrally (Milgram, 1974). And in reality, the data turned out to be useful in considering who might be responsible in serious abusive cases such as the Holocaust, or more recently in the Abu Ghraib prison, where those carrying out inhumane practises were allegedly acting under authority.

I do not agree with harming humans for the purpose of scientific advancement. Even to say that only a few will be negatively impacted, or it won’t impact them much still leaves the fact that people’s lives will be negatively affected by a study. But I think we should be, at least, reasonably careful in choosing what will and will not allow. My suggestion is simply that we do not limit too much what we can do, labelling too many practises as unethical, instead of thinking them out more thoroughly and realistically.